Black History on the Mississippi River: A Pilgrimage to Freedom


Alora K. Jones, Marketing & Communications Associate, Mississippi Park Connection

In honor of Black History Month the National Park Service, in partnership with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, invites us all to reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by Black Americans. Through its “Hallowed Grounds” theme for Black History Month, NPS is working to raise awareness of Black history in the U.S. and especially those stories that pertain to our national parks and monuments.

River City Revue

Photo credit: Tom Reiter

Here at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, we explored some of the stories and symbolism of rivers for Black Americans last summer at River City Revue. But it is a conversation worth continuing, especially during Black History Month in one of our nation’s most pivotal years...

Locally most of us are familiar with the story of Dred and Harriet Scott, and the famous Dred Scott Decision which ruled that Black people were not considered U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue for freedom from enslavement. But beyond the walls of Historic Fort Snelling, there are few well-known stories that depict the Black experience in Minnesota and more specifically, on the Mississippi River.

Rev. Robert Hickman

Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society

Cue Robert Hickman, born a slave in 1831 on a Boone County plantation just off the Missouri River who worked as a log splitter. In the state of Missouri, slavery was very different from that of the Deep South and Hickman, among other slaves, was taught to read and write. He studied the Bible, became a slave preacher and was revered as a spiritual leader in his community. It was Robert Hickman’s 32nd birthday, January 1, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, however, this executive order did not apply to enslaved people in Missouri and other border states.

So Hickman devised a plan to escape the plantation, and brought with him 75 other enslaved men, women and children. The details of this daring escape remain murky; one account states that the runaways were aided by Union forces and smuggled aboard the War Eagle steamer to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the other more widely known account states that the slaves boarded a makeshift raft, traveling the Missouri River by night and hiding along the banks of the river by day. In any case, Robert Hickman and his 75 ‘pilgrims’ as they called themselves, reached the confluence at the Mississippi River where they were then towed by the Northerner steamboat to Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Photo credit: Star Tribune

Once resettled into this new land, Hickman and his pilgrims went on to establish Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of Minnesota’s first black churches which still stands today and recently celebrated 150 years.

Photo credit: Twin Cities Daily Planet

Hickman’s story is just one example of the many hidden relationships between black Americans and the great outdoors. It is our hope that through uncovering and sharing these stories we can begin to dismantle the false narrative that black people lack a connection with nature, and begin to heal as a nation.