The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, the first site in Missouri to be accepted in the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom was dedicated, Nov 1, in a special ceremony on the Riverfront Trail. The site is located just north of the Merchants Bridge, which was built in 1889 was an alternative to the Ead’s Bridge
The dedication of the site, which corresponded with the anniversary of the First Civil Rights Act of 1866, was attended by members of the National Park Service, state and local officials. “We’re standing on hallowed ground,” said Dr. Kris Zapalac, historic preservation specialist, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“It was here that eight or nine people cautiously boarded a small boat in the early hours of May 21, 1855,” noted Zapalac. “They had arrived here with the help of two people – Isaac, a free person of color, and Mary Meachum, widow of the founding pastor of the First African Baptist Church of St. Louis.”
Zapalac, who did considerable research on the site, commented that the information had been pieced together from newspaper articles that appeared within days of the event, criminal court records, census records, maps, city directories and Henry Shaw’s financial records.
“We know the name of only one of those who began their journey to freedom that night,” stated Zapalac. She stated that Esther and the two children with her were the property of Henry Shaw. Other African Americans in the boat belonged to the sheriff and other leading citizens of St. Louis.
According to historians, Esther and her companions were met on the Illinois bank by police agents and owners, Zapalac said. Shots were fired, wounding Freeman, an Illinois resident who was waiting with wagons to transport the freedom seekers to Alton.
Illinois law made it illegal to own slaves in Illinois. However, the Fugitive Slave Act also made it illegal to assist those attempting to escape. “Esther paid a high price for having sought freedom,” continued Zapalac. “Henry Shaw paid Bernard M. Lynch, St. Louis’ leading slave-dealer, to sell her down river to Vicksburg. Since no mention was made of Esther’s children on the sales receipt, we assume they were separated from their mother,” she said.
According to records, Mary Meachum and “Isaac” were indicted in St. Louis Criminal Court on May 24, 1855, on two counts each of having “enticed a slave out of State.” Zapalac stated that Isaac was eventually acquitted, but no records revealed the disposition of the case against Mrs. Meachum, whose home was used as an “underground railroad depot”.
“The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing is a remarkable addition to our Riverfront Trail,” stated St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay. “We honor Mary Meachum and the other “abolitionist agents” – both white and black – who risked their lives to make that dream of freedom come true for so many others.”
“I encourage everyone – people throughout our region, our state, and around the country, to visit the Trail, but to also take a special moment to appreciate this amazing crossing where blood was shed and history was made,” said the Mayor.