Benjamin "Pap" Singleton

Leader of the Exodusters

Map showing the Underground Railroad routes.
Interim Archives / Getty Images

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was a Black American entrepreneur, North American 19th-century anti-enslavement activist, and community leader. Most notably, Singleton was instrumental in urging Black Americans to leave the South and live on settlements in Kansas. These people were known as Exodusters. In addition, Singleton was active in several Black nationalist campaigns such as the Back-to-Africa movement.

Singleton was born in 1809 near Nashville. Because he was enslaved from birth, very little is recorded of his early life but it is known that he is the son of an enslaved mother and a White father.

Singleton became a skilled carpenter at an early age and often tried to run away.

By 1846, Singleton’s efforts to seek freedom were successful. Traveling on a route of the Underground Railroad, Singleton was able to reach Canada. He remained there for a year before relocating to Detroit where he worked by day as a carpenter and at night on the Underground Railroad.

A Return to Tennessee

As the Civil War was underway and the Union Army had occupied Middle Tennessee, Singleton returned to his home state. Singleton lived in Nashville and found work as a coffin and cabinetmaker. Although Singleton was living as a free man, he was not free from racial oppression. His experiences in Nashville led Singleton to believe that Black Americans would never truly feel free in the South. By 1869, Singleton was working with Columbus M. Johnson, a local minister for a way to develop economic independence for Black Americans.

Singleton and Johnson established the Edgefield Real Estate Association in 1874. The purpose of the association was to help Black Americans own property in Nashville’s surrounding area. But the businessmen were met with a serious setback: White property owners were asking exorbitant prices for their land and would not bargain with Black Americans.

Within one year of establishing the business, Singleton began researching how to develop Black American colonies in the West. That same year, the business was renamed the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association. After traveling to Kansas, Singleton returned to Nashville, galvanizing Black Americans to settle in the West.

Singleton Colonies

By 1877, the Federal government had left the southern states and groups such as the Klu Klux Klan made terrorizing Black Americans a way of life. Singleton used this moment to lead 73 settlers to Cherokee County in Kansas. Immediately, the group began negotiating to purchase land along the Missouri River, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad. Yet, the price of the land was too high. Singleton then began searching for government land through the 1862 Homestead Act. He found land in Dunlap, Kansas. By the spring of 1878, Singleton’s group left Tennessee for Kansas. The following year, an estimated 2500 settlers left Nashville and Sumner County. They named the area Dunlap Colony.

The Great Exodus

In 1879, an estimated 50,000 freed Black Americans had left the South and headed to the West. These men, women, and children relocated to Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois. They wanted to become landowners, have educational resources for their children and an escape from the racial oppression they faced in the South.

Although many had no connection with Singleton, many built relationships settlers from Dunlap Colony. When local White residents began to protest the arrival of Black Americans, Singleton supported their arrival. In 1880, he spoke before the U.S. Senate to discuss the reasons Black Americans were leaving the South for the West. As a result, Singleton returned to Kansas as a spokesperson for Exodusters.

The Demise of Dunlap Colony 

By 1880, so many Black Americans had arrived in Dunlap Colony and its surrounding areas that it caused a financial burden to settlers. As a result, the Presbyterian Church assumed financial control of the area. The Kansas Freedmen's Relief Association established a school and other resources in the area for Black American settlers. 

The Colored United Links and Beyond 

Singleton established the Colored United Links in Topeka in 1881. The purpose of the organization was to provide support to Black Americans to establish businesses, schools, and other community resources. 

Singleton, who was also known as "Old Pap," died on February 17, 1900, in Kansas City, Mo. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Benjamin "Pap" Singleton." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Benjamin "Pap" Singleton." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).