John Berry Meachum was a founder of the oldest black church in Missouri, and a pioneer in the education in that state. Meachum was born in slavery in Goochland County, Virginia on May 3, 1789.
Meachum owner, Paul Meachum, moved Meachum to North Carolina and then Kentucky, where Meachum learned several trades, which included carpenter. When he was 21, he had earned enough money from carpentry to purchase his freedom and, soon after, the freedom of his father. In 1815. Meachum earned the moeny to purchase his wife’s freedom, she was moved to St. Louis. He followed her there and then purchased her freedom with his earnings.
Then in St. Louis, Meachum met John Mason Peck, a white Baptist missionary who had just moved there to start a worship and educational center for Native Americans. Peck saw a need for a worship place for Black and asked for the help of Meachum. Together, Peck and Meachum built a church while Meachum continued his trade. After being ordained in 1825, Meachum officially opened the First African Baptist Church.
Through the First African Baptist Church, Meachum and Peck started offering religious and education to free and enslaved black people in St. Louis. Meachum’s school attracted up to 300 students and didn’t charge tuition to those who couldn’t afford to pay for it. Initially white Missourians supported schooling for black people viewing it as a way to strengthening Christianity, but racial tensions caused many of them to change their minds and began to see educated black people as a threat to slavery. At this time Meachum opened his school, St. Louis enacted an ordinance banning the education of free Black people. The ordinance was enforced, but police did force Meachum to temporarily disband the school. In 1847, Missouri banned all education for blacks. Meachum responded by equipping a steamboat with a library, desks, and chairs and opened the “Floating Freedom School” on the Mississippi River.
Meachum and his wife helped facilitated the Underground Railroad through their home and their church. Meachum’s carpentry business made enough money for him to purchase and free twenty slaves. Meachum trained each in carpentry and other trades so that they could support themselves. Nearly every individual freed repaid Meachum allowing him to free others.
Despite his work to free Missouri enslaved people and educate blacks, Meachum’s views on education and black equality anticipated those of Booker T. Washington a half century later: black people needed practical, hands-on education so that when freedom came, the race would be ready to utilize that freedom. Meachum illustrated this viewpoint in “An Address to All of the Colored Citizens of the United States,” a pamphlet printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1846.
Meachum left a lasting impact on St. Louis. His school educated hundreds of free blacks and slaves including James Milton Turner who after the Civil War would found Lincoln Institute, the first school of higher education for blacks in Missouri. The work of Meachum and his wife on the Underground Railroad is now commemorated at the Mary Meachum Crossing in St. Louis, where the two led enslaved people across the Mississippi River to freedom in Illinois. The First African Baptist Church (now the First Baptist Church) continues to operate in St. Louis. John Berry Meachum died at his pulpit on February 19, 1854.
Donnie D. Bellamy, “The Education of Blacks in Missouri Prior to 1861,” The Journal of Negro History 59:2 (1974); Dennis L Hurst, “The Reverend John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) of St. Louis: Prophet and Entrepreneurial Educator in Historiographical Perspective,” The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History 7:2 (2004); http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/meachum/meachum.html.
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