In the aftermath of the Civil War, thousands of former slaves made their way from the South to the Kansas plains. Called “Exodusters,” they were searching for their own promised land. Bryan Jack now tells the story of this American exodus as it played out in St. Louis, a key stop in the journey west.
Many of the Exodusters landed on the St. Louis levee destitute, appearing more as refugees than as homesteaders, and city officials refused aid for fear of encouraging more migrants. To the stranded Exodusters, St. Louis became a barrier as formidable as the Red Sea, and Jack tells how the city’s African American community organized relief in response to this crisis and provided the migrants with funds to continue their journey.
The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters tells of former slaves such as George Rogers and Jacob Stevens, who fled violence and intimidation in Louisiana and Mississippi. It documents the efforts of individuals in St. Louis, such as Charlton Tandy, Moses Dickson, and Rev. John Turner, who reached out to help them. But it also shows that black aid to the Exodusters was more than charity. Jack argues that community support was a form of collective resistance to white supremacy and segregation as well as a statement for freedom and self-direction—reflecting an understanding that if the Exodusters’ right to freedom of movement was limited, so would be the rights of all African Americans. He also discusses divisions within the African American community and among its leaders regarding the nature of aid and even whether it should be provided.
In telling of the community’s efforts—a commitment to civil rights that had started well before the Civil War—Jack provides a more complete picture of St. Louis as a city, of Missouri as a state, and of African American life in an era of dramatic change. Blending African American, southern, western, and labor history, The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters offers an important new lens for exploring the complex racial relationships that existed within post-Reconstruction America.