Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing: Mississippi Greenway

As a major city in a slave state just across the Mississippi River from the free state of Illinois, St. Louis was a pivotal point in the Underground Railroad.

On the night of May 21, 1855, in the area that is now part of the Mississippi Greenway: Riverfront Trail north of the Merchant’s Bridge, Mary Meachum attempted to help a small group of enslaved people cross the Mississippi River to Illinois where slavery was outlawed. However, enslavers and law enforcement officials caught at least five of the enslaved people and arrested Mary for her participation in the plot. She was charged in criminal court for helping the “fugitives” escape. In 2001, the National Park Service recognized the site as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

 

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Who Was Mary Meachum?

Mary Meachum (1801–1869) and her husband, Reverend John Berry Meachum, were American abolitionists who dedicated their lives to educating and freeing enslaved people.  Missouri banned all education for Black people in 1847. As part of Reverend Meachum’s church, he established a school for free and enslaved Black students called the “The Candle Tallow School” because classes were held by candlelight in a secret room in the church basement that had no windows to avoid being discovered by the sheriff. In 1847, the Meachums moved their 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.”  The Meachums’ home on Fourth Street in St. Louis was a safe house on the Underground Railroad. They also helped enslaved people escape to Illinois, where slavery was outlawed. Their work involved considerable risk due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850- a law authorizing the hunting and capture of escaped enslaved people and requirement that they be returned to their enslavers.

Reverend John Berry Meachum grew up as an enslaved person in Virginia and Kentucky before earning enough money to purchase his freedom. Before leaving Kentucky, he met Mary, an enslaved person who was set to be moved by her enslavers to St. Louis. John followed Mary to St. Louis where he bought her freedom and eventually established the First African Baptist Church, the first black congregation in St. Louis. Through his work as a skilled craftsman and barrel maker, John was able to buy the freedom of many enslaved people in St. Louis. After John’s death in 1854, Mary Meachum continued their work educating and freeing enslaved people.

Annual Freedom Crossing Celebration

Every year, a variety of partners plan and host the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration on the Mississippi Greenway.  The theme of the event changes each year and shines a spotlight on important-yet rarely told or not widely known-Black history in St. Louis. The 2019 celebration brought to life the story of Africans to Americans: 400 Years of History. The 2020 event (virtual due to Covid-19) focused on the struggles to pass the 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote, and the incredible violence that women had to endure for the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment. The 2021 virtual event will highlight the stories of Black St. Louisans whose lives were intertwined with Missouri’s journey to statehood and the legalization of slavery in the state.

 


Mary Meachum Mural

In 2018, a team of apprentices from St. Louis Artworks worked with Great Rivers Greenway to create a new mural to highlight the history of this site. Check out this video to learn more about the project and the inspiration behind the imagery.

 

Where is the Mary Meachum Site?

The site is located on the Mississippi Greenway. Several sections of the greenway are currently impacted by construction. To bike or walk to the site, you can park in North Riverfront Park and ride south on the greenway. To drive there, take Highway 70 to Grand Ave: East toward river; North on Hall to Prairie; Right on Prairie to site & parking.