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He was a slave who managed to buy his freedom, remembered for his sterling work in freeing slaves, educating black Americans, and most respected for his religious education. John Berry Meachum is the founder of the oldest black church in Missouri. An African American businessman, pastor, and educator.
Meachum was born in 1789 in Goochland Country, Virginia. And was owned by a slave owner called Paul Meachum. At 21 years, he earned enough money from his carpentry to buy his freedom. However, he continued to work at the Salt mine to buy his father’s freedom.
Meachum later settled into pastoral work, preaching religious doctrines to his fellow black men. He started the African Church of St Louis after meeting with white Baptist missionary John Mason Peck. It was later dubbed First Baptist Church of St Louis, the first black church in the state.
In his famous address to the colored citizens of the United States, he said this about the abuse of the black men: “The term Negro originated from a river in Africa called Niger, but it is now used as a term of reproach by both black and white–we must therefore stop it, for unless we do, others will use and apply those terms to us with impunity. Yea, the great misfortune is that you do not respect yourselves sufficiently; families, societies, religious denominations speak evil one of another, and thereby in a great measure destroy the influence which they might otherwise exert.”
After being ordained, he built separate buildings for his school and church, calling it “The Candle Tallow School .”John Berry and Peck began offering religious and secular teaching. To both free and enslaved blacks. He charged only $1 for those who could afford it and did not charge for those who could not. Meachum’s church was one of the five in St Louis that offered education under the guise of Sunday school. Each Sunday, more than 1000 freemen and slaves attended school in the dark basement of Meachum’s church.
St Louis state passed an ordinance banning the education of free blacks, and he was forced to close the school. They had initially permitted the education for blacks as a way of strengthening Christianity; racial tensions caused them to now see educated blacks as a threat.
In 1847 the state prohibited all education for blacks. They also prohibited blacks from having independent black religious services without the supervision of White law enforcers. His response to the ban was moving his classes to a Steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi River. He equipped the school with all the essentials; desks, books, chairs, calling it the Floating Freedom School.
According to some historians, “Mississippi River as federal territory, and the federal government did not recognize slavery. So, John Berry figured his boat would be safe.” Furthermore, it was beyond the reach of state officials.
James Milton Turner is one of many of Meachum’s students. After the Civil war, he founded the Lincoln Institute, the first school in Missouri for higher education for black students. John Berry worked hard with his wife, Mary Meachum, to free enslaved people to gain their freedom through the underground railroad, which helped people get to free states and buy their freedom from money that he earned from his carpentry business.
His views on education, particularly for blacks, were that black people needed practical, hands-on education to easily equip themselves when free from slavery. Meachum’s views on education: “Industry and good education is the principal way of advancing in life. Look at the Friends or Quakers. They go on with steady habits. All things are clean and nice around them. They raise their children to be industrious and give them a good education. Can we not take pattern by them?”
He died ages ago in 1854, and he continues to be celebrated among African Americans, educationists, the religious community, and across the world