Emigration in Practice

Emigration was more than just an issue debated by delegates at southern Colored Conventions. Many African Americans felt compelled to leave their homes during Reconstruction in response to increasingly hostile conditions, especially in the South. Emigration out of the South escalated as lack of land ownership opportunities encouraged many recently freed agriculturalists to consider making their lives in new places. 

Despite the challenging conditions of Reconstruction for many African Americans,  "For Black southerners, territorial separatism was often a philosophy of last resort. They wanted to stay in their ancestral homes in the American South, but were ultimately unwilling to sacrifice their racial manhood and citizenship."1 This refusal to accept violence and inequality led many Black Southerners to emigrate.

In this section, we explore two case studies of the postbellum emigration movement. The first page examines the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, which was a major site of domestic emigration in the 1870s and 1880s. The second page of this section highlights the experiences of postbellum emigrants in Liberia. Liberia was a primary destination for African American emigrants throughout the nineteenth century. The page gives information about the number of individuals who traveled to Liberia, where they came from, and their experiences in Liberia.

The map below illustrates some of the domestic emigration patterns of the late nineteenth century.

Hover over each state to see how many individuals came to or left the state during the 1870s.

Data Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970

The movement depicted in the map above is also evident in a letter printed in April of 1875 in The Christian Recorder, in which a young farmer wrote that southern Blacks should, "'cultivate the soil that will yield the most,' and therefore it was necessary that they relocate, 'into richer sections of the country where they will be better paid for their labor.'"2


[1] Sanderfer, “The Emigration Debate.”

[2] Ibid.