On Sunday, while biking along the Riverfront Trail I discovered a sign with the story of the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. On the site pictured to the left, on May 21, 1855, a group of Americans of African decent boarded a small boat and crossed the Mississippi River.
Ben, twenty-two years old, left his owner’s Clayton Road estate, not far from our house. Wearing a black cloth coat and pants, light vest and tie and a black fur hat, he had chosen clothes more appropriate to the personal importance of the event, rather then the ninety-six degree temperature of the day. At about the same time twenty year old Jim, Esther and her two children set out from Henry Shaw’s country estate, now the site of the Missouri Botanical Gardens and Tower Grove Park. Other men set out from the heart of Saint Louis City. All risked everything for freedom. Shots were fired and all but Ben and Jim were caught on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi. Ester was sold down the river to Vicksburg.
Although she was not present at the river that evening, one of the captured freedom seekers said they had planned their escape at the home of Mary Meachum, widow of John Meachum, founder of Saint Louis’s first African Baptist Church. She was later charged with having “enticed slaves to escape”. A vitriolic editorial referred to Meachum’s house as a “depot on the underground railroad”, but she was never convicted.
The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing is significant because it puts the emphasis on the journey, rather then on a building and the hiding. Adjoining the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing is the old Coast Guard Station — now a visitor’s center. On most weekends it is staffed by members of AmeriCorps. We stopped there on the way up to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge’s birthday bash and again on the way back downtown.
Shortly after we got there again two older men rode up. One of the men was visibly limping. Anne asked about it, fearing that he had had a bike accident, but no he had once been a professional soccer player and the limp was a result of an old “football” injury. Maybe it was because the Americans had just lost the big championship game that day, after coming so close or maybe it was just his bike seat. Whatever it was, he soon launched into a rant. First he complained about not being able to call soccer, football. He learned from Anne that she was in education and he had some experience there too and that led him to ranting about teachers, students and schools in general. I caught Don’s eye and we started edging towards the bikes. We called Anne and quickly beat retreat down the trail.