John Berry Meachum
John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) was an American pastor, businessman, educator and founder of a church in St. Louis, the oldest black church in Missouri. Meachum also circumvented a Missouri state law banning education for black people by creating the Floating Freedom School on a steamboat on the Mississippi River.
Meachum was born into slavery in Goochland County, Virginia on May 3, 1789. His master took him when he migrated to North Carolina and then Kentucky. Meachum learned several trades, including carpentry. At 21, he had earned enough money from carpentry to purchase his own freedom and, shortly afterward, the freedom of his father. By then he had married another slave, Mary.
In St. Louis, Meachum met white Baptist missionary John Mason Peck. With Peck, he started the African Church of St. Louis (later renamed as the First Baptist Church of St. Louis). It was the first black church in the state. Meachum taught religious and secular classes there to both free and enslaved black students. After he was ordained in 1825, Meachum constructed a separate building at the same location for his church and school, which he called "The Candle Tallow School."
The school, which charged a dollar per person in tuition for those who could afford to pay, attracted 300 pupils. Around the same time, St. Louis passed an ordinance banning the education of free blacks, and Meachum had to close the school.
In 1847, the slave state of Missouri banned all education for black people, one of several restrictions on the lives of both enslaved blacks and free people of color. It also prohibited them from having independent black religious services without a white law enforcement officer present, or from holding any meetings for education or religion.
In response, Meachum moved his classes to a steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi River, which was beyond the reach of Missouri law. He provided the school with a library, desks, and chairs, and called it the "Floating Freedom School".
Meachum and his wife, Mary, helped enslaved people gain their freedom by supporting them through the Underground Railroad, which helped people get to free states, and by purchasing their freedom. Sometimes they transported people by boat across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois. Through profits from his successful carpentry business, Meachum purchased and freed 20 enslaved individuals. He trained them in carpentry and other trades so that they could earn a living. Nearly every person freed paid Meachum back, so, he continued to be able to free others. As a slave owner, Meachum was sued by some of his slaves for their freedom and for his treatment of them as workers.
In 1846, Meachum published a pamphlet, "An Address to All of the Colored Citizens of the United States," in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He emphasized the importance of collective unity and self-respect. He said that black people needed to receive practical, hands-on education so they would could support themselves after emancipation.
Death and legacy
Meachum died in his pulpit on February 19, 1854. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
His wife Mary continued her work with the Underground Railroad. She was arrested in 1855 at the river's edge for transporting slaves to freedom across the Mississippi River to Illinois, a free state.
Beginning in 2003, the work of John and Mary Meachum on the Underground Railroad has been commemorated annually by re-enactors at the site of Mary's arrest in St. Louis. It has been named as the Mary Meachum Crossing at the Mississippi River, and is designated on the Great River Greenway's Riverfront Trail along the river. In 2015 the event also celebrated the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. A mural painted on the river side of the levee wall commemorates her work.
The First African Baptist Church, now First Baptist Church, moved to 14th and Clark streets in 1848. In 1917 it moved again, to its present address at Bell Avenue. The church later purchased the adjacent four-family flat and converted it into an educational building. The church had a fire and burned to the ground in 1940. The congregation had it reconstructed on the same site within thirteen months.
- "John Meachum", Black Past
- Tim 0'Neil, "First Black Minister Founds Church, Buys Freedom for Slaves"], St. Louis Post Dispatch, April 26, 2014 
- The statute read as follows: "Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Missouri, as follows: 1. No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, in reading or writing, in this State. 2. No meeting or assemblage of negroes or mulattoes, for the purpose of religious worship, or preaching, shall be held or permitted where the services are performed or conducted by negroes or mulattoes, unless some sheriff, constable, marshal, police officer, or justice of the peace, shall be present during all the time of such meeting or assemblage, in order to prevent all seditious speeches, and disorderly and unlawful conduct of every kind. 3. All meetings of negroes or mulattoes, for the purposes mentioned in the two preceding sections, shall be considered unlawful assemblages, and shall be suppressed by sheriffs, constables, and other public officers." Laws of the State of Missouri Passed at the First Session of the Fourteenth General Assembly (City of Jefferson: James Lusk Public Printer, 1847) at pp. 103-04.
- Robert W. Tabscott "John Berry Meachum Defied The Law to Educate Blacks" Archived 2013-07-20 at the Wayback Machine, St. Louis Beacon, August 25, 2009
- Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners In The South, 1790-1915, University of Illinois Press, 1997
- "Trace the Origin of the "Floating School Story", University of Missouri St. Louis
- "Notable Kentucky African Americans Database", University of Kentucky
- Vandervelde, Lea. Redemption Songs, Courtroom Stories of Slavery, Oxford University Press USA, 2013
- Dennis L. Hurst, "The Reverend John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) of St. Louis: Prophet and Entrepreneurial Educator in Historiographical Perspective," The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History 7:2 (2004)
- "Reenactors celebrate end of slavery at Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing", St. Louis Public Radio, May 9, 2015
- Donnie D. Bellamy, "The Education of Blacks in Missouri Prior to 1861," The Journal of Negro History 59:2 (1974)
- "First Baptist Church," History Happens Here website http://www.historyhappenshere.org
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