The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson

As a public historian working in St. Louis, Missouri, I am sometimes asked whether enslaved people living here before the Civil War ran away more frequently than enslaved people in the Deep South. Enslaved St. Louisians had the free state of Illinois across the Mississippi River, after all. While an exact response would be hard to quantify, I am fond of highlighting the story of Mattie J. Jackson as a part of my answer. Born and raised in St. Louis, Jackson wrote about her experiences with slavery in a short autobiography at the age of twenty in 1866. The Story of Mattie J. Jackson is unique in that it documents a traumatic, failed attempt by her family to seek freedom in Illinois. Jackson’s narrative highlights the intimate relationship between anti-slavery and anti-Black sentiment in the North and documents the very real dangers enslaved runaways experienced while traveling through free states (or what historian Dwight Pitcaithley more accurately describes as “non-slave states”).[1] For someone in Jackson’s position, the powerful symbolism of the North Star did not represent a path to freedom.

Title page of slave narrative
Figure 1: Front Cover of The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Photo Courtesy of Documenting the South

Slavery’s defenders in St. Louis faced unique challenges that undermined the security of its peculiar institution. The city was home to roughly 1,500 free Black residents leading up to the Civil War, a group that included a small financially elite network that styled themselves “the Colored Aristocracy.” An informal communications system between free and enslaved Blacks also existed to pass along information and promote education. For example, Mary and John Berry Meachum, leaders within St. Louis’s free Black community, operated schools for both free and enslaved people at First African Baptist Church. St. Louis was also a central destination for enslaved people looking to sue for their freedom. Early in Missouri’s statehood, state law established the concept of “once free, always free,” opening a door for African Americans to use the courts to pursue claims of unlawful enslavement. According to historian Kelly Kennington, 287 freedom suits were filed in the St. Louis County Courthouse (today the Old Courthouse at Gateway Arch National Park) between 1810 and 1860. 110 enslaved people (38 percent) earned their freedom through a successful lawsuit during this time. The city also experienced a major demographic change among its white population. By 1860, a surge of northern- and foreign-born residents in St. Louis led to increasing hostility to slavery’s presence within the city. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by the start of the Civil War.[2]

And yet, slavery remained an important component of St. Louis’s economic life and a form of social control enforced through harsh legislation. After pressure from St. Louis slaveholders, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law banning anyone from teaching an African American—whether free or slave—how to read and write in 1847. Enslaved people in Missouri were banned from getting married, riding public transit without permission, and smoking in public. Other “Black Codes” were enforced in St. Louis that prevented all blacks from making “seditions speeches” or meeting in church without a white observer present. Additionally, all African Americans needed to possess passes while moving in public as well.[3] It was with full sincerity that the famous abolitionist and formerly enslaved St. Louisian William Wells Brown recalled that “though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri . . . no part of our slave-holding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.”[4]

This was the harsh world that Mattie Jackson’s family hoped to escape. Jackson’s father, Westly Jackson, successfully ran away from St. Louis around 1850 and worked as a preacher in Chicago, but left his wife and two children in the city on a temporary basis. “Two years after my father’s departure, my mother . . . attempted to make her escape” from slavery alongside her children, Jackson recalled. While traveling through Illinois over several days, “we slept in the woods at night. I believe my mother had food to supply us fasted herself.”[5] Trouble loomed in the distance, however.

Jackson noted that the St. Louis newspapers were read by many residents in western Illinois. In publications like the Missouri Republican, advertisements with monetary rewards for capturing enslaved runaways were published on a daily basis. For white Illinoisans who had little regard for African Americans and a desire for cash, the opportunity to serve as a vigilante slave patrol for St. Louis slaveholders was appealing. “The advertisement had reached there before us,” Jackson recalled, “and loafers were already in search of us, and as soon as we were discovered on the brink of the river of the spies made enquiries respecting [our] suspicious appearance.” After their capture, “we were taken back to St. Louis and committed to prison . . . after which they put us in [Bernard] Lynch’s trader’s yard . . . we were then sold to William Lewis.”[6]

Sepia photo of slave pen with men standing outside.
Figure 2: After Jackson and her family were captured in Illinois, they were returned to St. Louis and sold at Bernard Lynch’s “trader’s yard,” which is pictured here during the American Civil War. Ironically, Lynch abandoned St. Louis at the start of the war and his building became a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates during the war. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The maintenance of slavery in eastern Missouri was highly dependent on not just a tolerance of slavery among Illinois residents, but active involvement through the capture of enslaved runaways. The state government, with strong support from political leaders in western and southern Illinois, went a step further by banning the settlement of free Blacks within the state’s boundaries in 1853. State legislator and future Civil War general John A. Logan was a leading force in getting this legislation passed. During debates he remarked that opponents of the bill were White “abolitionists” anxious to promote racial equality. “I [cannot] understand how it is that men can become so fanatical in their notions as to forget that they are white . . . it has almost become an offense to be a white man,” Logan remarked without a hint of irony.[7] Such attitudes among White Illinoisans were known among Missouri’s enslaved population and would have undoubtedly prevented many of them from taking the same path Jackson’s mother attempted to follow in running away from St. Louis.

Jackson remained in slavery through much of the Civil War, but went on to recall a remarkable irony following the Camp Jackson Affair within the city limits on May 10, 1861. Facing continued abuse from Lewis and recognizing that the she might be able to seek refuge from an increased presence of U.S. troops in the city, Jackson sought protection at the St. Louis Arsenal. She remained at a boarding house for three weeks, but when Lewis tried to sell Jackson and her mother at Lynch’s trader yard, he was promptly detained by the Army and given “one hundred lashes with the cow-hide, so that [the Army] might identify him by a scarred back, as well as his slaves.” While the beginning of the war were considered “days of sadness” for the Lewis family, Jackson fondly recalled them as “days of joy for us. We shouted and laughed to the top of our voices.” Several years later Jackson, with help from sympathetic Army officers, successfully made her way to Indianapolis to enjoy a new life in freedom.[8]

The publication of Jackson’s book in 1866 represents a final insight into her autobiography. In promoting her narrative after the Civil War’s conclusion and the beginning of the Reconstruction Era, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson served to remind readers of the horrors of slavery at a time when many Americans were anxious to move on from the past. In appealing to readers for donations to help fund her education, Jackson showed that while freedom had been achieved, the path to prosperity during Reconstruction—literacy, education, capital, land, and rights—still lay far in the future despite the recent ratification of the 13th Amendment. Jackson’s unique and courageous story demonstrates how freedom-seeking was a dangerous process that could break up families and ultimately lead to violent punishment and continued enslavement, even when freedom appeared to be staring across the Mississippi River.

 

 

[1] Mattie J. Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson: Her Parentage—Experience of Eighteen Years in Slavery—Incidents During the War—Her Escape from Slavery. A True Story (Lawrence: Sentinel Office, 1866), available online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jacksonm/jackson.html; Dwight T. Pitcaithley, The U.S. Constitution and Secession: A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

[2] Julie Winch, The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antono F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 25-74; Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 198.

[3] “An Act Respecting Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes,” 1847, accessed February 8, 2022. https://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/MDH/AnActRespectingSlaves,1847.pdf; Missouri State Archives, “Laws Concerning Slavery in Missouri, Territorial to 1850s,” Missouri State Archives, 2022, accessed February 7, 2022. https://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/earlyslavelaws/slavelaws.

[4] William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847), 27.

[5] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 4-7.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] James Pickett Jones, Black Jack: John A. Logan and Southern Illinois in the Civil War Era, reprint edition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 14-19.

[8] Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson, 8-11.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

2 Replies to “The Remarkable Story of Mattie J. Jackson”

  1. how ironic! the john logan quote — ‘it has almost become an affront to be a white man’ — regurgitates today from the mouths of crt critics.

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