Black History: Special Delivery!

john berry meachum

 John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) was born into slavery in Goochland County, VA. Meachum’s owner moved several times; eventually settling in Kentucky. He learned carpentry and other trades from his owner. He used funds from carpentry work to purchase his freedom as well as the freedom of his father and wife. Before he was able to purchase the freedom of his wife, she was moved to St. Louis. Meachum followed her there and then purchased her freedom. While in St. Louis, Meachum met John Peck, a white Baptist Missionary. Peck had come to St. Louis to start a worship and educational center for Native Americans. Peck also saw the need to establish a place of worships for blacks as well and asked Meachum to help him. Meachum was ordained. He and Peck eventually started the First African Baptist Church in 1825. The church is still in existence today.

 The church was used to provide both religious and secular education classes for free and enslaved blacks. Meachum also used his resources to purchase the freedom of other slaves. The school drew up to 300 students. Initially education of free and enslaved black had been supported in Missouri. As racial tensions grew, education of blacks began to be viewed as a threat to slavery. This resulted in a law being enacted to ban education of free blacks and slaves. The law was not consistently enforced. However it did result in Meachum’s educational classes at the church being shut down. Meachum crafted an ingenious strategy to continue educating blacks in St. Louis. He furnished a steamboat and opened the “Floating Freedom School” on the Mississippi River (which was under federal jurisdiction) putting it beyond the jurisdiction of Missouri officials.

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