John Berry Meachum was a preacher who founded the oldest Black church in Missouri. But he is best remembered as a pioneer in the education of Black people in Missouri after starting a school from his church and then on a steamboat on the Mississippi River when it became illegal for Blacks to receive education in the state.
Born a slave in May 1789, Meachum’s birthplace was Goochland County, Virginia. At the age of 10, Meachum’s owner Paul Meachum moved him and some 40 slaves to North Carolina and then Kentucky. Meachum, who longed to be free, learned several trades including carpentry, and worked in a salt mine to purchase his freedom.
After buying his freedom by the age of 21, he continued to work in the salt mine until he acquired enough money to buy the freedom of his father who was a slave on a plantation back in Virginia. Meachum had at the time married a woman named Lydia, and they had two children. But Lydia and the children were sold away to a man in St. Louis.
Thus, Meachum left for the Missouri Territory, and there, he got work as a barrel maker. After some months, he was able to raise money for the freedom of his wife and children. By and by, he became well-known in St. Louis particularly among the Black community as many began to admire his craftsmanship and sought his services.
Meachum bought a house and was able to save enough money such that he started attending slave sales held at the Old Court House in St. Louis. His mission was to help free enslaved people by buying their freedom. Meachum often went to the sales to bid and would win. He would then ask the enslaved people whose freedom he had bought to join in working with him in his barrel-making business to pay off what he had paid for their freedom so he could go back to the slave sales and buy others. Scores of people got their freedom that way.
Along the way, Meachum decided he wanted to be a preacher. So, he met John Mason Peck, a White Baptist missionary who had moved to Missouri from Connecticut to organize churches. Peck taught Meachum everything he needed to know about the gospel and by 1835, Meachum had been given the title of Reverend.
After being ordained, Meachum officially opened the First African Baptist Church. He then went on to open a school in the basement of the church, where he began educating free and enslaved Black St. Louisans.
An article by Notable Kentucky African Americans Database says that Meachum’s church was one of five in St. Louis that offered education under the guise of Sunday School. Each Sunday, over 100 free Blacks and slaves attended classes in the dark basement of Meachum’s church. White sympathizers helped teach the classes and provided supplies for the school as Meachum did not charge tuition to those who could not afford it.
White people in Missouri had supported schooling for Black people as one of the ways to strengthen Christianity. But soon, many of them began to see educated Blacks as a threat to slavery. And by 1847, Missouri banned all education for Blacks. Meachum’s school was soon closed.
But he did not give up. With the help of his friends, he built a steamboat and equipped it with a library, desks and chairs. He opened what he called the “Floating Freedom School” on the Mississippi River out of the reach of Missouri officials.
According to a report by St. Louis Beacon, “Mississippi River was federal territory and the federal government did not recognize slavery. So, John Berry figured his boat would be safe.” The report said that as word spread that he had reopened his school, “Meachum made arrangements to ferry children from secret locations along the shore out into the river to board his floating academy.”
Meachum also engaged in the efforts of the Underground Railroad through his church and home. His carpentry business enabled him to purchase and free some of the slaves.
Meachum died decades ago, in February 1854, but he continues to earn praise for his school that educated hundreds of free Blacks and slaves including James Milton Turner. After the Civil War, Turner would found Lincoln Institute, the first school of higher education for Blacks in Missouri.
What’s more, Meachum’s work and that of his wife on the Underground Railroad is celebrated today at the Mary Meachum Crossing in St. Louis, where they led enslaved men and women across the Mississippi River to freedom in Illinois. Meachum’s church, which is now the First Baptist Church, still operates in St. Louis.