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John B. Meachum, b. 1789
An Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States
Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, by King and Baird, 1846.

Summary

John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) was born a slave in Virginia but is best known for his contributions to Missouri history. In his youth, he worked mining saltpeter (potassium nitrate), in time allotted by his master, to save money for his freedom. In 1810, at the age of twenty-one, he had gathered enough money to free both himself and his father, Thomas Granger, a Baptist preacher. Under his father's direction, Meachum himself soon gained a strong Baptist faith. Five years after purchasing his freedom, in 1815, he traveled to St. Louis, where his wife Mary and their children had been taken after Mary's owner moved from Kentucky to Missouri. There, Meachum worked as a carpenter and cooper until he saved up enough money to buy their freedom as well. Around this time, he befriended two white Baptist missionaries, Reverends John Peck and James Welch, who taught him how to read and write, convincing him that the way to lift his people out of oppression was to educate them. At the time, there was a city ordinance against the education of African Americans — denying them the skills of literacy — meant to keep enslaved individuals from questioning the legitimacy of white-dominated society. Ignoring this statute, Meachum worked to educate African Americans after he was ordained as a minister in 1825 and became pastor of the First African Baptist Church. His church, through its popular emphasis on black education, became the western headquarters for the abolitionist movement and, later, the Freedman Bureau. Eventually, he was arrested, and his church was shut down after local authorities found out about the school he was running in the basement for his congregation of over 200 members. After his release from jail, Meachum proved to be a successful businessman, opening up a barrel factory that, in an economic boom, proved to be very successful. In 1835, with the proceeds from his factory, Meachum purchased and renovated a steamboat, converting the interior into a library and large meeting room. On this boat, anchored in the middle of the Mississippi River where city ordinances didn't apply, Meachum invited local slaves and free African Americans to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and other subjects. This Freedom School survived until Meachum's death in 1854, when he died at the pulpit during a Sunday morning service.

An Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States (1846) offers suggestions to the public for how to enlighten the African American community. Meachum's suggestions revolve around education and a pious outlook on labor and its benefits: higher quality of living and respect within the colored community.

In his Address, Meachum argues for greater unity in the African American community as a means to further their success and collective advancement as a people. He frequently describes the strife within this body as leftover, blind hatred given to them by their ancestors in Africa: "Our people had war among themselves in Africa. They brought with them the same principles here,—envy, hatred, malice, jealousy. The principles which they possessed, originated doubtless, from ignorance and from the fact that they belonged to separate kingdoms and fought against each other while there." (p. 8). Meachum saw unity as a means to elevate this community to the standards set by white European culture, saying "When this union of sentiment, feeling and affection is formed and established among us, we can . . . soon arrive to the same scale of being which those who are considered our superiors have attained." (p. 13). With regards to unity, he explains, "We must have union—we can and must have it, else we shall remain in darkness, ignorance and superstition, in a state of moral and intellectual degradation." (p. 9). Unity, he emphasizes, must start with civility, mutual respect, and abolishing the use of Negro as a term of reproach. He asks his readers to respect themselves, because without self-respect, he predicts that white men and women will continue to disrespect those of African descent.

Meachum also emphasizes the importance of children and their education. Children learn behaviors and ideals from not only their parents, but the whole of the community around them, Meachum reminds his readers, so virtues like kindness, piety, industrialism, and education must be instilled by the current generation into those of the future. Without union, Meachum warns, future generations may falter because "the fathers are not united, and the children growing up without union to the great body of their fellow beings of the same color. The mother hath not taught it to the child, and he has nothing to rouse his mind to action." (p. 13). A child's ability to absorb and retain information and skills is something to be taken advantage of, he says, as the parents "should endeavor to instill such principles in them when young as could never be eradicated by time, place, or circumstance" (p. 12). Meachum touts the availability of Sunday school as an opportunity to give youth a well rounded foundation for their education. He emphasizes the acquisition of skills learned in trade schools over other attainments, as trades are profitable and will incentivize African American youth to remain within the United States. Meachum recommends avoiding overseas travel at all costs, as the future of the local colored community depends on the advancement of arts and incorporation into the American economy. Meachum argues that mastering a craft and making a profit from it would allow African Americans the greatest reward of all — the purchase of land. To own land, Meachum contends, is to be a truly independent citizen, using the earth to provide for your own needs, and thus is the most fulfilling way to achieve freedom from oppression that has and will befall the African American community.

In the application of Meachum's sermon to adults, he goes on to say that owning land, or at least a home, is equally as important to the colored community's advancement. To own land is to have physical proof of success, and that proof then provides a continuous sense of success and enjoyment in life through labor. Meachum argues that African Americans have been idle, saying "the colored citizens of America . . . have sowed more sparingly than any other nation that I can think of at this time," (p. 24). He says they have nothing to show for all of the labor they have done, as most only rented their land and homes, living in constant state of temperance. Meachum then argues that African Americans need to work hard for their food, money, and the necessities of life, on land that they own. This owned land, then, can be passed down for generations and become more profitable, providing a means to expand with the generations as each new member repeats the process and purchases more land nearby. He urges, "let us be an industrious people" (p. 24), and offers the recommendation that the African American community go into farming, "the most independent life that a man can live, most especially for the colored citizens of America, who cannot hold any office according to the laws of the different states. But you can hold a farm, more especially if you pay for it, and I am led to believe that it is the greatest office in the United States of America." (p. 26-7).

Works Consulted: Primm, James Neal, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980, 3rd ed., St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.

Lauren Cofer

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