Between 1879 and 1880, six thousand Exodusters left Louisiana and Mississippi for Kansas. Their migration, prompted by the end of racially-integrated Reconstruction governments, by anti-black violence and by sharecropping and tenant farming, brought national attention including a Congressional hearing, and generated a national debate about whether African Americans should migrate from the South to improve their political and economic prospects or remain in the region and continue to demand their rights. Frederick Douglass, the nation’s most prominent African American leader argued against migration because it leaves the whole question of equal rights on the soil of the South open and still to be settled. Continued migration would make freedom and free institutions depend upon migration rather than protection.
Robert J. Harlan joined Richard T. Greener and other black leaders in opposing Douglass. In a speech on May 8, 1879 he argued that migration was not only a way to escape oppression, it was also a powerful protest against those who would deny African Americans their freedom. Harlan’s speech appears below.
Mr. President, as to the present migration movement of the colored people, let it be understood that we have the lawful right to stay or to go wherever we please. The southern country is ours. Our ancestors settled it, and from the wilderness formed the cultivated plantation, and they and we have cleared, improved, and beautified the land.
Whatever there is of wealth, of plenty, of greatness, and of glory in the South, the colored man has been, and is, the most important factor. The sweat of his brow, his laborers toil, his patient endurance under the heat of the semi tropical sun and the chilling blasts of winter, never deterred the laborer from his work.
The blood of the colored man has fertilized the land and has cemented the Union. Aware of these facts, we should be baser than the willing slaves did we consent to the dictation of any men or body of men as to where we may go, when we shall