Lost and Found on the River: Fact and Fiction
The courageous journey of
the Rev. Robert T. Hickman
It’s a brisk autumn afternoon and I’m standing in front of Pilgrim Baptist Church, an imposing tan brick structure on Central Avenue West in St. Paul. I’ve arrived not to attend a service but rather to get a glimpse of the legacy of a man who led 75 slaves on a courageous journey to freedom more than 150 years ago. I tilt my head and slowly examine five stained glass windows perched high on the western wall. One depicts the image of Robert T. Hickman, the man who masterminded the escape and is credited with being the first spiritual pillar of the black community in St. Paul.
At age 32 Hickman took stock of his life and decided that something had to change so he devised a radical plan that he believed would slowly tip the scales of justice in his favor. Perhaps the notion first came to him while splitting logs for the rail fence of a plantation, or possibly it came by divine intervention while he prepared a sermon to deliver to his fellow slaves. However it arrived, his idea stuck in his craw and gnawed at him until he formulated a strategy to rescue his wife and children from a neighboring plantation, build a raft and escape with 75 other slaves. That dangerous plan eventually brought him and his followers to St. Paul but it wasn’t before they experienced a harrowing flight down the turbulent Missouri River and up the Mississippi. They made the journey in 1863, when the country was embroiled in civil war and attitudes varied sharply over the social status of blacks.
Hickman was born Jan. 1, 1831 and raised on a plantation in Boone County, Mo., located on the Missouri River midway between Kansas City and St. Louis. The county’s earliest settlers were slave-holders who migrated from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. They were attracted to the rich, fertile land of the river valley and set down roots there, using slave labor to till the land and plant and harvest hemp and tobacco. Their Southern ways and traditions soon pervaded the region, prompting it to become known as “Little Dixie.” Missourians, however, had mixed social and political views. In the mid-1800s Missouri was one of just four states – since named the Border States – that allowed slavery but didn’t secede from the Union during the Civil War. The ideals of many Boone County settlers were pro-Confederate yet a dichotomy existed among some of the county’s plantation owners.
Apparently, Hickman’s master was one who recognized the humanity of slaves. He taught Hickman to read, which was frowned upon by many for fear that it would empower the slaves, and when he discovered his deep spirituality he encouraged him to share the Gospel of Christ with other slaves on the plantation, which Hickman did for a dozen years, starting at age 20. The work Hickman provided on the plantation made his arms and back strong but his followers recognized that his true strength came from within and regarded him as a man of deep morals and sharp intellect.
His desire for social justice surely deepened after learning of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became an executive order on January 1, 1863, Hickman’s 32nd birthday. However, the Border States were exempt from the order, which granted freedom to more than three million slaves.
The first of January and birthdays have one thing in common. They are a day to review the past year and make resolutions for the future. With both occurring at the same time for Hickman it is likely that his 32nd birthday solidified his resolve to take the biggest risk of his life, a risk that threatened him, his family and his devoted followers.
There are two accounts of how they escaped but both agree it happened on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. One says they were smuggled aboard the steamer War Eagle and brought north to help ease the labor shortage caused by the Civil War. The prevailing theory – at least the more romantic one – is that they built a raft and floated their way to freedom.
Assuming that scenario, Hickman and his followers surely knew their likelihood of success was slim. First, the raft had to be very large to hold 40 men, 26 women and 10 children. It would have been a large endeavor to build, let alone conceal during construction. Also, the distance they intended to cover was vast, and rafting is not a quick or covert method of travel. It was at least 150 river miles to the confluence of the Mississippi, just north of St. Louis. An Underground Railroad route started there so it is plausible they hoped to make it that far by raft and then travel across land through Illinois to Chicago, relying on the benevolence of those operating safe houses.
Much like the Mississippi, the Missouri is a wide river that accommodated much steamboat traffic in those days. The water level was likely high when they departed due to melting snow and spring rain, making the current swift and more difficult to navigate. Fortunately, luck – or Providence – was on their side. By the time they reached Jefferson City, the state’s Capitol, their prayers were answered. The Northerner steamboat pulled alongside them and offered to tow them to St. Paul.
On the trip they began referring to themselves as Pilgrims because they knew they were journeying to an unfamiliar land. Surely their thoughts were mixed with fear and excitement as they churned nearly 650 miles on the Mississippi to St. Paul, arriving there on May 5.
Unfortunately, word of their pending arrival reached the landing before they did. A large group of dock workers who feared they would lose their jobs to the new migrants whipped themselves into frenzy and started a riot that prevented Hickman and the others from disembarking. To avoid an unpleasant confrontation, the Northerner pilot steamed ahead a few more miles and dropped the pilgrims in Mendota. Some, including Hickman, made their way back to St. Paul and others settled in nearby communities.
Hickman continued as their spiritual leader and led home services for St. Paul’s fledgling black community. That November his group rented rooms at the Good Templars Hall near Third and Market streets and began holding services there. The next year they applied for and received mission status to organize their own congregation. However, since Hickman was not ordained, it was organized under the First Baptist Church of St. Paul and was served by a white minister. Pilgrim Baptist became the first black church in St. Paul when it was chartered on Nov. 15, 1866. To celebrate, the congregation returned to a sacred place for its founders – the banks of the Mississippi – and held a baptismal service there.
Hickman continued his clerical education and was licensed to preach in 1874, and ordained in 1875. He became Pilgrim’s first black minister in 1878 and served until his retirement in 1886. He died 14 years later, on Feb. 6, 1900.
Today the church is located at 732 Central Ave. W., in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, a tight-knit community that was ripped in two in the 1960s by the construction of Interstate 94. The neighborhood is still feeling its consequences, and Pilgrim Baptist continues to shine its beacon of hope there. It hosts several social ministries, including the Pilgrim Community Garden and a food shelf, as well as other spiritual programs, including Men of Courage, a name that indirectly pays homage to the church’s brave founders.
Immediately following my visit to Pilgrim Baptist I witnessed an interaction between two men near the on-ramp of I-94 near Dale Street. One was standing in the median with a sign asking for help. The other pulled next to him in a shiny car, rolled down his window and gave him some money. I couldn’t help but wonder if the benevolent man was related to one of the founders of Pilgrim Baptist Church and if the other man was a descendent of one of those angry dock workers.
A Heartbreaking Arrival
The Northerner steamboat cut an imposing figure as it slowly lumbered around the river bend and prepared to dock at the Lower Landing in St. Paul. Its powerful blades sliced through the muddy water and churned a frothy wake that rocked the crude wooden raft it was towing. On the raft were 75 weary souls who had escaped slavery in Missouri. Their stomachs ached, their faces were gaunt and covered with grime, and the pungent odor of sweat clung to them like a steamy blanket. The fatigue of their nearly 800-mile journey quickly vanished, however, when they came within sight of the city, and their hearts welled up with the hope of the new life they would find there.
Their leader, the Reverend Robert T. Hickman, saw the excitement bubbling in their eyes and felt the electricity of their newfound energy and hopefulness. He shared it, too, maybe more so because of the danger he’d put them through. Overwhelmed with emotion, his eyes moistened. He was certain they had just experienced a modern day miracle and was confident that the hand of God had safely guided them there.
The rafters were both physically and emotionally exhausted. Fear was their closest companion at the start of their harrowing journey, which began on the turbulent Missouri River in central Missouri. That fear turned to joy when the Northerner crew discovered them and offered to tow them to St. Paul. Even then, though, their eyes were glued to the landscape as each mile crawled by, searching for their captors who most certainly were pursuing them. When they reached the confluence with the Mississippi River near St. Louis they began to breathe easier, and by the time they reached St. Paul they allowed themselves to embrace the hope that the residents of this far-North city would value their humanity, unlike those in their home state.
The group stirred and twisted their necks to view the approaching city. Hickman made his way to the front of the raft and stood before them, his back to the city. They shifted their eyes toward him.
“Brothers and sisters, fellow pilgrims,” he said, his arms raised, his normally commanding voice now quivering. “Our prayers have been answered. Praise God!”
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of “Alleluia!” and “Praise God!”
“Like those wanderers of long ago, we have come through the desert and our Promised Land is in sight.”
The men and women murmured more affirmation while the two dozen children on board continued to squirm to see the bustling city.
“Let us give praise to God Almighty for protecting us on this journey. May He bless our future here and may we be faithful witnesses to His unending love and grace and mercy.”
Heads bowed and hearts were suddenly filled with reverence. This is why they followed Hickman, why they needed him, for his keen ability to keep them focused on what truly mattered.
The ship’s whistle pierced the air, announcing their arrival, and all eyes turned toward it, then quickly to the large cheering crowd at the dock. As the Northerner pulled up to the landing and prepared to dock, the rafters noticed something was amiss. Now they could see the faces of the horde on the wharf and realized they weren’t cheering for the boat’s arrival, they were jeering at it. Some in the mob pumped clenched fists at them while others waved the boat away, yelling “They’re not welcome here.” Arrows of anger shot from their eyes and pierced the hearts of those on the raft.
Hickman and his followers were stunned and a bit frightened and wrestled with their emotions to make sense of it all. Their hopes sank like an anchor when they saw two policemen board the steamboat. Once again they knew their safety rested on the decision of the boat’s captain. After several tense minutes, a crewman appeared at the rear deck. He cupped his hands to his mouth and barked out instructions: “Stay put. You’ll be going a bit further to Mendota.”
The roar of the vicious crowd drowned out his words for most on the raft and bewilderment blanketed their faces as they began questioning each other for details. Those in front quickly relayed the information to those near them and watched it spread like a prairie wildfire to the rear of the raft.
As the news sank in the rafters became despondent and dejected. With sorrowful eyes, they watched the white passengers disembark and file away like ants into the city. The mob parted to let them through then quickly closed the gap. After the ship’s cargo was unloaded the Northerner let off steam, sounded its whistle, and made way for Mendota, a few miles upstream.
Hickman firmly set his jaw and stood tall at the bow of the raft, his back now to his followers, his head held high. Soon they reached a quiet landing in a forest budding with new life. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered as they bounced from tree to tree, and bright sunrays burst through the clouds and danced on the sparkling water. Hickman noticed it all and it warmed his aching heart.
Once on dry land the weary pilgrims stretched their legs and milled around silently on the sandy beach, feeling lost and confused. Hickman walked a short distance away, sat down on a bleached log and pondered their next move, imploring the Holy Spirit for guidance. A short time later he called his followers together and addressed them boldly, emitting the fervent confidence they expected from him, or more importantly desperately needed from him.
“Fear not,” he said. “We have crossed the Jordan. This is where God wants us to be. Let us bow our heads and worship Him in this sacred place.”
The Rev. Robert T. Hickman
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society