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Commentary: John Berry Meachum defied the law to educate blacks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 25, 2009 - His name was John Berry Meachum, but in a sense that wasn't his name at all. That was the name of the man who owned him. When African slaves were brought to this country against their will, they lost all their identity, their history, their music and their stories.

According to his own story, which he wrote after he learned his letters, John Berry Meachum was born a slave in May of 1789, the year that the country received its Constitution. His birthplace was Goochland County, Va., not far from the capital city of Richmond.

When he was 10 years old, his master decided things were getting too crowded in Virginia, so he packed up his possessions, which included 40 slaves, and set out for Kentucky. As John Berry Meachum tells it, he always felt kindly toward his owner but in his heart there was nothing he longed for more than to be free. So, one day, "musterin' up his courage," he proposed to Paul Meachum that he be allowed to purchase his freedom. To his amazement, the old man agreed.

John Berry Meachum went to work in a salt mine and in the course of time earned $100, which is what Mr. Meachum required for the freedom papers. He paid the price and got the paper on which was written:

"John Berry Meachum, a slave for life
Has been given his freedom by his owner,
Paul Meachum, on this date July 4, 1811."

Meachum did not stop there. He continued working 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.

Now that's not all. John Berry Meachum had married a woman named Lydia, and they had two children, Clempton and Nathanial. His wife and children were sold away to a man in St. Louis. So Meachum set out for the Missouri Territory. There, as luck would have it, he found his wife and boys, but he had only $3 in his pocket when he crossed the Mississippi River. He had to work to raise money for their freedom.

Meachum was a skilled carpenter and found employment as a barrel maker. After several months, he had secured enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children. He also gained a reputation of being a very fine craftsman and many in St. Louis hired his services. He bought a modest house, saved his money and became a prominent leader in the black community in St. Louis.

John Berry Meachum hated slavery. He couldn't rest. It is told that Meachum made enough money that he began attending the slave sales held at the Old Court House.

People came from near and far to attend these sales. Some came to watch, others to buy men, women and children who were put on the block.

John Berry Meachum went to the sales to bid. This was a very dangerous thing to do because blacks, slaves or free, weren't supposed to meddle in white folks affairs. But Meachum was a very brave man. He bid and bid and sometimes his bid was the highest and he would win.

The only thing he'd ask from the people whose freedom he had bought was to join in working with him in his barrel-making business to pay off what he had paid so he could go back to the slave sales and buy somebody else. They say a lot of people who got their freedom that way.

Now, that's not all he did. Meachum decided he wanted to be a preacher. So, he sought out a white Baptist minister named John Mason Peck who had come to Missouri from Connecticut to organize churches in the great valley of the Mississippi. When Rev. Peck met Mr. Meachum, he was so impressed with the black man's intent, that he agreed to teach Meachum the ways of God as he saw them. Then, one spring day in 1835, John Mason Peck and some other men and women in St. Louis bestowed upon John Berry Meachum the title of Reverend.

John Berry Meachum went to preaching and teaching, and a lot of people started showing up at his meetings. These folks decided to pool what money they had to build a church, and they raised one down by the river in St. Louis.

If that were not enough, John Berry Meachum started something else. He opened a school in the basement of his church. He wanted his people to learn their numbers and the alphabet so they could read and write. He knew from experience that education meant freedom would some day be rising.

According to the laws of Missouri, however, it was against the law to teach black people to read and write. Still, Meachum figured that some laws were so bad that people had a right to break them, and that is what he did.

He called his school "The Tallow Candle School" because it was held in a secret room in his church that had no windows so as to avoid being discovered by the sheriff - and did those candles burn so bright!

But word of what Meachum was doing got out, and authorities closed down his school. The sheriff supposedly told him that if he tried again, he'd be put in jail.

But Meachum would not be denied and with the help of some of his friends, black and white, he bought a steamboat and fitted it out with a library and classrooms. In 1847, he christened his ship Freedom School. The Mississippi River was federal territory and the federal government did not recognize slavery. So, John Berry figured his boat would be safe.

As word spread that he was back in business, Meachum made arrangements to ferry children from secret locations along the shore out into the river to board his floating academy. On that wonderful ship, which was "sorta like Noah's Ark," John Berry Meachum taught black children to read and write. It was a wonderful sight. It was, freedom rising.

So the legend of Freedom School has been told across the years. And by any measure Rev. John Berry Meachum is considered the father of public education for blacks in St. Louis.

Meachum is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, and people make annual pilgrimages to his grave.

Robert W. Tabscott, a Presbyterian minister, heads the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society. One of its projects has been to put together stories of the diverse men and women who were important to this area's history. The preceeding is adapted from that work.