The unsettled West was seen as a land of prosperity after the Civil War. A struggling economy, combined with increasing violence from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, made life difficult and dangerous for ex-slaves in the South. Federal legislation offered promises of land ownership, while stories of economic opportunity in the West influenced African Americans to migrate into new areas.
In Search of Work
The Civil War devastated the southern economy. White businessmen no longer had the financial advantage of free labor. Cities were badly damaged by northern troops, and numerous plantations were burned to the ground. But these hardships affected more groups than just southern whites. Many ex-slaves found themselves locked out of economic opportunities, unable to find work or make decent wages. The government's promise of land ownership was never honored, forcing ex-slaves to work as sharecroppers for white landowners. The arrangements were generally adverse for African-American workers, as landowners often cheated them out of their earnings. These poor economic conditions forced ex-slaves to search for financial opportunities in the west.
To Escape Violence
Although slavery had ended, ex-slaves were still very much in danger from the oppression of racist whites in the area. In 1866, the Ku Klux Klan was officially formed. This "social club" became a vehicle for opposition to Reconstruction-era policies. As African Americans begin to assimilate into southern society after the Civil War, racial tensions brewed. The KKK routinely instituted campaigns of violence and intimidation against blacks. Lynchings, explosions and nighttime attacks became common occurrences, causing many African Americans to leave the South for what they perceived to be less violent surroundings in western states.
Looking for Land
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. The legislation allowed citizens to obtain ownership of public lands in the West. The law included language to allow black men and single black women over 21 years of age the opportunity for ownership as well. After the Civil War, many ex-slaves took advantage. After settling the land and farming it for five years, they were given a deed to the property, symbolizing their ownership. This provided a unprecedented opportunity for blacks to work toward land ownership and possible creation of wealth in the West.
Rumors of Opportunity
The first blacks to leave the South for the West wrote home with stories of opportunity, freedom and economic successes. According to the Public Broadcasting Service program "The West: The Geography of Hope," black southerners began spreading these stories throughout their communities, even discussing them in church meetings. In 1879, a rumor quickly spread that the federal government had set aside the state of Kansas for former slaves. Even though the rumor was false, its effects were quickly felt as more than 15,000 African Americans moved into Kansas within the span of one month.
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