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A Sharecropper Explains Why He Joined the Exodusters (1879)

John Solomon Lewis of Leavenworth, Kansas, wrote this letter on June 10, 1879. Lewis and his family were among thousands of African Americans known as "Exodusters" who escaped the harsh economic difficulties and racist systems of the Reconstruction South. The journey was difficult and many suffered hardships. Their exodus to Kansas mirrored earlier ideas about escape to Canada during slavery.

You see, I was in debt, and the man I rented land from said every year I must rent again to pay the other year, and so I rents and rents, and each year I gets deeper and deeper in debt. In a fit of madness I one day said to the man I rented from: ‘It’s no use, I works hard and raises big crops and you sells it and keeps the money, and brings me more and more in debt, so I will go somewhere else and try to make headway like white working-men.’ “He got very mad and said to me: ‘If you try that job, you will get your head shot away.’ So I told my wife, and she says: ‘Let us take to the woods in the night time.’ Well we took [to] the woods, my wife and four children, and we was three weeks living in the woods waiting for a boat. Then a great many more black people came and we was all together at the landing. Boats came along, but they would not stop, but before long the Grand Tower hove up and we got on board.

Says the captain, ‘Where’s you going?’ Says I, ‘Kansas.’ Says he, ‘You can’t go on this boat.’ Says I, ‘I do; you know who I am. I am a man who was a United States soldier and I know my rights, and if I and my family gets put off, I will go in the United States Court and sue for damages.’ Says the Captain to another boat officer, ‘Better take that n**** or he will make trouble.’

When I landed on the soil, I looked on the ground and I says this is free ground. Then I looked on the heavens, and I says them is free and beautiful heavens. Then I looked within my heart, and I says to myself I wonder why I never was free before? When I knew I had all my family in a free land, I said let us hold a little prayer meeting; so we held a little meeting on the river bank. It was raining but the drops fell from heaven on a free family, and the meeting was just as good as sunshine. We was thankful to God for ourselves and we prayed for those who could not come. I asked my wife did she know the ground she stands on. She said, ‘No!’ I said it is free ground; and she cried like a child for joy.

Source | John Solomon Lewis, June 10, 1879, Boston Traveller reprinted in New Orleans Southwestern Christian Advocate, July 3, 1879; in Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976) 3-4.
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | “A Sharecropper Explains Why He Joined the Exodusters (1879),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 1, 2024,

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