BATON ROUGE, LA (WRIC) — In our nation’s early years, the Mississippi River was essential for trade, including the slave trade. But for some of those enslaved, it also represented freedom.
From Minnesota to Louisiana, spanning more than 2,000 miles long, it’s the nation’s longest river with a history much deeper than the water itself.
The Mississippi was the main artery of America’s pre-railroad economy, transporting boatfuls of cash crops and the slaves who tended them during the 1800’s.
Historian, Dr. Don Hernandez said this part of the river represented not bondage, but opportunity.
“History reports that people who were enslaved and who were working in this area from time to time sought freedom by escaping across the Mississippi River,” Hernandez said.
Escaping from chains in the East to liberty in the West, an irony not lost on students of Southern University, Louisiana’s oldest historically black university.
Lakeith Lewis, Southern University alumna, said knowing that slaves swam to freedom across the river nearby deepens his connection with the university.
“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.”
Today, the river sustains jobs for more than 580,000 people, creating over $150 billion in revenue for the U.S. economy.
If you missed our Hidden History Special, you can find that and all of our Hidden History stories here.