WPA - Writer's Project
Negroes in Minnesota - Box 230
Minnesota Historical Society
St. Paul, Minn.
Feature Article. (FC) Submitted by : Alfred M. Potekin
No. of words: 700
Date: March 4, 1936.
The high current riding lazily along the Mississippi River on its journey to the Gulf, was suddenly broken by white, froth-topped, angry waves, pitching and slapping the upper shores of the river on the banks below th military garrison at Fort Snelling. It was summer, 1863, the warm sun beaming on the heavily-wooded slopes along the river sides, colered the water with dancing silhouettes trembling eerily with the lapping waters.
A tiny speck appeared suddenly on the distant horizon, emerging from a bend of the river into the bread expanse of water which lay below the fort. Slowly taking form, it grew into a flat, broad hulk of a river steamer, its stacks puring thick smoke, wheels madly spinning with a mighty effort, churning the waters into white frothing waves. The "War Eagle" had successfully traversed "Ole" Man River; arriving at its destination from Saint Louis, Missouri.
River transporatation was an important factor between the key cities along the water front. Negro stevedores labored daily, loading freight and merchandise into the holds of the steamers for conveyance to souther points, above the Mason-Dixon line. To the casual observer gazing nonchalantly at the incoming steamer, the arrival was a common occurance, an every-day event, bringing baggage, a few passengers and eager, tragic news of the raging conflict between the states.
On this day the "War Eagle" was not alone; her holds were full, her passengers many, for she had towed a flat non-motivating river boat to Fort Snelling from the vicinity of Jefferson City, Missouri. The entire group nestled in the bottom of the flat boat were negro slaves and their families, fleeing from the hardshops of plantation labor and persecution to the freedom and protection of the "North". Led by a licensed preacher, they bowed in reverence, praying and singing hymns, thanking the Lord for their deliverance to a promised Land.
The preacher, Rev. Robert Thomas Hickman was a slave log-splitter on a plantation in Boone County, near Jefferson, Missouri. Tall and powerfully muscled, his physical strength, leadership and kindly nature were respected by the darkies who knew and loved him. His wife and children were owned by a mater on another plantation several miles distant. With the setting of the sun,m at the conclusion of his daily labor, Robert Hickman would set out by foot through the wilderness toward the destination of his family, returning to his master witht the rising of the sun. Repeatedly warned by his master for his nocturnal visits to his family, Hickman was threatened with bodily punishment by whipping. Upon his disregard to repeated threats and his contiued nightly visits, he was severely horse-whipped after being subdued with the aid of four men.
Slyly and cunningly, the preacher, aided by fellow slaves, began the secret construction of a flat river boat. After endless nights of tireless labor, the boat was completed and preparations were made to gather their families and flee. On a dark, moonless night, families and simple provisions were quickly tucked in the stern of the boat and the departure was underway. No oars, no sails, no means of motivation, the fleeing familis, led by Hickman, riased ther faces heavenward and prayed an sang hymns, tirelessly, endlessly. "Hallelujah, hallelujah, praise the Lord above, glory be to God, hallelujah, hallelujah," head bowed in prayer, lips trembling, prayers and song blended with the chirping of crickets and the lapping of the waves upon the shore.
The "War Eagle", plowing the river on her trip from Saint Louis, came upon the strange craft and its occupants the following day, drifting helplessly in the center of the wide stream. Learning of the strange circumstances which had brought them here, and being a "northerner", the captain of the river steamer tied a strong towing-cable to the floundering boat and resumed his journey northward. Thus was inaugurated the first record of hitch-hiking by boat on the Mississippi River.
The liberated slaves, upon their arrival at Fort Snelling, set out for separate destinations. Some settling in Stillwater, other in St. Peter, and the majority in St. Paul. Among those settling here were the families of Rev. Hickman, Fielding Combs, Henry Moffit, John Trotter, Giles Crenshaw and others. Rev. Hickman with the aid of his friends organized the Pilgrim Baptist church in St. Paul in 1863, the first colored church organized in the city. Meetings were held in Mucis Hall on Third St. Rev. Hickman was ordained in 1870; he died in St. Paul, Feb 16, 1900.
A son, John Hickman, who made the eventful trip here with his father at the age of sic, is now 70 years of age and resides with a son and family, John H. Hickman, Jr., at 766 St. Anthony Ave. His health is slowly failing, but he vividly recalls the events which prompted the pilgrimage. Upon recollection of his boyhood days, his face brightens but he soon lapses into silence, retiring with the memories which are so sacred to him alone.