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Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
1809-1892
Businessman


Benjamin "Pap" Singleton was an American activist and businessman best known for his role in establishing African-American settlements in Kansas. A former slave from Tennessee who escaped to freedom in 1846, he became a noted abolitionist, community leader, and spokesman for African American civil rights. He returned to Tennessee during the Union occupation in 1862, but soon concluded that blacks would never achieve economic equality in the white-dominated South. After the end of Reconstruction, Singleton organized the movement of thousands of black colonists, known as Exodusters, to found settlements in Kansas. A prominent voice for early black nationalism, he became involved in promoting and coordinating black-owned businesses in Kansas and developed an interest in the Back-to-Africa movement.

Although it is known that Benjamin Singleton was born in 1809 into slavery in Davidson County near Nashville, Tennessee, details of his early life remain scant. He was the son of a white father and an enslaved black mother. As a youth, he was trained as a skilled carpenter but regretted never learning to read and write. Reportedly Singleton made several attempts to run away but was unsuccessful.

In 1846 Singleton managed to escape to freedom. Singleton made his way north along the Underground Railroad to Windsor, Ontario, and remained there a year before relocating to Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit he lived as a scavenger and used what resources he could to help other escaped slaves find their way to freedom in Canada. Singleton remained in Detroit until after the Civil War had been underway. was a carpenter.

Returning to Tennessee after the Civil War, Singleton became convinced that it was his mission to help his people improve their lives. He began in the late 1860's by organizing an effort to buy up Tennessee farmland for blacks, but this plan failed when white landowners refused to sell at fair prices.

Undaunted, Singleton set his sights on Kansas, where he and a partner named Columbus Johnson staked out a black settlement in Cherokee County (which failed) and a second settlement in Morris County. Singleton spread the word about his settlements through posters that circulated widely across the South, and he formed a company with Johnson that helped hundreds of black Tennesseans move to Kansas between 1877 and 1879.

Those who answered Singleton's call to head west became known as "Exodusters," and Singleton himself was described as the "Father of the Exodus." But the massive migration of African Americans from the South that reached a peak in 1879 was not inspired by Singleton alone. The driving force was the withdrawl of federal troops from the South in 1877, which marked the official end of Reconstruction and the return of racial oppression through segregation laws and the terrorist activities of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. By 1879, which became known as the year of the "Great Exodus," some 50,000 blacks had fled to freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois, while thousands more had been turned back by whites patrolling the rivers and roads.

In 1880, Singleton was called to testify at Congressional hearings on the alarming migration of blacks from the South. By 1881, however, Singleton had begun a new phase in his campaign to aid his people, organizing a party called the United Colored Links in a black section of Topeka, Kansas, called "Tennessee Town" because so many natives of that state lived there. Affiliated with the Greenbacks, a white workers' party that called for fundmental social change in the United States, Singleton's Links party was intended to help African Americans acquire their own factories and start their own industries. Unfortunately, Singleton soon discovered that there was not enough capital within the black community to achieve this goal.

Shifting his sights again, in 1883 Singleton founded an organization called the Chief League, which encouraged blacks to emigrate to the island of Cyprus. Few responded to his call, so in 1885 he formed the Trans-Atlantic Society to help black people move back to their ancestral homeland in Africa. By 1887, this group, too, had proven unsuccessful. Suffering poor health, Singleton was forced at last to retire from his self-appointed mission, and in 1892 he died in St. Louis. But his vision of a society in which African Americans owned the land, directed the industries and held the power would live on, finding a charismatic champion in Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association of the early 1920's briefly realized many of Singleton's dreams.

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