In honor of Black History Month, we’re pleased to share a guest blog post by Bryan Jack, author of The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters, which was released this month in paperback. In this post, Jack introduces us to the story of Jacob Stevens, an Exoduster who traveled to St. Louis to escape the post-Reconstruction racial violence in the South. Jack is Associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he teaches African American history and is director of SIUE’s Universities Studying Slavery initiative. He is the editor of the book Southern History on Screen and his scholarship has appeared in the journals: The Confluence, Americana, The Griot, The Councilor, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey, and U.S. Studies Online. He and his wife Jenny live in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1879, Jacob Stevens, had traveled up the Mississippi River from Hinds County, Mississippi to St. Louis. In St. Louis, he told St. Louis activist Charleton Tandy, “I think I am too good a man to stay down there and be killed, and don’t intend to do it…couldn’t carry me back South again unless they would chain me and carry me back. My people are there, and I would like to see them, but I can’t go back.” Stevens, a twenty-two-year-old Black sharecropper, feared for his life because of the racial violence that engulfed the post-Reconstruction South. Stevens’ brother-in-law was shot and wounded by a White man who owed his brother-in-law fifty cents; nothing happened to the perpetrator. It was also not the only violence suffered by Stevens’ family. Active in politics, the Stevens family drew the attention of a violent White mob. Jacob Stevens witnessed the murder of his father and brother because of their Republican activities. A crowd of approximately seventy-five men first killed a White man, Mr. Hofer, because he “held in with the black people.” Then the crowd attacked Stevens’ brother, shooting him dead. Ignoring the cries of his mother, they then made his father walk outside where they executed him. No one in the crowd wore disguises, and the murders occurred in broad daylight. According to Stevens, “They shot my father because he was a Radical. There was nothing ever done about the shooting. I knew John Whitehead and Ross Whitehead, who were in the crowd. On election days if a black man got a Republican ticket to vote they would say he was spotted, and that meant they were going to kill you. They wouldn’t allow the colored people to vote as they wanted.” The murders, threats of further violence, and lack of economic opportunity prompted Jacob Stevens to flee for his life. He stated the reason “I leave the South is because I can’t make a living there, and can’t get my rights.”
Jacob Stevens was one of approximately 10,000 African Americans who fled Louisiana and Mississippi in 1879-1880, with the aim of starting new lives in Kansas. Called Exodusters, because of the Biblical story of escaping from oppression, Stevens and the others traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, then on the Missouri River across to Kansas. Their flight was the first large scale migration of African Americans out of the South, in a precursor to the later Great Migration of the 20th Century. Many of the Exodusters were destitute, more like refugees from war than the pioneers of the modern imagination. After paying the $4 fare for steamboat deck passage from Vicksburg to St. Louis, many Exodusters arrived in St. Louis with little more than the clothes on their backs. When the city of St. Louis refused to offer aid, the city’s African American community took over. Organizing through churches and relief committees, they supplied food, clothing, shelter, and even steamboat fare so the Exodusters could continue their journey. For over a year, Black St. Louis residents worked to aid the Exodusters. Charleton Tandy even traveled to the east coast to gather donations and testify before Congress about the Exodus.
The violence and intimidation the Exodusters endured became symbolic of the backlash faced by Black citizens of the post-slavery South. Their journey to seek a better life, a journey of men, women, and children claiming their rights as American citizens, became symbolic of resilience and hope. The St. Louis African American community’s organizing is an early example of civil rights activity, done to not only aid the Exodusters, but to also challenge the rule of former Confederates in the South. Although today it’s little-known, in the story of the Exodusters and their St. Louis protectors, we see both the best and the worst aspects of race in the United States.