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Standing on the banks of the Mississippi, I look toward the Illinois side and call up an image of a steamboat from the late 1840s. It was anchored in the middle of the river and secretly featured an extensive library and a staff of qualified teachers. African Americans, slave and free, were rowed out to the steamboat and clandestinely learned basic reading and writing skills. It’s a good story but based on rumors.
As a professional historian, I know about unimpeachable sources and irrefutable evidence. But as a member of this community, I know the importance of the stories that we treasure, even if their authenticity is questionable. And so I continue to tell the story of John Berry Meachum’s “floating school.”
This method of schooling was a clever ploy by the Reverend Meachum, a former slave himself, and a quiet thumb of the nose at the Missouri law that forbade the “instruction of negroes or mulattoes in reading or writing in this state.” The middle of the river, reasoned Meachum, was under federal, not state, jurisdiction and the restrictive state law would not apply.
We can’t verify the story of the steamboat school, but it was woven from tradition into a cherished and meaningful narrative. John Berry Meachum took risks to help his people, and we tell this story so our community will see beyond racial and cultural divisions.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society