Friday, April 8, 2011

Pap Singleton’s African-American Kansas Colony


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Benjamin "Pap" Singleton was born in Tennessee between 1806 and 1809 and was a mulatto Negro (his biological father was white, his mother a slave). According to Singleton (he would have to be the only source), he escaped his American master in 1846 and then fled North. He claims to have lived in Detroit and even in Canada, though neither can actually be verified. It is also said that he helped other Negroes escape slavery. However, this also cannot be verified by any independent source. What we do know about Singleton is that he was in Tennessee when the Union army arrived in 1862 (it could very well be [in fact, likely] that Singleton had never left Tennessee and it was the Union army that set him free). Nothing remarkable seems to have occurred in his long life up until 1874 when, at the ripe old age of 64 (or 67 if he was born in 1806), and without the ability to read or write, he went into business with another Negro, a clergyman by the name of Columbus M. Johnson.  Together they formed the Edgefield Real Estate Association.

 The stated purpose of Singleton and Johnson's enterprise was to lure Negroes to Kansas, though they were also interested in making a profit (they charged $5.00 a person for their expedition). Singleton’s main desire, however, seemed to be more dedicated to creating an all-Negro colony, where Negroes could own their own land, be free from the American and be self-reliant. As to why Singleton wanted such a thing, he, along with probably most of his people, were apparently frustrated (angered?) by the prevailing attitude among white people after the Civil War ended, which was to require the Negro race, being a free and distinct people, to have separate living arrangements, and require the Negro men to provide for their families as well as for the wants and needs of their people. This prevailing attitude among the white populace,  however, was not unusual nor was it in any way intended to be pejorative. That is, a "distinct" people (distinct racially, linguistically or religiously from another people), the construct of human history demonstrated, were required to provide for their own group i.e. their own people... and provide for themselves within the structure and confines of their own group --to create self-reliance.   Of course, for Negro men, particularly those who were former slaves, becoming leaders and providers for their people, this was a edification process that was going to take some time.

On Sept. 5th, 1877, Singleton's expedition finally left for Kansas with a total of 73 people. They eventually wound up in a place called Dunlap, which was originally part of an Indian reservation that had been seized by the U.S. government and then subsequently given to Singleton and his people as part of the Homestead Act.

Pap Singleton was beginning to realize his dream. Then, in 1879, a fabricated rumor spread across the Deep South that the U.S. government was giving the entire state of Kansas to those of African descent, along with $500 dollars (a mighty princely sum at that time). This false rumor brought thousands and thousands of Negroes pouring into Kansas (some put the number up to 10,000!), almost all possessing nothing more than a few articles of clothing and maybe a few farming tools. Naturally, the settlers did not receive $500 dollars when they arrived. However, it must be emphasized here that they basically still had what the average European man had to forge a new living off Kansas’ raw land.

For those of African descent, the Dunlap colony represented the first real opportunity to make a place in America for their very own; to be truly masters of their own destiny.

Would Singleton’s Dunlap colony survive?
  In 1880 the Presbyterian Church, compelled by humanitarian desires, came in and took over (some would say rescued) Singleton’s Dunlap community.  One of the first things the church recognized was missing was a place to provide education for the children (i.e. there was no school). However, the short of is,  even though the church established a Freedmen’s Academy for educational needs, as well as assisted the settlers in many of their other efforts to be self-reliant, the Dunlap settlers still failed to achieve the capabilities necessary to sustain the community. It essentially disbanded by the mid-1890s.

     Was Pap Singleton’s Dunlap colony idea predictably doomed from its start because it was maybe too ambitious of an idea? Or perhaps there were too many obstacles, human and nature, that conspired against an endeavor such as this? Let us take a quick look at another group around this time that seemed to have similar obstacles to overcome. In the 1840s thousands of Mormons faced persecution for almost 20 years by many of their fellow Americans because of their religious beliefs, including the murder of their spiritual leader (John Smith). Mormons had been forced out of New York, then Ohio, then Missouri. They settled for a brief time in Illinois but were then forced out by an armed militia. So the Mormons, in 1847, decided to leave the Midwest. They marched west, through the desert and eventually wound up in the unsettled territory of Utah. There they set up their community in this virtual wasteland and proceeded to build irrigation systems, the city of Salt Lake and, eventually, other towns as well. They even had their own currency. And they did all this even though they were effectively isolated from their racial cousins. What hardships the Mormons were required to endure seems to be no different, in fact, in many ways were more difficult, than what the Negroes endured in Kansas. Yet, one people thrived while the other gave up - and gave up almost as quickly as they started. But this is NOT to say that those of African descent who tried to carve out a place of their own in America and attempt to be masters of their own destiny, don't deserve a great deal of credit for making the effort. At least they tried.

     Pap Singleton's colony idea was the first and the only attempt by any significant numbers of African-Americans in American history ... to attempt to create an autonomous living arrangement for their people. Had only Singleton chosen Florida instead.... Or perhaps South Carolina.


  1. My father is a singleton I would love to know if this is a decendent.