John Berry Meachum

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John Berry Meachum

John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) was an American pastor, businessman, educator and founder of the oldest black church in Missouri. Meachum circumvented a Missouri state law banning education for black people by creating the Floating Freedom School on a steamboat on the Mississippi River.

Early life[edit]

Meachum was born into slavery in Goochland County, Virginia on May 3, 1789. He was taken to North Carolina and then Kentucky by his owner, where he learned several trades, including carpentry. At 21, he had earned enough money from carpentry to purchase his own freedom and, shortly afterwards, the freedom of his father. His wife Mary Meachum, still enslaved, was taken by her owners to St. Louis in 1815, but Meachum was able to buy her freedom as well and moved to St. Louis to be with her.[1]


In St. Louis, Meachum met white Baptist missionary John Mason Peck. With Peck, he started the African Church of St. Louis (later renamed the First Baptist Church of St. Louis), where he taught religious and secular classes to 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."[2]

The school, which cost a dollar per person for 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 the school was forced to close down.

In 1847, the state of Missouri banned all education for black people.[3] 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”.[4][5][6] One of Meachums' students was James Milton Turner, who went on after the Civil War to found the Lincoln Institute, the first school of higher education for black students in Missouri.

Meachum and his wife, Mary, also helped enslaved people gain their freedom through the Underground Railroad and by purchasing their freedom. Meachum’s successful carpentry business enabled him to purchase and free 20 enslaved individuals, whom he trained in carpentry and other trades so that they could earn a living.[7] Nearly every person freed paid Meachum back, so, in turn, he was then able to free others. However, as a slave owner, Meachum himself was sued by some of his slaves for their freedom and for his treatment of them.[8]

In 1846, Meachum published a pamphlet, "An Address to All of the Colored Citizens of the United States," in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In it, he emphasized the importance of collective unity and self-respect, and stated that black people needed to receive practical, hands-on education so they would could support themselves after emancipation.[9][10][11]

Death and legacy[edit]

Meachum died in his pulpit on February 19, 1854. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Meachum's wife Mary continued her work with the Underground Railroad. She was arrested in 1855 for transporting slaves to freedom in Illinois.

The work of John and Mary Meachum on the Underground Railroad is commemorated every year at the site of Mary's arrest in St. Louis, now renamed the Mary Meachum Crossing.[12]

The First African Baptist Church, now First Baptist Church, moved to fourteenth and Clark streets in 1848, and in 1917 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 was burned to the ground in 1940 and was reconstructed on the same site within thirteen months.[13][14]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ John Meachum,
  2. ^ Tim 0"Neil, St. Louis Post Dispatch, " First Black Minister Founds Church, Buys Freedom for Slaves" , April 26, 2014
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners In The South,1790-1915, University of Illinois Press, 1997
  6. ^ "Trace the Origin of the "Floating School Story"
  7. ^ Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, University of Kentucky
  8. ^ Vandervelde, Lea, Redemption Songs, Courtroom Stories of Slavery, OUP USA 2013
  9. ^ 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);
  10. ^ John B. Meachum, An Address to All the Colored Students of the United States, 1846, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina]
  11. ^ Eric Gardner, Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2010
  12. ^ Reenactors celebrate end of slavery at Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, St. Louis Public Radio, May 9, 2015
  13. ^ Donnie D. Bellamy, “The Education of Blacks in Missouri Prior to 1861,” The Journal of Negro History 59:2 (1974)
  14. ^ "First Baptist Church,"