by Rhonna Hargett, LIS Associate Director
One of the things I love about Manhattan is how diverse it is. This is partially thanks to K-State and Fort Riley, but if we look back a bit further we can see how Manhattan’s African-American community has been here from near the beginning of the town and really exploded when the Exodusters moved to Kansas in the late 1870s. The Riley County Genealogical Society has recognized the 140th anniversary of the occasion with their new book “The Exodusters of 1879: And Other Black Pioneers of Riley County, Kansas” which inspired me to dig into this topic and highlight the titles we have that help tell the story.
Kansas was formed at the height of the slavery debate and became the center of tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. In “Frontier Manhattan”, Kevin G. W. Olson shares the story of Manhattan’s abolitionist settlers, who moved west to cast votes to make Kansas a free state. This abolitionist background may have sown the seeds for more inclusiveness than many other places in Kansas experienced. Manhattan’s first black citizens started coming during the Civil War, and K-State (called Kansas State Agricultural College at the time) welcomed African-American students in its very first class in 1863.
In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction and removed troops from the southern states. This removed the protection for black Americans and ushered in a new era of violence and persecution, pushing many to leave the place of their birth and move north. Kansas, with its proximity and history as a free state, was the destination for many. The first two railroad cars bringing “Exodusters” to Manhattan arrived April 24, 1879. In the Riley County Genealogical Society’s “The Exodusters of 1879,” Marcia Schuley and Margaret Parker researched documents from the past and have compiled them into a comprehensive work about this vital period in our community’s history.
“The Exodusters” begins with a summary of the history surrounding the Exodusters (or Exodites, as they were called in Manhattan). With several photographs and newspaper clippings, Schuley and Parker have fleshed out a rich part of our community’s history. The summary is followed by profiles of the Exodusters and other African-American residents in the 1860s through the 1880s. They have gathered information from several sources to give deeper insight into the lives of this group that shaped the town we live in today. By gathering information from the census, newspaper articles, and other sources, they manage to create a reasonably thorough view of each individual. They have often been able to determine the makeup of the families, what work people did, and how they died. The appendix discusses the Old Paper Mill (where the Exodusters were housed when they first came to town), maps of where their homes were, those that served in the Civil War, and more resources that expand upon the information in the book.
We can’t talk about the history of Manhattan’s black population without mention of Geraldine Baker Walton’s book “140 Years of Soul: A History of African-Americans in Manhattan, Kansas 1865-2005.” Walton was the head of Reference at Manhattan Public Library, and during her time in that position, developed a curiosity for her own family background and the history of Manhattan’s black community. She shares background for many families in the community and also gives more detail about Manhattan’s black institutions, such as the Douglass Center, the churches, businesses, clubs, and connections with Fort Riley. The appendix includes several family trees.
Kansas’ role in the history of African-Americans has been significant, if not well-known, and Manhattan has always been heavily involved in that history. The Riley County Genealogical Society and the Riley County Historical Society have done excellent work in preserving that history and we at the library are delighted to help make their research available to the public.