Race War One: The secret history of the national slave revolt

During Black History Month, theGrio’s weekly series, “The Secret History of…” will explore the lesser-known details of some of the most popular stories from Black history. Today we examine one of the greatest freedom fighters in American history.

(lllustrator: Maurice James, @art4theblackmarket_)

On August 12, 1846, 12 men representing every state that still enslaved human beings assembled at a house on the corner of Green and Seventh Street in St. Louis, Mo. Before their newly elected “Chief” revealed a 10-year-plan to recruit, organize and train for a national race war, they each put their hand over their hearts and recited the pledge that explains why so little is known about the Knights of Liberty: “I can die, but I cannot reveal the name of any member…

Until the slaves are free.” 

Moses Dickson, one of the most important but overlooked people in Black history, was born on April 5, 1824, in Cincinnati, Ohio. After he “mastered all branches of study that were taught in that early day,” Dickson began training as a barber. At 16, he found a job cutting hair aboard steamships while witnessing the evil of slavery and white supremacy up close. His three-year “tour” convinced him that the only way America would end slavery was through militant action. 

To keep his organization secret, Dickson came up with a brilliant move. In 1855, he created another organization, the Twelve Knights of Tabor, “for the purpose of aiding in breaking the bonds of our slavery.” This secret order was not connected with the Knights of Liberty; it was created to “perpetuate the name” because too many white people had heard rumors about the Knights of Liberty. Operating as a fraternal organization, the Knights of Tabor were involved in the abolition movement while serving as cover for the Knights of Liberty because, as Dickson explained in the Tabor handbook: “We know of the failure of Nat Turner and others, the Abolitionist in the North and East.”

Dickson and the Knights of Tabor’s first order of business were to radicalize the acquaintances he had met during his travels and free as many enslaved people as possible. He helped raise thousands for the Underground Railroad, even from slaveowners, and traveled the country assisting bondsmen to escape to freedom. When he heard that “no negro could escape” from America’s slave capital, Charleston, S.C., he and the Knights found a way around the well-guarded city by building a wooden box and mailing an enslaved man to freedom in Massachusetts, where he was eventually given refuge and educated at Harvard. 

When a Kentucky state representative and newspaper publisher was forced to move his publication to Ohio, Dickson personally obtained $1,000 from the former slaveowner to fund activities on the Underground Railroad. Even though Dickson’s wealthy Kentucky politician friend was one of the founders of the Republican Party and was known for fighting (including an incident where he fought six pro-slavery advocates at one time), his namesake’s son became even more famous for his fighting skills—Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.

After operating in secret for years, the original Knights of Liberty knew it was time to make their move. Dickson’s steamship pals had stolen small shipments of brand new firearms and distributed them across the country to “42,000 men drilled and well-armed,” while other sources put the number at somewhere between 47,240 and 150,000. “Plans were complete for a rising,” Dickson explained to the Denver Post in 1901. “[A] concentration of the forces was ordered at Atlanta, GA. We expected to have nearly 200,000 men when we reached Atlanta.” 

Then, white people went crazy. 

Just as the Knights had moved into place and were waiting for word from “the Chief,” it became apparent war was imminent. Instead, Dickson instructed his Knights to join the Union Army, and Dickson fought in 16 Civil War battles. “If the War of the Rebellion had not occurred just at the time it did,” explained Dickson, “the Knights of Liberty would have made public history.”

But the bloodiest war in American history didn’t stop Dickson from becoming one of the most influential men in Black America. In 1866, he founded the Missouri Equal Rights League and Lincoln University of Missouri, the first historically Black college in the state. He helped create Missouri’s school system and recruited Black teachers. When more than 16,000 formerly enslaved people decided to stay in Missouri on their way to Kansas as part of the Exoduster movement, Moses Dickson’s Refugee Relief Bord clothed and fed them. Yes, Moses Dickinson is one of the reasons St. Louis is majority Black.

But perhaps Dickson’s most important legacy remains in the Knights of Tabor. After the war, the Knights of Tabor disbanded, and only seven of the original Knights of Liberty were left. To honor them, he convened the five men’s temples and women’s tabernacles at a convention in 1872 to create the National Grand Temple and Tabernacle of the Order of Twelve, of Knights and Daughters of Tabor. This Masonic self-help organization became one of the most important organizations in Black America, boasting 100,000 members with chapters in 30 states, the Caribbean, England and Africa. 

In 1942, the organization built the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou, Miss., one of the country’s oldest all-Black towns. Its chief surgeon, T.R.M. Howard, became an active leader in the civil rights movement and housed the journalists who helped track down the witnesses to Emmitt Till’s murder.  

Although most of this story has been told by Dickson, historians have been able to piece together his accounts to separate fact from legend. It turns out Dickson’s story of the national slave revolt is hidden between the pages of his Black contemporaries’ writings. 

To be fair, there is one white man who knew about the Knights of Liberty.

On March 10, 1859, abolitionist John Brown hopped on an empty boxcar in West Liberty, Iowa, with a few followers and 12 self-freed men, women and children who had been enslaved on three Missouri farms. A railroad engineer who was friendly to the anti-slavery cause hooked the boxcar between the engine and the express car of a train headed for Detroit. From there, the fugitive slaves would travel by ferry to Ontario, Canada. Just before the train crossed the Mississippi River, the train stopped in Davenport, Iowa, and John briefly disappeared. Two days later, after Brown had ferreted the men to freedom, he decided to visit an old friend.

Much has been written about Brown’s visit with Frederick Douglass on March 12, 1859, and the time Brown met Harriet Tubman in Ontario.  For some reason, neither Tubman nor Douglass could ever convince Brown to give up his plans to spark a race war by raiding the armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. While an extended account of Dickson’s life appears in the second volume of The Story of the Negro, perhaps the secret plot for a race war is best explained in the first volume of Booker T. Washington’s infamous tome:

In addition to those I have already mentioned, there is evidence that there was a pretty well-organised body of coloured people engaged in the Underground Railroad extending the whole length of the Great Lakes from Detroit, Michigan, to Buffalo, New York. This organisation was known as the “Liberty League.” Washington writes. “John Brown was well acquainted with the members of this organisation and, when he held his famous convention  at Chatham, Canada, shortly before the raid on Harpers Ferry, it was  from the ranks of this organisation that he drew, in all probability, the largest number of his members.”

Or, as Moses Dickson told the Denver Post:

“I saw John Brown at Davenport just before he started for Harpers Ferry, and I tried to dissuade him by telling him that the time had not yet come, but he would go.”


Michael Harriot theGrio.com

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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