This colorful mural in St. Louis shows Mary Meachum, who dedicated her life to educating and freeing enslaved people.

Black History Comes to Life at the Mary Meachum Celebration in St. Louis

Friday September 8, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Mary Meachum and her husband, Reverend John Berry Meachum, were staunch abolitionists who dedicated their lives to educating and freeing enslaved people. On the night of May 21, 1855, Mary attempted to help a small group cross the Mississippi River into Illinois, where slavery was outlawed.

At “blue o’clock” – the deepest part of the night – nine enslaved people met Mary at Bissell Point. A woman named Esther, a maid at Henry Shaw’s three-story townhouse on the southwest corner of Seventh and Locust streets, which became a City Landmark in 1971, is believed to have contacted Mary and instigated the particular escape.

“A few days before [the attempted escape], Henry told Esther that he had sold her to his cousin in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and he was already on his way to get her,” Angela da Silva, a retired university professor and lifelong storyteller, explains. “When she asked about her two children, he said, ‘You’re going alone.’”

In the end, four enslaved people escaped, including two male teenagers who fled Shaw’s country home in the present-day Missouri Botanical Garden, and five were caught, including Esther and her children. Mary was arrested, charged in criminal court for assisting the “fugitives” and put under house arrest.

“From an interpretive perspective, we focus on this event because we have details about the enslaved people such as their names, their appearances [from runaway slave advertisements in regional newspapers] and their owners, along with a loose timeline of the night,” Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach at Great Rivers Greenway, says. “Sadly, we know so much about this escape because it was only partially successful. For good reason, successful escapes were kept out of books.”

The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing is the most well-documented escape in Missouri, and in 2001, the National Park Service recognized the site as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. To this day, it’s the only nationally recognized site of the Underground Railroad west of the Mississippi River.

Every year, Great Rivers Greenway celebrates the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing with a reenactment at the site. This year, the event will take place on Oct. 14, when you can fully immerse yourself in this little-known Black history as well as Civil War history.

“There are many histories that remain untold,” Klues says, “but the St. Louis community has worked hard to share the Meachums’ story. The annual Mary Meachum Celebration combines education and entertainment, connecting people with the past in unique ways. Every year, it focuses on a different theme to teach participants about other lesser-known aspects of Black history in St. Louis, as well.”

This year’s theme, From Field Hollas to Hip-Hop, focuses on music, spotlighting the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop. To take an even deeper dive into the musical genre, stop by the Saint Louis Art Museum’s newest exhibition, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, which runs until Jan. 1, 2024.

Co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, The Culture presents a sweeping art history of hip-hop culture and its myriad expressions across the globe. The exhibition encompasses everything from the genesis of hip-hop as a way to amplify marginalized voices, especially those of Black, Latinx and Afro-Latinx youth, to its resounding impact on contemporary art and culture.

In addition to spotlighting the importance of the written and spoken word, The Culture explores hip-hop’s unique contributions to innovations in performing arts, visual arts, technology and fashion with significant examples, including looks from Virgil Abloh’s collections for Louis Vuitton and legendary streetwear brand Cross Colours. The multidisciplinary and multimedia exhibition will also identify pressing issues within the realm of hip-hop, such as the complex relationship between capitalism, commodification and racial identity.

Back on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Mary Meachum Celebration also includes food and drinks, artists and makers, live music from various eras and skits that showcase historical scenes from Black communities in St. Louis. The free community event is suitable for all ages, and children’s activities, including face painting, a double Dutch tournament and a magnetic poetry wall, abound.

“This is a truly dynamic way to learn about St. Louis stories,” Klues says. “It’s one thing to read about them in books; it’s a whole other thing to see them come to life on stage.

“It’s also awe-inspiring to stand next to the Mighty Mississippi, grapple with its sheer size and reflect on what it must have felt like to sneak there in the middle of the night and try to cross it with your freedom on the line,” she continues. “The dedication to finding a better life was immense.”

As the Mary Meachum Celebration comes to a close, consider da Silva’s call to action: “Like Mary, I want you to be brave, to be strong and to do what’s right.”

Prior to the celebration, da Silva will present The St. Louis Attitude at .ZACK from Sept. 14 to 17, giving people another glimpse into local history.

Set in The Gateway City in 1899, The St. Louis Attitude spotlights Black life and music in the Chestnut Valley. Legends were born here, and the original play – with original music – tells the true stories of two.

As the writer and producer, da Silva has chosen to bring the production back after 32 years. “There are new generations who know nothing about this Black history,” she says. “[They] don’t know the important role that St. Louis played in music, American folklore and early Black prosperity.”

She hopes to change that with The St. Louis Attitude.