Descendants hope to infuse new life into ex-slave colony
COFFEYVILLE ? Few visible signs remain of the colonies of ex-slaves and black freedmen that dotted Kansas more than a century ago, but descendants of one such settlement’s inhabitants are working to put it back on the map.
The Votaw Colony was established in 1881 on 160 acres just north of Coffeyville, near the Verdigris River. Floods forced the settlement to disband around the turn of the 20th century.
More than 30 of the colonists’ descendants were expected to converge near the site Sunday, which Gov. Kathleen Sebelius proclaimed as Votaw Colony Descendants Day. The reunion culminated Sunday evening with the dedication of a marble memorial.
The descendants hope to open the Votaw Colony Museum in Coffeyville within two years, to tell the story of those who journeyed from hostile surroundings elsewhere to Kansas in the late 19th century.
Marge Thompson, one of the descendants, said the colony for many has come to symbolize the American dream.
“They migrated from a place of hardship to a place that symbolized liberty, freedom,” Thompson said. “Kansas happened to be the place for these people.”
Votaw Colony was established in 1881 by about 25 families who traveled from Shelby County, Texas, under the leadership of a man named Paul Davis.
The colony’s founder, Daniel Votaw, was a Quaker social worker and agent for the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association, according to www.soulofamerica.com, a tourism Web site dedicated to culturally significant destinations in the United States and Caribbean.
Votaw had heard of ex-slaves and freedmen wanting to make a new start. He bought 160 acres of land, divided it into 20 lots and then sold the lots to the colonists for $100 each.
Nat Fitz, the 81-year-old president of Votaw Colony Museum board, hadn’t heard of the settlement until 40 years ago. What he has learned since then has made him proud of his ancestors’ role in establishing a place that promised hope and new life.
Fitz’s great-grandfather, Alford Teal, purchased his freedom for $400 by cutting lumber. Teal’s daughter, Mary Teal Fitz, was an ex-slave. In 1881, the Teal family traveled from Texas to Kansas.
“These people were wanting to leave the Texas sharecropping system because it was so similar to slavery,” Nat Fitz said. “They heard about free land in Kansas so they got together and came.”
More than 20 similar colonies — some with just a few residents, others home to hundreds of people — were established across Kansas from the 1850s through the following decades, according to the web site.
In 1879-80 alone, an estimated 20,000 blacks moved from the South to Kansas in an exodus led by former Tennessee slave Benjamin “Pap” Singleton.
The state’s sole remaining such community is the northwestern Kansas town of Nicodemus, which holds an annual homecoming and emancipation celebration.