ST. LOUIS – There is a mural that you may not have noticed along the Mississippi River. The picture is of a woman in a river with the sun behind her. It depicts Mary Meachum, who attempted to rescue enslaved people by getting them from Missouri to Illinois.
The mural is located on the Mississippi Greenway on the flood wall. You can bike or walk to the site from North Riverfront Park. In 2018, a team of apprentices from St. Louis Artworks made a new mural to highlight the history of this site.
Historian and Mary Meachum Director Angela Da Silva shares the story of Meachum on her YouTube channel, explaining how Meachum became known for her role in the Freedom Crossing and the reason behind her mural.
Silva says on the night of May 21, 1855, a group of 59 enslaved individuals, who belonged to prominent St. Louisans, received instructions from Meacham. She was a freeborn black woman and the widow of John Berry Meacham.
Meacham’s message directed them to assemble at the ferry landing at Bissell’s Point at the stroke of midnight—a time she referred to as “blue o’clock,” signifying the deepest part of night.
According to her guidance, abolitionists from Alton, Illinois, were planning to transport them across the Mississippi River on a boat. From there, they would journey through a free black settlement to reach the Plank Road leading to Alton.
Alton was to be their first stop on the path to freedom, with further destinations including Chicago and, ultimately, Canada.
That night, nine enslaved individuals gathered at the designated meeting point, awaiting the boat. However, the boat provided was small and could not accommodate all nine at once.
As a result, the first five left with the boat, receiving instructions to make their way to Plank Road once they reached the Illinois shore. They were assured that they would encounter no obstacles along the way. Unknowingly, their escape plan had been discovered.
The Sheriff of St. Louis, accompanied by some slave owners and deputies, lay in ambush on the Illinois side. As the boat landed, they initiated an ambush, firing shots to trap the escapees by the river.
What the sheriff and pursuers did not realize was that four slaves remained hidden on the Missouri side, silently observing. When the night’s events concluded, five of the escaped slaves were recaptured.
Among those captured on the Illinois side was a woman named Esther, who had previously served as a maid in Henry Shaw‘s downtown mansion. Shaw had recently informed her that he had sold her to a cousin in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
This attempted slave escape serves as a significant historical event, documented more extensively than most. Although only partially successful, it offers invaluable insights into the courage and determination of those who sought freedom.
Today, the location has become a significant historical site known as the Mary Meachum Underground Railroad, gaining recognition as the sole nationally recognized Underground Railroad site in the state of Missouri and west of the Mississippi River.
The Great River Greenway is holding the 21st Annual Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration on Saturday, October 14, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing on the Mississippi Greenway. At the event, there will be keynote speeches, historical music, vendors, and children’s activities.