Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: The Floating Freedom School

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Credit: Library of Congress

Prior to the Civil War, Missouri – like many states that allowed slavery – outlawed teaching Black individuals to read. However, abolitionists like John Berry Meachum found ways around the law in order to educate Black students.

Meachum was born into slavery in 1789 in Virginia and was moved by his owner several times before eventually settling in Kentucky. Having learned carpentry from his owner, Meachum earned enough money from carpentry work to purchase his freedom. He was also able to purchase the freedom of his wife who had been moved to St. Louis by her owner.

In 1825, Meachum teamed up with a white Baptist missionary to establish the First African Church of St. Louis – one of the oldest Black churches west of the Mississippi River.

Meachum provided classes to free and enslaved Black students at the church. When racial tensions grew and the education of Black students was seen as a threat to slavery, Missouri banned education for all Black students.

When the classes at the church were shut down, Meachum equipped a steamboat with desks and chairs, anchored the boat in the Mississippi River – outside of the state’s jurisdiction – and created the Floating Freedom School. The school provided an education for hundreds of free and enslaved Black students in the St. Louis area.

Meachum and his wife, Mary, helped enslaved people gain their freedom through the Underground Railroad by transporting them across the Mississippi River to the free state of Illinois.

Meachum died in 1854 and is buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.