THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA
(9) Disregarding those Negroes who, as slaves, arrived In Nebraska because they had no choice in the matter, the balance of the Negro immigrants fall into three classifications with regard to their reasons for settling in this State. Those who came here for economic reasons comprise numerically the largest of the three groups. Next in importance is the group prompted to choose Nebraska as a future home because of social factors. Finally, a certain small percentage settled in the State purely by chance.
In the Territory of Nebraska the fight to exclude slavery from within the territorial boundaries spread from the Senate to the press and to the pulpit. Even among the slaves in the South the word spread that here was a place where the attitude toward (10) Negroes was tempered with tolerance. After the Emancipation, then, and after the ex-slaves began to find that the south of those days did not afford a livelihood for all of them, many of the Negroes associated with the movement northward chose Nebraska as their goal.
Emigration from the South to the North got under way slowly. A trickling of settlers appeared in Nebraska with the cessation of war and the abolishment of slavery, but not for several years did the stream of immigrants begin to assume significant proportions. Not in a day, nor even in a year, did the ex-slaves learn that the South they had known was irrevocably changed, that there was no place for all of them in the field of competitive labor. It was not easy for them to leave, over night, old faces and surroundings and strike out into new and relatively untried territories, uncertain of what the future held for them, and with the possibility of bettering their conditions largely contingent upon the element of chance.
The Negroes first venturing into Nebraska met with varying receptions, so that the reports they sent back to friends and relatives in the South were somewhat confusing. They encountered active hostility in some urban centers; even to the point where, as happened in a few cases, they were driven out. In the rural districts, however, they were in most cases tolerated though not often encouraged.
In one sense a certain proportion of the Negro immigrants settling in Nebraska during the first two decades following the Civil War may be considered as an overflow from Kansas. The Freedmen's Bureau and other agencies in that State were initially very encouraging to Southern Negro refugees. The response was overwhelming. In 1860 there were 6,270 Negroes in Kansas; in 1870 the number had risen to 17,108; and by 1880 they numbered 43,107. To some cities, Topeka and Atchison, for example, the situation became alarming and ordinances were passed against the immigrants, banning their settlement within the corporate limits. Their only alternative was to go on to where they would be permitted to establish homes, and many of them consequently became citizens of Nebraska.
As before indicated, the main factors responsible for the Negro's presence in Nebraska can be classified, in a broad sense, either as social or economic. The desire to join friends and relatives already in Nebraska, and better educational advantages for Negroes here than in the South, brought many of them to this State.
Of primary importance, however, was the fact that in Nebraska there were jobs for the Negro immigrants. The railroads were pushing construction through the State. Their agents recruited Negro laborers and brought them into Nebraska in groups numbering up to several hundred. Negroes found work on the construction gangs of the Union Pacific, Burlington, and Midland Pacific.
The Midwest Migration Company induced several hundred Negroes to enter Nebraska, and attempted to settle them in a colony. The colonization project failed, but the Negroes remained.
Later, during several labor disputes, Negroes were imported for use as strike-breakers: by the Union Pacific Railroad, in 1877; by the smelting industry, in 1880; by the packing industry, in 1894; and by the Burlington Railroad, in 1923. After the strikes ended most of the strike-breakers found more or less permanent jobs in the particular industry in which they were involved.
During the World War the shortage of laborers, particularly in the packing plants, became acute. By various means, including Negro newspapers and labor agents, aided by reduced fares offered (11) by the railroads, Negroes in large numbers were induced to come from the South to Nebraska, where they were assured of steady work at good wages.
Some minor factors, such as religious affiliations, and the need for a change in climate, have induced Negro migration to the State. The number of immigrants motivated by these reasons, however, is not significant.
The volume of Negro migration from the South during the period 1870-1879 reached such proportions that it has been called the First Great Exodus. This mass movement northward of the ex-slaves reached its peak in 1879. The reasons behind this momentous redistribution of the country's Negro population have been discussed briefly. There are, in addition, several phases of the movement itself which deserve at least passing consideration.
The Negro emigrants in their trek northward followed roughly the route of the "Underground Railroad." They travelled on foot, in wagons, and by rail, depending upon their individual means. Since they came northward because they were unable to earn a living in the South, most of them were poor.
To add to their difficulties, unscrupulous real estate agents and out-and-out swindlers often took advantage of their ignorance and their eagerness to establish new homes. Spurious tickets for train fare to the North were sold to them for whatever sum a sharper could get. A number of the immigrants made payments on farms and other lands and properties, only to learn upon their arrival that they had been defrauded.
Even after their arrival in Nebraska the Negro immigrants often were uncertain as to their welcome. In Lincoln, for instance, in 1879, a group of 150 Mississippi Negroes who attempted to settle there were driven out. Another group attempting to settle in Tecumseh in 1880 were ordered away and told to return to their original homes. Occasionally they encountered actual violence, but instances of this sort were not common.
Although the famous "Underground Railroad," mentioned above, was no longer of importance after slavery was abolished, it played a significant part in the northward movement of runaway slaves previous to that time. The escaped slaves, aided by white abolitionists, were brought over this route on their way to Canada and freedom. They followed the Underground Railroad Into Nebraska from Albany, Kansas, continuing through Falls City, Little Nemaha, Camp Creek, and Nebraska City, where the fugitives crossed the Missouri River to Percival, Iowa. From there they were taken to Tabor, Iowa, and outfitted for the balance of their journey into Canada.
Near Nebraska City, on highway No. 2, a small, log cabin, built in 1857 by Allen B. Mayhew, is still standing. In this cabin, an important unit in the underground system, the fleeing slaves were sheltered overnight or until such time as they could safely be smuggled into Iowa. An underground passage in connection with the house provided further concealment for them from pursuing officers. Henry Daniel Smith, born in Maryland in 1835, still living in Omaha in 1913 and working at his trade of broom-maker, was one escaped slave who entered Nebraska via the Underground Railroad.
Negro immigrants have entered Nebraska in greater or less numbers every year since the State has been open to settlement. A study of the census records shows, however, that, contrary to what one might expect, there has not been a constant increase by years in the numbers of settlers. The stream of immigration has come in waves, and each surge of temporarily accelerated migration (12) has resulted from certain clearly-defined factors, both social and economic, as the impelling force behind it.
This stream of Negro immigration shows two major peaks. One, already discussed, is the First Great Exodus. Following this peak of 1879 the Negro population of Nebraska increased very slowly for a few years, although Negroes were still entering the State in appreciable numbers. In the decade from 1890 to 1900 the Negro population actually decreased.
Many of the immigrants during that period were unable to find immediate livelihoods. Their settlement, whether urban or rural, was only temporary. They found that industrial advantages were limited, and they went on, so that more were leaving the State than entered it during that decade.
After 1900, however, with the increasing development of industries in Nebraska, new jobs and new opportunities again were thrown open to Negroes. A slow but steady increase in the State's Negro population through the following fifteen years was the result. Immigrants were becoming permanent residents of the State.
With America's entrance into the World War in 1917 thousands of jobs, vacated by men called to the Colors, were made available to Negro laborers. There were not enough able-bodied Negroes in Nebraska to meet the demands of the industries. The cry again spread through the South that here in Nebraska were jobs and homes. The packing plants paid the railroad fare for hundreds of Southern Negroes to come to Nebraska. The railroads cooperated by giving them reduced rates in groups of twenty-five or more.
Several thousand Negroes came to Nebraska during this Second Great Exodus, which reached its peak in 1918. In 1919 the Negro population of the State, estimated at 17,153, was higher than it has been at any time since. Although it is true that many of those who came to Nebraska during the World War period were not permanent settlers, most of the Negro immigrants were able to find more or less steady work, and established permanent homes.
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