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Missouri Emancipation Day recalls efforts to free enslaved people during the Civil War

 The Missouri Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in Missouri on January 11, 1865
Missouri Historical Society
The Missouri Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in Missouri on January 11, 1865

On Jan. 11, also known as Missouri Emancipation Day, the Missouri History Museum is bringing new attention to an antebellum insurrection plot that was secretly devised by free Black Americans in St. Louis — and how an insubordinate war hero ticked off Lincoln with his antics to free enslaved Missourians during the Civil War.

Missouri kept the nation on its toes in the years before the Civil War. While the nation was on the brink of war, a secret organization of Black men convened in St. Louis to plot an insurrection.

As the war raged on, a major general went against President Abraham Lincoln’s instruction and enacted martial law to emancipate enslaved people in Missouri.
These lesser-known pieces of Missouri history and more will be highlighted at the Missouri History Museum on Jan. 11, also known as Missouri Emancipation Day.

During the museum’s Thursday Night at the Museum series, Missouri Historical Society historians and representatives from historic Black cemeteries will share stories of resistance and perseverance that took place in St. Louis.

Major General John C. Fremont photographed in 1861
Missouri Historical Society
Major General John C. Fremont photographed in 1861
 Father Moses Dickson photographed in 1902
New York Public Library
Father Moses Dickson photographed in 1902

The event will highlight figures like Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont. Fremont, an already highly decorated military man, signed an unofficial emancipation for enslaved Missourians while stationed in St. Louis — a controversial move that led to his being removed from his post by Lincoln.

“This proclamation essentially says that enslaved people are seemingly free,” Cicely Hunter, public historian for the African American History Initiative at the Missouri Historical Society, told St. Louis on the Air. “[Fremont’s proclamation] also talks about how people who are loyal to the Confederacy can be stripped of their property. At that time, they would have deemed enslaved people as property. Abraham Lincoln catches wind of this, and he is not happy.”

While Fremont was catching heat from the president, Father Moses Dickson — a barber and minister from Cincinnati — was fighting along with the Union and leading a secret organization of Black men infiltrating the Confederate-controlled South.

“[Dickson] witnessed some very troubling things in Cincinnati,” Cathy Hart of the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery said of Dickson before he arrived in St. Louis. “He started traversing the South as an itinerant barber. And you know how it is with barbers, right? You hear a lot. He became aware of the atrocities of slavery, and he couldn’t abide by it.”

Once in St. Louis, Father Dickson went on to found the Knights of Liberty, a clandestine group of Black men that plotted an insurrection and demanded an end to slavery. But when Dickson got wind of the likelihood of war, the Knights of Liberty ditched that plan and joined the Union Army. By the end of the war, the Knights of Liberty amassed up to 150,000 people committed to liberating enslaved people and helping newly freed refugees from the war get settled.

St. Louis' position — across the Mississippi River from Union-controlled Illinois, and across the state from Union-controlled Kansas — drew many free and enslaved Black people. Between 1860 and 1870, the Black population increased from 3,297 to 22,088. The potential for a better life was too good to pass up, Hunter said. “Folks were trying to go to Kansas because there were benefits associated with enslaved people going [there]. They could receive clothing, rations and in some cases the certificate of freedom for the soldiers and their children and mothers.”

For more about Missouri Emancipation Day, including life postwar for Father Moses Dickson and the cemetery dedicated to him in Crestwood, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Related Event

What: Thursday Nights at the Museum | Missouri Emancipation Day

When: 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Jan. 11

Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, Missouri 63112)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.
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Miya Norfleet
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