by BOTWC Staff
Today, having an education is something that is expected. There are historically Black colleges and universities receiving millions to invest into advancing educational initiatives, free educational programs popping up all across the country, and we’ve lived long enough to see the first Black education commissioner, who was just appointed as the new chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY). However, behind all the current Black excellence is a long history of education suppression for Black people in the U.S. There was a time when not only did we have to find ways to further our education under the terror of white supremacy, we got inventive and worked together to do it. One such story that comes to mind is the one of the Floating Freedom School. To ensure we never take advantage of the current educational opportunities, here are some reasons why every Black parent should teach their child about the Floating Freedom School, courtesy of BlackThen.com:
John Berry Meachum was born enslaved on May 3, 1789 in Goochland County, Virginia. Meachum was moved city to city several times by his owner, Paul Meachum, before settling in Kentucky. He learned several trades, including carpentry, and earned enough money by the time he was 21 to purchase his freedom and the freedom of his father. He also purchased his wife’s freedom, who had been moved to St. Louis, the two settling in the city in 1815.
There, he met white Baptist missionary John Mason Peck, who had been working on a church that doubled as an educational center for Native Americans. He saw the need for a similar center for Black people, partnering with Meachum to bring it to life. In 1825, Meachum was ordained before officially opening the First African Baptist Church, where he offered free educational classes to enslaved and free Black St. Louis residents.
The school brought in nearly 300 students and the church didn’t charge any tuition. However, as racial tensions grew before the Civil War, Missourians who had initially been supportive of schools for Black people as a way to strengthen Christianity, shifted their perspective, subsequently banning their education. While the new ordinance wasn’t enforced en masse, police did force Meachum to close the school and in 1847, Missouri banned all education for Black people. In response, Meachum took his school to the water, erecting a makeshift school on a steamboat that sailed the Mississippi river, equipped with a library, desks, and chairs. He called the new school The Floating Freedom School, and it existed just outside of the jurisdiction of Missouri officials.
Meachum continued his carpentry work, eventually purchasing freedom for twenty slaves. He and his wife also used their home and church to facilitate the Underground Railroad, training newly freed Black people in carpentry and other trades. Almost every freed person repaid Meachum, allowing him to free others. Meachum eventually published his views on education and race in “An Address to All of the Colored Citizens of the United States,” a printed pamphlet that ran in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1846. Meachum would educate hundreds, free and enslaved, over the course of his life. One of his students, James Milton Turner, would go on to become the founder of Lincoln Institute, now Lincoln University, the first higher education institution for Black people in Missouri. John Berry Meachum passed away at his pulpit on February 19, 1854. Today, the work of Meachum and his wife as Underground Railroad conductors can be found at the Mary Meachum Crossing in St. Louis, and the First African Baptist Church, now the First Baptist Church, is still up and running.
What would we be without the contributions of fearless people like John Berry Meachum, who was committed to our educational advancement? Because of him, we can!