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Who is 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. Reverend Meachum grew up enslaved in Virginia and Kentucky before earning enough money to purchase his freedom. Before leaving Kentucky, he met Mary – an enslaved woman 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.
To learn more about Mary Meachum, check out the following resources:
- KTVI story about the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing
- KETC story about the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing
- Missouri Botanical Garden’s Freedom Seekers
- Missouri Historical Society’s #1 in Civil Rights virtual exhibit
- National Park Service’s Network to Freedom
- What did Mary Meachum look like? (might not be what you think!)
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 Meachums moved their classes to a steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi River – just beyond the reach of Missouri law. Reverend Meachum 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. From there, they helped enslaved people escape to Illinois – a Free State, 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. After John’s death in 1854, Mary Meachum continued their work educating and freeing enslaved people.
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 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.
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 Adelaide Ave: Head East toward river; South on Hall to Prairie; Left on Prairie to site & parking, free shuttle the rest of the way.
The 2022 event brought hundreds of people together at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing site for the 20th anniversary of this celebration.
The 2021 virtual event highlights the stories of Black St. Louisans whose lives were intertwined with Missouri’s journey to statehood and the legalization of slavery in the state. In 1818, Missouri wanted to join the Union as a slave state. A compromise was struck, and the horror of slavery was once again expanded. There was no compromise for enslaved people. Join us to learn about and connect to our community’s past, present, and future. Thank you to the 2021 sponsors Great Rivers Greenway and Missouri Division of Tourism for supporting bringing these important stories to life!
The 2020 event (virtual) 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. Check it out here.