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Discovering an Obscure Black Underground Railroad Leader in Minnesota

 

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum

 

Karen Sieber, historian

An Interview With Historian Karen Sieber, Director of the Finding Moses Initiative

Q: You recently made a major discovery that noted Underground Railroad leader Moses Dickson lived in Minnesota in the 1850s. Why is this significant?

KS: While Moses Dickson (1824–1901) is no stranger to historians of Black history, no one had ever located him in Minnesota before. The radical Black abolitionist was the leader of the Knights of Liberty and the Order of Twelve, two secret societies whose members reportedly led countless formerly enslaved individuals to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Following the Civil War, he was one of the founders of the HBCU Lincoln University, started multiple Black fraternal organizations and aid groups, opened Prince Hall Masons temples in Black communities throughout the Midwest, dabbled in Reconstruction Era politics, preached in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and aided Exodusters moving West. Despite his influence, there has always been a gap in Dickson’s known whereabouts in the 1850s. The few details that are known about his life have generally stemmed from Dickson’s own self-curated and unreliable accounts. 

My recent discovery of Dickson in Saint Paul records during his missing years, living and working alongside other known key figures from his secret Black abolitionist circles, points to the likelihood that Saint Paul may have been a more important stop on the Underground Railroad than previously thought. This helps re-envision the geography of the Black freedom movement and brings a local connection to a nationally important story within civil rights history. 

Further study of Dickson and his Midwest networks, from Black barbers and steamship stewards, to white territorial Governors and Métis traders, can help paint a more accurate picture of the Black freedom seeking experience and community building in the Midwest. This work can also help separate fact from fiction and bring added details and documentation to Dickson’s own biography. Lastly, this research can also potentially help identify additional Underground Railroad-related sites in the Midwest. 

 

 

Q: How did you end up locating Dickson here? 

KS: I have been following Dickson’s story for a number of years, but farther down the Mississippi River in Galena, Illinois, and Saint Louis, Missouri, where his story is better documented. After running into various brick walls trying to track him down during his missing decade, much as the Dickson and UGRR scholars before me have, I unlocked the missing piece in his biography and located him right outside of my door. 

I found Moses by searching instead for records related to his wife, Mary E. Dickson. Knowing the family was likely not stationary, I expanded my search to include records from other states up and down the Mississippi. Trying a variety of phonetic spelling variations, I came across a Mary Dixen and M. Dixen in territorial records for Minnesota in 1857. Noting ages and birth locations that matched the famous couple, I knew that this rabbit hole was more promising than others I had explored. With a more focused location, I was then able to dig further to confirm the Mary and “M” were in fact the correct Dicksons. They owned a restaurant and eating saloon in the early 1850s, settling back into barbering later in the decade, working out of the Fuller House. Although Moses is upheld in public memory for his leadership of these radical groups, my assumption is that Mary, known as “Mother Dickson,” held a much more important role in the Underground Railroad than known. 

 


Reverend Moses Dickson, ca. 1875-1885. Collodion wet plate negative. Photographer E. E. Henry (1826–1917), Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
P1978.127.475

Q: What do you intend to do with this research? 

KS: While my personal research will remain focused on Moses, Mary, and their immediate circles, I am collaborating with scholars in other states who are working on their own research about other key individuals in the Midwest. As our collective of researchers grows, the Finding Moses Initiative’s aim is to consolidate resources, research, and data so that we can gain a better understanding of the complexity of early Black communities during this era of our region’s history. The hope is that with additional funding the site will soon include curriculum, digital maps and exhibits, and features about individuals like Moses Dickson, who built communities of resistance and resilience in the nineteenth century Midwest. 

This research has the potential to be developed into a variety of different mediums depending on the level of support, including museum exhibits, a scholarly article, a comic book, a documentary, and walking tours. I also hope to identify additional Minnesota locations to nominate to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom (NTF) map. The fabulous researcher Elyse Hill, who grew up in Saint Paul, was able to secure Minnesota’s first NTF recognized site this past year, nominating the Pilgrim Baptist Church. I have 5 to 6 other potential sites I am exploring for nomination. 

Q: Locating Dickson is not your first foray into historical recovery. Can you tell me a little about some of your other work? 

KS: While my specialization is riots and resistance more largely, most people know me as the creator of Visualizing the Red Summer, a massive digital archive, map, and timeline highlighting racial violence of 1919. I built the archive in 2015 out of frustration at the lack of materials available for scholars and educators wanting to explore the Jim Crow era. Traveling around the country on my own dime, I tracked down and photographed over 700 historical photographs, telegrams, court records, news clippings, meeting minutes, and other materials related to the race riots and lynchings from over 22 institutions around the country. In making the items publicly available, and tracking the data within, I was able to double the amount of known locations of violence that year. 

I am honored that the site has been used by millions, and that it has inspired new books, articles, art, and conversations about racial violence in America. The site is also now part of the controversial new AP African American studies curriculum. This work has also led to work as a scholarly advisor for television shows and documentaries like Tulsa 1921: An American Tragedy, which aired on CBS, Smithsonian, BET, and Paramount+. 

 

Q: What path brought you here? Can you tell our readers a little about how you got bit by the history bug?

KS: I did not get into this field until later in life. I spent around 15 years in the culinary and retail management fields before finally going back to college at UNC-Chapel Hill to get my Bachelors degree. I had volunteered my research skills to local historic preservation efforts in Durham, N.C., for many years, and helped launch a history museum there, so when it was time to go back to school, the pivot into a career as a historian seemed like a no-brainer. I continued on to receive a Masters degree from Loyola University Chicago in Public History, which some people call “Applied History.” This includes training in exhibit curation, historic preservation, oral history, digital humanities, archives management, and other forms of saving, sharing, and interpreting history for a public audience. I also have a post-graduate certificate from Duke University in Nonprofit Management.

 

Q: What’s next? 

KS: Over the next year, I hope to see the Finding Moses initiative grow with additional funding and partnerships. I am very excited to be able to give students here in Minnesota and across the Midwest a local story with which to understand the Underground Railroad. I also hope to gain momentum for a local civil rights trail in Saint Paul in coming years. 

In the meantime, I continue to write, do research, and consult. With the inclusion of my research in the new AP African American Studies curriculum, I have been doing more work as a contractor helping districts develop ethnic studies curriculum that is meaningful, thoughtful, and locally relevant. This spring I will also return to the classroom teaching graduate courses in Public History and the Digitization of History. 

 

Karen Sieber is an award-winning scholar of riots and resistance, Black history, and labor history in the United States. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, Yahoo, MSN, Minnesota History, The Conversation, PBS, Smithsonian, American Historical Association, Labor, and in the book, Where Are the Workers?: Labor’s Stories at Museums and Historic Sites. For more on her work visit ksieber.com.