In the 1870s, many Black Americans left the South and moved west to flee racial violence and inequality under the developing system of Jim Crow. Thousands moved to the Great Plains, particularly Kansas. Kansas had a long history of abolitionism, which made it attractive for Black citizens who felt unsafe in the post-Reconstruction South. These migrants were referred to as “Exodusters,” a reference to the Book of Exodus from the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads his people out of slavery and into the promised land.
This image appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in the 1870s. It shows the warm welcome Black Americans in St. Louis, Missouri, gave to new arrivals from the South. St. Louis was the first stop for many Exodusters on their way to Kansas. Many women and children are included among the Exodusters. And Black women are shown providing food to the travelers.
The quilt was either made by Amanda Lewis or her daughter, Mary Jane. Amanda Lewis was a formerly enslaved woman who moved with her family to Nicodemus, Kansas, in the 1880s. Exodusters from Kentucky established Nicodemus in 1877, an all-Black town in Kansas. It was the largest of many such towns in the state. The quilt’s intricate floral design shows that Black women were talented artisans who used their skills to create new lives in the West.