The Freedom School
1840s – 1850s
In 1847, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law that stated: “No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes in reading or writing in this State.” The assembly also forbade Black people to hold meetings. These laws were in reaction to the several schools and classes for Black children led in church basements under the guise of Sunday school. Missouri’s slave owners feared that educated and literate Black people would rebel.
Leading the charge in educating St. Louis’s Black population through clandestine sessions were the Chambers Street Baptist Church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Central Baptist Church, and the First African Baptist Church. The First African Baptist Church was established in 1825 by pastor John Berry Meachum, a former slave who bought his freedom as well as his family’s. It was located at present-day Memorial Drive, between Chestnut and Market streets.
After the law was enacted, Meachum found a loophole by building a steamboat and anchoring it in the Mississippi River, where there was no federal jurisdiction. In the 1840s and 1850s, hundreds of Black children received an education by attending Meachum’s “floating school,” thanks to many teachers from the East.
The Great Fire
Late in the evening on May 17, 1849, a fire raged on St. Louis’s bustling riverfront. The blaze began on the steamboat White Cloud, and the efforts of volunteer firemen were not enough to contain the flames as they quickly spread to several nearby steamers.
During the mayhem, the lines of the steamboat Edward Bates were cut in the hope that the burning boat would be taken into the river’s current and flame out without spreading. Unfortunately, the strong current carried the Edward Bates downriver, where it crashed into a mass of other steamboats that were docked along the banks.
Even then, the disaster was far from over. The wind blew flames onto the levee, where piles of tobacco, fur, and lumber readily burned, fueling the fire along blocks of warehouses. Because the boats were spread out over a mile of shoreline, the river couldn’t be accessed as a source of water to put out the flames.
Fire captain Thomas Targee sent orders for soldiers to use kegs of gunpowder to blow up buildings in order to create a fire-stop. His idea worked to an extent, but he was subsequently killed in one of the explosions.
Despite the valiant efforts of nine volunteer firefighting companies, the fire ravaged the city for hours, finally burning out at 7 a.m. the next morning. The carnage numbered 3 men, 23 steamboats, and almost 15 city blocks.
Surprisingly, a handful of positives rose out of the ashes and devastation. On May 31, the newly formed Fire Association voted to ask the city of St. Louis for $1,500 annually for each volunteer fire company in order to support their volunteer efforts. It would take almost 15 months before an ordinance was passed to pay each volunteer company $1,000 to cover its annual expenses.
Also, in rebuilding the downtown and the riverfront, the levee was expanded, streets were widened, and brick and cast iron were used in rebuilding the business district.