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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

“Dependin' on Somebody Else is Poor Business” - Robert Bryant’s Life in Freedom

Obituary of Robert Bryant
Tri-City Independent, issue of December 16, 1943, page 4.
Obituary of Robert Bryant

One of the initiatives of the Federal Writers’ Project portion of the Works Progress Administration in 1936 to 1939 was the Slave Narrative Project. This effort sent mostly white writers to interview over 2300 surviving African Americans formerly enslaved. Despite potential issues with the information, the narratives provide a glimpse into the experiences of formerly enslaved people during and after emancipation. One example is Robert Bryant of Herculaneum, Missouri.

Bryant was born in Caledonia, Washington County, in March 1863, and was among the youngest of those interviewed. Undoubtedly, he heard his story during the Civil War from his parents when he was a bit older. His family, headed by his father George Bryant, called Brock, lived in Pilot Knob at the time of the 1864 Price Raid, probably under the protection of the Union Army. His handicapped older brother and mother completed the family. They attempted to escape ahead of Price’s Army, but a party of raiders appeared. The family escaped into the woods, separating Robert from them. Another African American woman found him later, and after hiding from roving bushwhackers for several days, Robert was re-united with his mother.

After the war, a white man allowed the family to build a small cabin on his land. There they managed to eke out a living. When Robert was old enough, he began working in a crew of around forty-five on steamboats on the Mississippi between St. Paul and New Orleans hauling crops and livestock. He continued working at hard physical labor, loading iron ore at Sulphur Springs on the Mississippi for a year, then working in tobacco fields in Kentucky, an iron foundry in St. Louis, and as a farm hand for 20 years.

He was able to purchase his own farm near Fredericktown, farmed for seven years, and sold the farm after his wife died. He moved to Bonne Terre and worked for St. Joe Lead Company, where he made $1.60 for 12 hours of work per day. The works moved to Herculaneum, and Bryant worked at that location for 30 years before St. Joe laid him off on account of his age at 62. His supervisor got him a job as a janitor at the segregated African American school, where he was still working at the time of the interview. Bryant married four times and had eight children, but half died young. Only one son survived by 1940.

Robert Bryant had strong opinions about slavery and life. In his interview, he stated that slavery had never done African Americans any good but benefited the enslavers. He thought many of the enslaved did not know how to work for themselves after emancipation, and thus sometimes stayed with their enslavers. Bryant believed that depending on someone else was poor business, and he was proud he worked and depended on himself. He further stated that if freed slaves had received given land it “would [have] been a heap better [than the] way [they] did [it].” Bryant voiced a common theme, often said by the old about the young, that young people did not want to work. He also decried their lack of church attendance.

Bryant stated that he cast his first vote for Garfield, and he had voted in Kimmswick. He had voted ever since then and was proud to vote and had never sold his vote.

Robert Bryant would live until December 8, 1943, when he died in Herculaneum at age 80.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.