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As a young man, “Pap” Singleton escaped slavery in Nashville, where he was born and raised. Originally fleeing to Canada, he settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he harbored Fugitive Slaves until the Civil War (1861–1865) ended. Believing himself divinely chosen, he returned to Tennessee to begin his lifetime work of establishing an independent black society composed of the new freed people.

Singleton counseled ex-slaves to buy land in rural sections of Tennessee. Rebuffed by white landowners and officials, Singleton worked with W. A. Sizemore and Columbus Johnson, both former slaves, to promote migration west to Kansas. Beginning in the early 1870s, several African American families, led by Singleton, settled there. Historian John Hope Franklin has noted that when Singleton circulated such fliers as “The Advantage of Living in a Free State” throughout the American South, whites enacted laws and practices to restrict African American movement.

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