Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: A Quest for Freedom

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Mural by St. Louis ArtWorks

Mary Meachum was born into slavery in 1801 in Kentucky and was still enslaved when she married John Berry Meachum who had purchased his own freedom with money he had earned as a carpenter. When Mary moved with her owner to St. Louis, John followed and was able to purchase her freedom shortly after arriving in Missouri.

The couple dedicated their lives to educating and assisting enslaved individuals. Using money earned from John’s carpentry work, the Meachums purchased the freedom of 20 enslaved individuals and operated a free school for Black students. When Missouri banned the education of Black children in 1847, the Meachums moved the school to a steamboat on the Mississippi River, outside Missouri’s jurisdiction.

Following the death of her husband, Mary continued to operate their home as a “safe house” on the Underground Railroad. She helped enslaved people cross the Mississippi River to reach freedom in Illinois.

After attempting to ferry a small group across the river in 1855, she was arrested and charged with slave theft. She was tried by a jury and acquitted of one charge, and the remaining charges were dropped.

Mary died in 1869 and is memorialized with her husband in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Her work with the Underground Railroad is honored at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing on the riverfront in St. Louis. The site, part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, is marked by a sign and a colorful mural recognizing her efforts.