ST. LOUIS – Even if Reverend John Berry Meachum’s only claim to fame was founding the first Black church west of the Mississippi River, he’d still be a significant figure in St. Louis history.
If Meachum was only known for buying his freedom from slavery, as well as his father’s, and later following the love of his life across the country to secure her release from bondage, he’d be revered.
Were the good reverend simply noteworthy for purchasing the freedom of other enslaved people and being a conductor for the Underground Railroad, he’d be honored for his heroism.
But Rev. Meachum, who did all of those things, defied the unjust city and state laws of his day to educate Black youth in pre-Civil War St. Louis.
“(Meachum) should be remembered—and is remembered—because he was a creative, entrepreneurial, faith-filled person who was committed to the notion of humanity and the progress of Black people, slave or free,” said Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and adjunct professor of history at the University of Missouri.
Meachum was born (into slavery) on May 3, 1789, in Virginia, the same year of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the election of President George Washington.
Meachum, who took the surname of his slaveholder and not his father’s (Granger), was a skilled carpenter and managed to purchase his freedom at the age of 21 through the process of manumission. He then walked from Hardin County, Kentucky (where his owner moved) to Hanover County, Virginia, and secured his father’s release for 100 Virginia pounds. It should be noted this was a rare occurrence, as most slaveholders did not offer the opportunity for slaves to buy their freedom.
John Berry Meachum and his father later purchased the freedom of his mother and siblings. His family moved to southern Indiana, while Meachum stayed in Kentucky and married an enslaved woman, Mary.
When Mary’s owners moved to St. Louis, they took Mary and the Meachums’ children with them. John dutifully followed in 1815 and, as a freedman, was eventually able to purchase their release with his carpentry skills.
Some time after 1817, Meachum became acquainted with John Mason Peck and James Welch, two white Baptist missionaries who traveled to St. Louis from the northeast and founded the First Baptist Church of St. Louis and the Sabbath School for Negroes. Meachum assisted the two men and was ordained a minister himself in 1825.
Two years later, Meachum founded the First African Baptist Church and a physical church was built at the intersection of Third and Almond streets. Meachum began educating Black children in the church basement in what became known as the Candle Tallow School. According to Robert Samuel Duncan’s “A History of Baptists in Missouri,” Meachum, over the next 10 years, purchased 20 slaves and taught them to read and write, as well as carpentry and woodworking skills. When a slave could pay back their debt to Meachum, he and Mary would free them. The Meachums would use that money to purchase new slaves and begin the process anew.
He did all of this under the threat of fines, lashing, imprisonment, or worse.
In the 1820s, both Missouri and St. Louis took steps to limit or outright deny Blacks from gathering or being educated, for fear such activity would foment revolt.
Missouri, which joined the nation as a slave state on Aug. 10, 1821, established patrols in 1823 to break up any plot among slaves or abolitionists. By 1825, the state’s general assembly declared Blacks could not appear as witnesses in court in matters involving a white person.
By 1835, Blacks were no longer permitted to carry firearms, and freed persons could only move in and out of the state with a special permit, which they had to apply and pay for. That same general assembly passed laws saying anyone with at least one Black grandparent would be considered a “mulatto.”
An ordinance passed by the St. Louis Board of Trustees in the early 1820s forbade educating both free and slaved Blacks.
Meanwhile, Presbyterian minister Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist who founded the St. Louis Observer newspaper, was murdered in Alton, Illinois, by a pro-slavery mob in November 1837. He was 34.
1847 would be a pivotal year for Rev. Meachum, as the Missouri General Assembly passed an anti-literacy law on Feb. 16, which also permitted police to be present at any church where a Black person was the preacher.
In the essay “The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History,” author Dennis L. Durst says the local sheriff went to the church and arrested Meachum and an educator from England while they were teaching children in the basement. The Candle Tallow School was closed and Meachum was charged with inciting sedition. It’s unclear what punishment Meachum and his cohort were subjected to.
Undaunted, Meachum sought a way to fight this injustice, knowing he had little legal recourse in the city of St. Louis or the state of Missouri. He came up with a way to circumvent the local laws without breaking them.
He obtained a steamboat, outfitted the vessel with a library, as well as tables, benches, desks, and chairs, and anchored it in the middle of the Mississippi River (the exact location is unknown). It was called the Freedom School and became known as the Floating Freedom School.
Because the Mississippi River was under the purview of the federal government, the Freedom School was beyond the jurisdiction of St. Louis and Missouri laws. Free and enslaved children would take skiffs out to the steamboat and receive an education. Word of the school and Meachum’s ingenuity spread across the country, and teachers from out of state traveled to St. Louis to teach on the steamer.
“He, I think, exercised and demonstrated great ingenuity in getting around the restrictive laws that Missouri had passed,” Kremer said. “… You could argue—I would argue—that the educational system for Blacks in the post-war period was built on the structure that John Berry Meachum and others like him established.”
In 1848, the First African Baptist Church built a larger church between Fourth and Fifth streets, exactly one block away from its original location. Meachum died in the pulpit while preaching to his congregation in February 1854, though sources differ on the exact day of his passing. He was 64. Meachum is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Mary Meachum, though devastated by the loss of her husband, continued her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She housed runaway slaves and helped secure passage across the river to Illinois, a free state. In May 1855, she and another freedman were arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Act and charged with slave theft. Ultimately, she was acquitted on one count and all other charges were eventually dropped. Mary died on Aug. 8, 1869, at the age of 68. It’s unclear where she’s buried, but she is memorialized on an obelisk at her husband’s grave site in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
In the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War and in the aftermath of John Berry Meachum’s death, attendance at the Freedom School declined. About 155 students were enrolled in the school when it closed for good in 1860. It’s unclear what happened to the floating school. There is no record to be found of it being dismantled or destroyed.
However, the ripples of Meachum’s defiance of unjust laws and dedication to educating young Black youth can be seen and felt to this day.
“When you think about what freedom means. What does freedom mean? Freedom means being able to do those things you couldn’t do as a slave. And one of the most important of those things was simply to go to school and to learn how to read and write,” Kremer said.
“Learning to read and write was so critical, because it allowed Blacks to interpret documents that might be discriminatory against them. … Freedom meant being able to negotiate your own existence and control your own life, at least to a much greater extent than an illiterate person.”
James Milton Turner, who was present when Meachum was arrested and later attended the Freedom School, co-founded the Lincoln Institute in 1866, the state’s first historically Black institution of higher learning. It’s now known as Lincoln University. Under President Ulysses S. Grant, Turner was appointed the first U.S. minister or ambassador to Liberia in 1871, becoming the first African American to serve in the nation’s diplomatic corps. After returning to the states, Turner spent the rest of his days lobbying the federal government for the rights of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes people in the Indian Territories. Turner died on Nov. 1, 1915, and is buried at Father Dickson Cemetery near the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site in St. Louis County.
Another of Meachum’s students, Rev. John R. Anderson, founded Central Baptist Church in 1846, making it the second-oldest African American church in St. Louis. When Meachum died in 1854, Anderson continued the mission of the Freedom School. Anderson is also said to have been a spiritual advisor to Harriett and Dred Scott. He and white Baptist minister Galusha Anderson petitioned the St. Louis Board of Education to provide education for Black youth. Rev. Anderson died on May 20, 1863. He’s buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, just steps away from Meachum’s grave. By 1866, the city had finally opened three schools for African Americans.
Meachem’s mentor, John Mason Peck, went on to found Shurtleff College in 1827. It is now home to the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Peck died on March 16, 1858, in Rock Springs, Illinois. Though initially buried there, Peck was later exhumed and interred at Bellefontaine Cemetery.
What of Meachum’s church? In 1917, First African Baptist Church relocated to 3100 Bell Avenue in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, and remains open today. The original church at Third and Almond streets has long since been torn down. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact location of the site, since Almond Street no longer exists. The area is covered by the Interstate 64 and I-55/I-44 Interchange, as well as the Gateway Arch Grounds.