Reference Entry

Meachum, John Berry

Loren Schweninger

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Meachum, John Berry

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craftsman, minister, and businessman, was born a slave in Virginia. The names of his father, a Baptist preacher, and his mother are unknown. A skilled carpenter and cooper, Meachum was allowed to save some of his earnings, and eventually he bought his freedom. Moving to Louisville, Kentucky, he married a slave, Mary, and then purchased her out of bondage; they had an unknown number of children. About 1815 he moved with his wife to St. Louis, reportedly with only three dollars in his pocket. There Meachum used his carpentry skills to find a job as a cooper. He established his own cooper's shop a few years later and began buying St. Louis real estate.During the 1830s, in order to help fellow African Americans become free, Meachum started buying slaves, training them in barrel making and letting them earn money to pay him back for their liberty. By 1846 he had emancipated “twenty colored friends that I bought.” Except for one, who was an alcoholic, they were all successful, as Meachum boasts in An Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States (1846). In fact, one former slave not only acquired his own freedom, but purchased his wife, built a home for his family, and became a highly proficient blacksmith.Meachum's Address does not include all the facts, however. In 1834 Julia Logan petitioned the Circuit Court of St. Louis, claiming that she was entitled to her freedom but that she was being “held as a Slave by Berry Meachum a man of color in Saint Louis and [was] bound and imprisoned in his house.” Logan feared that she would soon be sold “to some distant place.” In 1836 the case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled against Meachum.By 1850 Meachum owned two brick homes in St. Louis and an Illinois farm. According to the census that year, his eight thousand dollars in real estate holdings made him the third-richest free African American in Missouri. Yet Meachum conducted himself modestly, even with this sizable wealth. An 1854 inventory of Meachum's estate listed a few basic chairs, a carpet worth seven dollars, and about forty books, valued at eight dollars. The 1850 census showed twelve people living at his home, including his wife, their two grandchildren, various other adults and children, and two African American coopers who appeared to be working to reimburse Meachum for buying their liberty.Meachum also organized and maintained two schools for African American youth, one even after a state law had been passed that prohibited the teaching of black children. When the Englishman whom he hired to teach at the school was arrested, Meachum got him out of jail and later reopened the school secretly on one of the steamboats that he built and owned.As the son of a Baptist preacher, Meachum followed his father's lead. He joined the St. Louis Mission Church about 1816 and became its pastor about 1828, when it became an independent black church, called the First African Baptist Church. By the late 1830s his congregation included two hundred slaves and twenty free blacks. Meachum's style as a preacher was so energetic and enthusiastic that in 1846 a small group led by John R. Anderson, a former slave described as “quiet” with “reserved power,” left the church. Even the name of Meachum's steamboat—Temperance—reflected his concerns as a minister and as a leader in his community. Meachum died in St. Louis.

Reference Entry.  627 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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