Invisible Stories

huckfinn3-05122011Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn centers around the moral conflict of African-Americans enslaved in the Mississippi basin. However, in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s hometown, one can tour the “Tom and Becky Museum” and “Injun Joe’s Cave,” but the tours fail to mention that Hannibal, Missouri hosted a major slave market. Even the new interpretive museum in Hannibal I visited in the early 2000’s failed to mention this.

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And like most of America, the tours and museums politely gloss over mention of the native people pushed aside by European guns and disease. I’m drawn to these invisible histories of women, native people, and non-European Americans and their connections to the river.

Woman in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis, MN

Woman in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis, MN

The history of African American slavery is tied to the history of the entire Mississippi River and even includes accounts of slaves held in the upper Mississippi River Valley from the Revolutionary War even until the end of the Civil War.  There are also significant abolitionist efforts documented in the upper Mississippi River Valley.

African slaves played an early part in the formation of the modern Mississippi River. In the early 19th century African slaves built the first levees on the lower Mississippi. A 100 years later, a half century after slavery was abolished, African American plantation workers were forced to work in hazardous conditions to shore up levees in the Great Flood of 1927, and as the waters rose, were left stranded for days without provisions while white women and children were hauled to safety.

Watching the sternwheel steamboat pass

Watching the sternwheel steamboat pass

In another example of interwoven histories , African American’s working on or near the Mississippi helped connect otherwise isolated black communities. “Riverside African Americans joined with mobile workers to establish a variety of social networks that defied the isolation and commodification of the slave market” (Buchanan, 2004). And black steamboat workers held an important source of income to both slave and free African American communities.

Two African-American women and baby on porch of river dwelling

Two African-American women and baby on porch of river dwelling

While much has been written about the immigrant experience in rural America, where there were women in the West, their services remained invisible and their stories remain in the shadow of their male companions. There are the inevitable firsts, women notable for doing things men had been doing for some time, but few available stories of women forging their own paths or reflecting on their unique experiences in their occupations. Women served as wives, childcare workers, servants, sex workers, and likely in small numbers in every conceivable occupation, but these stories about women’s contributions to river communities are well hidden. It will take extra effort to unearth these stories.

In Secret History, I work to tease out the invisible stories of working people, women, native people, and people of color.

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