Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Black History on the Mississippi River: A Pilgrimage to Freedom

Alora K. Jones, Marketing & Communications Associate, Mississippi Park Connection

In honor of Black History Month the National Park Service, in partnership with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, invites us all to reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by Black Americans. Through its “Hallowed Grounds” theme for Black History Month, NPS is working to raise awareness of Black history in the U.S. and especially those stories that pertain to our national parks and monuments.

River City Revue
Photo credit: Tom Reiter
Here at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, we explored some of the stories and symbolism of rivers for Black Americans last summer at River City Revue. But it is a conversation worth continuing, especially during Black History Month in one of our nation’s most pivotal years...

Locally most of us are familiar with the story of Dred and Harriet Scott, and the famous Dred Scott Decision which ruled that Black people were not considered U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue for freedom from enslavement. But beyond the walls of Historic Fort Snelling, there are few well-known stories that depict the Black experience in Minnesota and more specifically, on the Mississippi River.

Rev. Robert Hickman
Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society
Cue Robert Hickman, born a slave in 1831 on a Boone County plantation just off the Missouri River who worked as a log splitter. In the state of Missouri, slavery was very different from that of the Deep South and Hickman, among other slaves, was taught to read and write. He studied the Bible, became a slave preacher and was revered as a spiritual leader in his community. It was Robert Hickman’s 32nd birthday, January 1, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, however, this executive order did not apply to enslaved people in Missouri and other border states.

So Hickman devised a plan to escape the plantation, and brought with him 75 other enslaved men, women and children. The details of this daring escape remain murky; one account states that the runaways were aided by Union forces and smuggled aboard the War Eagle steamer to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the other more widely known account states that the slaves boarded a makeshift raft, traveling the Missouri River by night and hiding along the banks of the river by day. In any case, Robert Hickman and his 75 ‘pilgrims’ as they called themselves, reached the confluence at the Mississippi River where they were then towed by the Northerner steamboat to Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Photo credit: Star Tribune
Once resettled into this new land, Hickman and his pilgrims went on to establish Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of Minnesota’s first black churches which still stands today and recently celebrated 150 years.

Photo credit: Twin Cities Daily Planet
Hickman’s story is just one example of the many hidden relationships between black Americans and the great outdoors. It is our hope that through uncovering and sharing these stories we can begin to dismantle the false narrative that black people lack a connection with nature, and begin to heal as a nation.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fighting Invasives: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Maria DeLaundreau, Project Coordinator, Mississippi Park Connection

When it comes to fighting invasive species, the old adage of “The best defense is a good offense,” has been well studied. We keep finding proof that the ecosystems most resilient to invasives are those that are healthy and intact. Once they become degraded it can be very difficult to restore. 

A stand of reed canarygrass.
On the shores of the river and riverine backwaters, reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) has been infiltrating and in many places becoming dominant. This environment faces a lot of disturbance. It’s a floodplain. It floods. Flooding reshapes the landscape by moving sediment, submerges and sometimes drowns vegetation, and changing the level of the water table, sometimes creating new backwater lakes and ponds. Sometimes these changes are a perfect entry point for reed canarygrass. 
Once reed canary grass invades it forms dense thickets that are difficult to defend against. Land managers often use burns, mowing, and herbicide to keep it at bay, but something needs to change if you want to prevent it from growing back or re-establishing. 

Reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea)
This is where we come back to needing a good and native offense to protect the floodplain, like planting cottonwood trees. Research has suggested that trees taller than reed canarygrass can shade out this invasive grass. Cottonwoods and reed canarygrass have very similar habitat preferences. They both do best along rivers and other wetlands where the water table is high and they may be flooded for a few weeks each year.

Forest and field both have their place in the floodplain, but not reed canarygrass.
Photo credit: Allie Holdhusen, MISS/NPS
Of course, here at Mississippi Park Connection, we get very excited when there’s an opportunity to do good for the river with cottonwood trees! This spring, we are partnering with Three Rivers Park District at Carver Park Reserve to collect planting material and Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park to plant in a reed canarygrass field. Three Rivers staff will prep the site by mowing down the invasive grass and we will put mulch around the trees to help prevent it from growing back and to help the soil around the thirsty young trees retain moisture. As our cottonwoods grow to be taller than the reed canarygrass, which can grow 2-6 feet in height, the trees will shade out the invasive grass. We are so excited that this native and majestic tree can be used to fight off invasive species and help restore a healthy and resilient floodplain forest habitat in more ways than we realized. 

Intact floodplain forest at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park.
Photo credit: Allie Holdhusen, MISS/NPS