Mini-Flood 62: Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration

photo by Dave Adams

The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration, an annual commemorative event now in its 16th year, is themed this year to recall the unfair treatment of minorities (both racial and ethnic) in the “Anthropology Village” of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (aka 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair). PFSTL was invited to participate by one of the event’s sponsors, Great Rivers Greenway.

photo by Joe Harrison

photo by Sharon Keeler

 

photo by Ginger Johnson

 

photo by Dave Adams

 

photo by Dave Adams

Well known and beloved in St. Louis, John and Mary Meachum are deserving of a much broader following for a legacy that served enslaved and/or unskilled African-Americans for nearly half a century.

In the case of John Berry Meachum, he used his skills in carpentry to purchase his own freedom, and moved to St. Louis following a family that kept Mary as their slave, where he paid for her emancipation. Shortly thereafter, he founded the first Black congregational church west of the Mississippi, called First African Baptist Church (a version of which still exists today). At this Church, under the auspices of “Sunday School”, Meachum taught both slaves and the recently freed (he continued to use his carpentry to pay for the freedom of others throughout his life), providing a basic education and skills necessary for making a wage in the free market. After Missouri made it illegal to educate Blacks, Meachum moved his school to a steamboat anchored in the middle of the Mississippi River, where under Federal jurisdiction that did not forbid the teaching of African-Americans, he continued the curriculum for some time. In 1846, he authored, An Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States, a book outlining his philosophies. Among his students was James Milton Turner, who was instrumental in founding dozens of Black schools throughout Missouri, including the first Black College west of the Mississippi, Lincoln Institute. In addition, Turner became the first African-American to serve as an official diplomat for the United States.

photo by Dave Adams

 

photo by Sharon Keeler

 

photo by Joe Harrison

 

photo by Dave Adams

Mary Meachum and her husband began the practice together of ferrying slaves across the Mississippi from Missouri to freedom in Illinois, but it was Mary who would become truly infamous for it. After Mr. Meachum’s death, she operated a safe house for slaves fleeing along the Underground Railroad, part of why the first National Underground Railroad Site in Missouri is named for her. This site, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, is also the location of the Festival. At this spot in May of 1855, Meachum was captured along with several slaves that she was helping to seek freedom for. The slaves were returned to their owners (as a result, at least one enslaved family was separated and sold to new owners in other areas), and Mary was arrested. Another account (we need to verify which is true) suggests that Meachum was not in fact at the river when the slaves were captured, but was arrested later for her alleged part in the planning of their crossing. Either way, Mary was instrumental in assisting many former slaves find new and better lives in freedom. Meachum was also the President of the The Colored Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society, which among other things, lobbied streetcar operators to allow African-Americans to ride once a week.

Check with your kids, if they don’t already know this remarkable history, it is time to change that.

photo by Ginger Johnson

 

photo by Joe Harrison

 

photo by Dave Adams

 

photo by Dave Adams

For this 16th annual Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration, the theme of “Unfair Fair” references the ignoble “human zoos” that were a fixture of most of the Victorian Era’s World’s Fairs. That said, in St. Louis, the scale of the display was larger than in any previous or future Fair, and the legacy of this goes far and wide. Even today, you can find individuals and businesses that promote a false origin for the moniker of the Dogtown neighborhoods as having “begun in 1904 following a rash of dog disappearances alleged to be the work of a ‘primitive tribe’ on display at the Fair who craved dog meat.” As offensive as that is, it is not nearly the worst treatment people received while on display at the Exposition.

photo by Joe Harrison

 

photo by Dave Adams

If you’ve never been to the Festival, definitely give it a shot. It’s a wonderful way to learn more about St. Louis history, mingle with period re-enactors, listen to talented live musicians, and ultimately pay tribute to one of our country’s earliest civil rights champions- a brilliant and feisty St. Louisan named Mary Meachum.

photo by Joe Harrison

 

photo by Ginger Johnson

 

photo by Dave Adams

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