taking the words of Jesus seriously

On May 4, 1863, the steamboat Northerner pushed up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, bound for Fort Snelling, a military outpost north of St. Paul, Minnesota. Just a few miles into the journey, Captain Alfred J. Woods encountered a large handmade raft adrift in the strong currents. Aboard were seventy-six African Americans: forty men, ten women, and twenty-six children.

The leader of this determined group was Robert Hickman, who was attempting to free himself, along with his family and neighbors, from enslavement on a plantation in Boone County, Missouri. Hick- man, a preacher who could both read and write, had seen newspaper accounts of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation four months earlier. Although the proclamation did not apply to Missouri because it was under Union control, this news nonetheless inspired him to begin making plans to escape north. The Hickman party aimed to reach free soil by way of the river, which was by then safely patrolled by the Union army. They embarked under cover of darkness on the moonless night of May 3, but because their makeshift craft was not equipped with sails or oars, they drifted for a day in the wrong direction before encountering the Northerner.

Seeing the floundering party with so many children aboard, Captain Woods asked if they needed assistance. Sympathetic to their plight and knowing that the strains of the Civil War had left Minnesota with a labor shortage, Woods ordered the raft to be securely tied to the steamboat and offered to take them as far as his final destination.

Neither Woods nor Hickman anticipated the vitriol that awaited them. On May 5, the Northerner approached the levee in Lowertown, on the outskirts of St. Paul. As local dock workers, mostly Irish, caught sight of the self-emancipated African Americans (commonly referred to as “contraband” by whites) on the trailing raft, they became increasingly agitated, seeing them as competition for jobs. As word spread, a threatening crowd gathered on the levee. The commotion was so great that St. Paul police arrived on the scene. But after assessing the situation, they sided with the mob and threatened to arrest not the Irish rabble-rousers but the Black asylum seekers, should they disembark.

Captain Woods ordered the boat with its trailing raft to steam on to Fort Snelling. There, Hickman and his party came ashore without incident on May 5, but they were met with an unexpected sight: hundreds of disheveled Native Americans were huddled together, forcibly assembled near the docks.

The desperate and anxious crowd they encountered were part of an original group numbering more than 1,600, mostly women, children, and elderly Dakota people who had been held under armed guard all winter, following the Dakota War of the year before, in a miserable encampment in a lowland area below Fort Snelling. Unbeknownst to them, Minnesota government officials and military leaders were awaiting the spring thaw that would allow for their mass deportation downriver from their ancestral homelands to a bleak reservation in the Nebraska Territory. By the time the ice finally melted and river levels rose, hundreds had died. A group of 770 Dakota people had been shipped off the day before on another steamer, the Davenport.

Having set the Hickman party safely ashore and unloaded the wagons and supplies for the military fort, Captain Woods ordered preparations to receive his next “cargo”: 547 Dakota people, whom he was transporting for the fee of $25 per head plus 10 cents a day for sustenance. Soldiers from Fort Snelling herded the ragtag remnant aboard the Northerner “like so many cattle,” as one observer put it. As they pulled away, a local minister’s wife remarked, “May God have mercy on them, for they can expect none from man.”

Neither Hickman and his companions, nor the Dakota people, would have had the perspective to realize they were witnessing the momentous final chapter of both chattel slavery in the US and “Indian removal” in Minnesota. They would not have grasped the paradox the two groups represented that afternoon on the banks of the Mississippi River: that the end of bondage for Hickman’s band also marked the last vestige of sovereignty for the Dakota people. And they would certainly have been unaware that, in the closing weeks of 1862, just five months earlier, President Lincoln was simultaneously considering two documents that would dramatically change the fates of each group: a warrant for the mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota men and the Emancipation Proclamation.

This encounter on May 5, 1863, contains multiple narrative streams, each of which tells a different story about America. The question is, which do we follow? Do we tell the story of Fort Snelling, the military outpost established to protect the westward expansion of settler colonialism? Do we embark back down the Mississippi River to Missouri and the story of enslaved Africans in the South? Do we push upriver from St. Paul to its headwaters and stories of Indigenous peoples populating this land for millennia? Or do we portage east and cross the larger waters connected to the homelands of Europeans who first set foot on these shores just a few hundred years ago? Each narrative pushes back to a different beginning.

Excerpted from The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P. Jones. Published by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2023 by Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.


Short Description: The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, by Robert P. Jones

Taking the story of white supremacy in America back to 1493, and examining contemporary communities in Mississippi, Minnesota, and Oklahoma for models of racial repair, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy helps chart a new course toward a genuinely pluralistic democracy.

Robert P. Jones returns to the fateful year when the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery”—the idea that God designated America as a new promised land—shaped how five centuries of Europeans would understand the “new” world and the people who populated it. As he brings this story forward, Jones shows us the connections between Emmett Till and the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto in the Mississippi Delta, between the lynching of three Black circus workers in Duluth and the mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato, and between the murder of 300 African Americans during the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa and the Trail of Tears.

From this vantage point, Jones shows how the enslavement of Africans was not America’s original sin but, rather, the continuation of acts of genocide and dispossession flowing from the first European contact with Native Americans. This reframing of American origins explains how the United States could build the philosophical framework for a democratic society on a foundation of mass racial violence—and why this paradox survives today in the form of white Christian nationalism. Through stories of people navigating these contradictions in three communities, Jones illuminates the possibility of a new American future in which we finally fulfill the promise of a pluralistic democracy.

Excerpted from The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P. Jones. Published by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2023 by Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.

Preferred online book order links:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3DWr3Wn 

Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/a/56272/9781668009512

Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., is a New York Times bestselling author and the president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). He frequently appears on MSNBC, NPR, and other media outlets, and his writing on religion, culture, and politics has appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, TIME, and Religion News Service. He is the award-winning author of White Too Long and The End of White Christian America. He writes a weekly Substack newsletter at robertpjones.substack.com.

About The Author


Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., is a New York Times bestselling author and the president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, which won a 2021 American Book Award. He frequently appears on MSNBC, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and other media outlets, and his writing on religion, culture, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, The Washington Post, and Religion News Service. He is also the author of The End of White Christian America, which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Jones writes weekly at https://robertpjones.substack.com, a newsletter for those dedicated to the work of truth-telling, repair, and healing from the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a B.S. in computing science and mathematics from Mississippi College. Jones was selected by Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion as Distinguished Alumnus of the Year in 2013, and by Mississippi College’s Mathematics Department as Alumnus of the Year in 2016. Jones serves on the national program committee for the American Academy of Religion and is a past member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, a journal of the American Political Science Association. Before founding PRRI, Jones worked as a consultant and senior research fellow at several think tanks in Washington, D.C., and was an assistant professor of religious studies at Missouri State University.

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