On May 21, 2011, in North St. Louis City, over 350 people celebrated at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Underground Railroad site, located on the banks of the Mississippi River. This 9th annual celebration honored the events of May 21, 1855, when a party of nine enslaved Africans attempted to achieve freedom by crossing the Mississippi River to Illinois. The escape was planned at the home of Mary Meachum, a free woman of color and widow of Rev. John Berry Meachum, the famous abolitionist. Contemporary newspaper accounts describe Mary Meachum as a 'conductor' and her home as a 'depot.' The complete story of this event involves a pillar of St. Louis society, betrayal, violence, jubilation, and heartbreak. The real heroes are the men, women and children who risked everything for freedom.
This year's celebration included storytelling, dance, gospel songs, and even a Kids' Bike Rodeo. Because this year marks the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the reenactment takes place in 1861 and was written and directed by Angela da Silva. The fully-costumed drama had everything including Union cavalry, a horse-drawn wagon with a secret compartment, and a mounted sheriff's posse.
The scene opened as the Civil War just began. Governor Claiborne Jackson was elected as a non-secessionist but secretly worked to carry Missouri out of the Union. Slave codes received new enforcement in St. Louis and a lock-down was enacted. The enslaved freedom seekers met at the First Baptist Church and decided escape was their only option. In this emotional depiction, a posse on horseback waved and shot guns in the air, arriving at the riverfront to confront the runaways.
As the slaves ran by the crowd, followed closely by law men on horseback, onlookers crowded around and were touched by the realism and anguish. The celebration drew to a close as red, black, and green balloons were released by the audience, a symbol for the souls of all Freedom Seekers. Sister Antona Ebo, FSM, nationally recognized Civil Rights icon ended with a prayer.
The event had a special significance this year, with Mayor Francis Slay who presented a Proclamation to Grace Hill Settlement House and its partners, FedEx Freight, Great Rivers Greenway, and the National Park Service, which dedicates public property for the development of the Mary Meachum site into a national tourist destination. "This is an important part of our history," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told the audience. "The event", he said, "looks at the tragedies of the past but also at the courage of slaves trying to escape to the free state of Illinois". In 2001, the National Park Service designated the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing as Missouri's first nationally recognized Underground Railroad site.
Grace Hill Settlement House, a non-profit organization serving St. Louis City since 1903, organized the event. This event would not have been possible without the generous support of the Missouri Humanities Council, Confluence Partners, Gannett Foundation, Great Rivers Greenway, Missouri Arts Council, National Black Tourism Network, St. Louis Fire Department, St. Louis Police Department, and Trailnet.