Save the Date: Saturday, May 4, 2019
Every year, we work with a variety of partners to 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 2018 celebration brought to life the story of Unfair Fair: Prejudice on the Pike. Check out the video below to learn more!
Plans are underway for the 2019 celebration. Get the latest updates or see photos from past events on our facebook page.
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 slaves. As part of Reverend Meachum’s church, he established a school for free and enslaved black students called the “The Candle Tallow School.” After the state of Missouri banned all education for black people in 1847, the Meachum’s 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 Meachum’s home on Fourth Street in St. Louis was a safe house on the Underground Railroad. They also helped slaves 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 slaves and requirement that they be returned to their masters.
Reverend John Berry Meachum grew up as a slave in Virginia and Kentucky before earning enough money to purchase his freedom. Before leaving Kentucky, he met Mary, a slave who was set to be moved by her slave owner 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. After John’s death in 1854, Mary Meachum continued their work educating and freeing slaves.
What is the significance of the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Site?
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 Americans cross the Mississippi River to Illinois where slavery was outlawed. However, slave owners and law enforcement officials caught at least five of the slaves 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.
A look back at the 2018 Celebration-
The Unfair Fair:Prejudice on the Pike
16th Annual Mary Meachum Celebration – 2018
In 1865, slavery ended and brought with it many new beginnings. In 1904, the world was invited to St. Louis, unless you were a person of color. Then you worked or were on display. The 1904 Louisiana Exposition World’s Fair has always been source of pride for the city, but not all of the story has been told. Everyone was not invited to the fair, nor treated equally. Hence the name, “The Unfair Fair.”
Representation and context matters. In a region where people reference this event on a weekly basis and has shaped our region’s culture, showcasing the full range of experiences from that time is of critical importance to everyone understanding the long and complicated history of race relations in St. Louis. The World’s Fair, being a ubiquitous and beloved topic, is a great example of how there is always more to the story.
Take Highway 70 to Grand Ave: East toward river; North on Hall to Prairie; Right on Prairie to site & parking. Rangers & shuttles can direct you to the event from there!
Special thanks to our sponsors and funders for the 2018 event: