Liberty and Bondage: African Americans in the Mississippi River Valley, 1851-1900

by O. Vernon Burton, Troy Smith, and Simon Appleford, University of Illinois


In many ways, the African American experience along the Lower Mississippi was comparable to that lived by slaves and free blacks throughout the South. Whether in Georgia or Mississippi, plantation life unfolded around a similar framework, with certain aspects held in common. On the other hand, the Mississippi River itself introduced a unique element into the mix. The Great River – clearly symbolizing mobility and thus, to those who worked and lived on it, freedom – called out to blacks as well as whites, if in different ways.

Before examining the unique aspects which the river lent to the black experience, it would be appropriate to first briefly discuss those characteristics which African American life in the Lower Mississippi shared with the rest of the South. This requires looking at slavery as an institution, and historians’ perception of it.

For most of the twentieth century, scholars debated the purpose of slavery. Early on (in 1918), Ulrich Phillips had argued that slavery had been primarily an instrument of social control. It was a tool to provide guidance to a backward people. By the 1950s longstanding ideas such as Phillips’ were being questioned by a new generation of historians, with varying results. Kenneth Stampp propounded the idea – self-evident yet previously undiscussed for the most part – that slavery had in fact been a harsh system designed to maximize profits at the expense of blacks. Stanley Elkins took a sociological approach, arguing that harshness of the sort described by Stampp led to dependency among blacks; they became childlike, and unable to have a culture of their own. The next generation of scholars, in the 1960s and 1970s, responded to Elkins by exploring in-depth the ways that antebellum blacks had indeed developed a unique culture. George Rawick and John Blassingame used the words of slaves themselves, from the WPA slave narratives, to illuminate their world. Eugene Genovese examined “the world the slaves made” and found slavery to be an interchange between masters and slaves. The “slave community” approach has been followed, in more recent years, by a more varied approach by historians – from examining the ways slavery was experienced differently by women than by men (as Deborah Gray White did in Arn’t I a Woman) to looking at the practice of hiring slaves, which was apparently much more prevalent than historians once thought (as demonstrated by Jonathan D. Martin in 2004’s Divided Mastery.)

All these elements can be seen, to one degree or another, in the experiences of individual African Americans. Mississippi ex-slave Edd Roby told WPA interviewers about the black woman in his youth who defied his master’s decree against prayer, and prayed and preached to her owner so eloquently that he relented – thus taking the lead in her own spiritual life, and negotiating a new aspect to her condition. Others took matters into their own hands by fleeing their captivity – a potentially dangerous proposition if one were caught. Adams County, Mississippi native Hamp Kennedy told of seeing fellow slaves being whipped “’till de blood run out” upon their capture.

The Mississippi River was, for many slaves, a symbol of both liberty and bondage. When families were broken up by the auction block, it was often a steamboat which would carry a slave’s loved ones away. Sometimes it was the children who were sent to new owners. Clay County, Mississippi ex-slave George Coleman recalled that youngsters “were not usually sold until they were twelve years old, however the age of selling depended on their sex, size, ability etc., sometimes a special order would come in for one or two younger ones, like when a family wanted the colored chillun' to play with theirs, you know.” In those cases, the Mississippi must have seemed like a relentless force, and an implement of repression.

For others, though, the Mississippi was quite the opposite. Like Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many slaves took their gamble for freedom upon its waters. Some did so independently, stowing away or passing themselves off as passengers or workers on one of the steamboats which traveled the waterway. Others embarked on the journey with assistance; a large portion of “Underground Railroad”-aided escapes in the western slave states involved travel on the Mississippi.

Even when there were no flights to freedom involved, however, slaves and free blacks alike along the Mississippi looked to the river as a symbol of independence. As Thomas Buchanan details in the 2004 book Black Life on the Mississippi, working on the Mississippi’s many steamboats gave blacks an opportunity to travel, maintain a degree of autonomy, and – more importantly – develop a unique community out of the sight of white eyes. Two to three thousand slaves worked on the steamer decks in the Lower Mississippi, while 1,000 to 1,500 free blacks served as crewmembers in the North. The latter were often able to thereby acquire funds to send home to their families – as, at times, were slaves, an opportunity field work would not have provided them.

Of course, the river could sometimes be a dangerous place. Black workers had more to contend with than just masters or employers; they were also subject at times to the caprices of white workers, passengers, and townspeople at the boats’ various stops. William Wells Brown recalls, in his autobiography, seeing a free black man from Pittsburgh being taken from a steamboat and burned alive. Such dangers supplemented the normal risks of the steamboat trade – drowning, scalding, or being accidentally crushed by cargo.

Despite the hazards, however, life on the Mississippi offered slaves and free blacks alike an extra dimension not experienced in other parts of the South. They were able to participate in a river-linked black community which stretched from slave states to free ones, thereby not only gaining contact with new acquaintances but keeping track of previous ones, sometimes relatives, from whom they were separated. They were in a position to negotiate a degree of autonomy not offered to them in the fields, to learn the geography of the Mississippi River Valley, and – as with the fictional Jim – to find an avenue to a more literal freedom.