Hidden History: Working for freedom in Osage County coal mines – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Working for freedom in Osage County coal mines

Drawing of Kansas Exodusters by Solomon Eytinge, 1833-1905, Harper’s weekly, v. XXIII, No. 1181, August 16, 1879. Source Library of Congress.

After the conclusion of the Civil War there was a period of Reconstruction that attempted to graft the South back into the Union. The transition was disastrous, and at the forefront of other troubles with Reconstruction, individuals of African descent faced racial violence and the creation of the Black Codes (which mirrored previous laws governing slaves). Many chose to leave the south for a chance at a better life in Kansas in what was called the “Black Exodus.”

These migrants were dubbed Exodusters and started to arrive in Kansas as early as 1873. The most widely known Kansas Exoduster settlement at Nicodemus began in 1877, but black migration to Kansas didn’t begin in earnest until 1879.

Multiple Exoduster settlements were made in the state, and while Osage County received many Exodusters, it was not home to an “official” settlement. It was, however, the location of the only business enterprise of its kind in the state, solely owned and operated by Exodusters.

When the Exodusters arrived in Osage County in 1879-1880, many came to Osage City (the town of Burlingame, while welcoming to blacks during the Civil War, did not want the new arrivals).

Most Exoduster men in Kansas found labor positions, predominantly in agriculture. In Osage County, however, the coal resources were just beginning to be tapped in earnest and mining opportunities seemingly abounded. Osage City was an infant town that was booming with the coal industry. Within less than a decade, it boasted 77 new buildings, a great influx of new citizens, and ample opportunities for employment from local stone quarries to five coal shafts. And the coal jobs in the area paid well – double what was offered in the surrounding areas.

Osage City became a very appealing place to settle. But there was a problem. The established coal mines didn’t really want black miners. And so, a group of the earliest members of the Exodus created a mining colony that they called Liberia (named in honor of the colony in Africa established for freed slaves).

This community and mine were the only one of its kind in the state – fully owned and operated by men of African descent. There were two attempts at a Liberia settlement in Osage County. The first Liberia was located just south of the community of Dragoon (south of Burlingame), situated on lands purchased for one of the large coal companies.

The Liberia miners faced multiple hazards. The men were inexperienced and forged their own way with mining. In the over 60-foot-deep shaft, an accidental fall could be disastrous. Also, the community, while relatively close to Burlingame, had no easy access to the town to retrieve supplies. At the time Liberia was established in 1880, there was no safe bridge for regular foot or horse traffic, and crossing Dragoon Creek was accomplished by using the railroad bridge, which could prove deadly.

The first Liberia ended within a few short years and some of its members decided to return to the South, discouraged by lack of opportunities for people of color. When the settlement was disbanded, the buildings were sold and taken to the nearby community of Peterton and repurposed.

For those who remained, working at the Osage City mines was not an option for everyone, as there were only two mines at this time that allowed black men. Determination to make a Liberia mining settlement work led to another attempt in 1885, outside of Barclay, south of Osage City.

The Barclay neighborhood was a more welcoming environment for the families. Barclay had been started as a Quaker settlement, and Quakers believed in the equality of all races. Eighty acres of land was leased to the Liberia company from J. R. and Milton Hendrix, who had already established a mine on their property. This Liberia company was headed by Thomas Hibbs, who served as superintendent, general manager, and promoter for the enterprise. Hibbs, like others in this second Liberia, had gained mining knowledge at the Dragoon location. Hibbs was heavily involved in politics for the Greenback Party, and used his energy to promote Liberia coal throughout the state. The Barclay Liberia employed 12 men during its existence, but the company lasted barely a year.

After this last Liberia settlement failed, the men found employment in the mines of Osage City, which by this time offered more opportunities. One of the few mines that accepted the men was Osage Carbon Shaft No. 4, a new mine opened by Henry Isaacs. Shaft No. 27 was also accepting of what the newspaper proclaimed “all colors, nationalities, and creeds,” important because Osage City was home to a wide range of nationalities.

The Liberia miners didn’t just settle for the menial jobs that blacks were expected to fill at the mines, though. When Osage County miners unionized in the late 1880s, the black miners clearly stated that they would stand with the white miners if they were granted equality in position and pay. By 1893 they were fully successful in that endeavor.

While the Liberia mining colonies ultimately failed, the fact that they were fully self-started by African Americans in this time period is a testament to the strength of the Exodusters, who had so many obstacles to overcome even in “free” Kansas.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

Powered by WordPress