The Mississippi River carries every drop of water that flows down from two-thirds of the continent. From Minnesota to Louisiana, the water rolls along its two-thousand miles length — the nation’s longest river– with a history much deeper than the water itself.
In our nation’s early years, it was the backbone of cross-country trade–not just in crops and equipment, but also in “human property.” It was the main artery of America’s pre-railroad economy, transporting boats full of cash crops and the slaves who tended them, during the early 1800’s.
But one of its narrowest points stood for something completely different.
Don Hernandez, historian and professor at Southern University A&M College, said that the land across from the University was freedom.
“A piece of Louisiana land, which has been referred to as “free negro point.” Now, “negro” wasn’t the word that was used to identify the area.”
Hernandez said that this particular part of the river represented, not bondage– but opportunity.
“Apparently, here on the Bluff, there was a large plantation, and I’m assuming because it was a large plantation, that there would have been slaves. History reports that people who were enslaved and who were working in this area from time to time sought that freedom by escaping across the Mississippi River.”
Enslaved people would swim across the Mississippi River, as the land “across from the Bluff” was not a part of the Louisiana Purchase, which meant if they could make it through the danger–harsh currents and a one-mile swim–they would make it to freedom.
Escaping from chains in the east–to liberty in the west, an irony not lost on students of Southern University and A&M College, which is now the oldest black institution for higher learning in Louisiana and the only black University system in the country.
“It’s overwhelming because I feel like I have a lot to prove because I’m here at southern university,” said Alliyah Moore, a junior political science major at Southern University. “It was founded as an institution to educate blacks in Louisiana, and slaves, they weren’t allowed to read or write, and so, it’s crazy taking advantage of the opportunities they gave me, to know that right behind me is where they escaped to freedom, I can’t even imagine,”
Lakeith Lewis, a 2011 alumni of the University said his connection to his collegiate home is now deeper.
“I’ve definitely always been proud to call myself an alumni of Southern University,” Lewis said. “But now, I definitely have more of a spiritual connection to it knowing that my people had to swim across the river to get to freedom.”
Hernandez said although the road to freedom was a dangerous one, slaves saw the light at the end of the tunnel. “When you’re enslaved, when you’ve been tortured and beaten, I suppose anything that might afford you freedom would be inviting.”
Today, the river sustains jobs for more than 580,000 people, creating over $150 Billion in revenue for the U.S. economy.
Once, a river of pain– but also, a river of prosperity — a river of change.