An Ottawa museum has opened a new exhibit outlining an unusual event in Kansas history — the arrival of tens of thousands of southern black people from 1879 to 1880.
Though blacks had been living in Kansas since before the U.S. Civil War, and many had come to Kansas after the Union victory in that war, Deb Barker, director of the Old Depot Museum, 135 Tecumseh St., Ottawa, said it wasn’t until another set of events that a true exodus to Kansas began.
“A political compromise over the presidential election of 1876 caused federal troops to be withdrawn from the southern states, leaving the formerly enslaved black people without protection from the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and Jim Crow laws,” Barker said in a press release. “As many as 40,000 blacks made their way by steamboat and railroad to what they thought would be a paradise of ‘40 acres and a mule.’ The giant wave of immigration quickly overwhelmed charitable services in Kansas towns.”
A new exhibit at the Old Depot Museum tells the story of the exodus, focusing on Topeka, where efforts to aid the travelers were centered. The politics, the settlers, the areas they settled, stories of the experience and photos of the leaders bring the events in focus, Barker said. The display has been enriched for Franklin County visitors with the addition of studio photos of blacks during the era of the exodus and beyond, as well as quotations from Ottawa newspapers reporting on the immigrants.
The exhibit runs through Nov. 15. Barker plans to give a gallery tour 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum.
The Old Depot Museum’s regular hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.