The other day I took a bike ride along the Riverfront Trail in St. Louis. The trail runs north from Laclede’s Landing, following the Mississippi until it crosses over the river at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Winding through flood walls, junkyards, at least one homeless encampment, and other industrial sites, the trail offers a cross section of a part of the city that the average pedestrian or motorist never sees.
Near the Merchant’s Bridge, I was surprised to discover an historical site called the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. Across from a corrugated metal building, a mural on a white concrete wall depicts several dark figures—escaping slaves—boarding a canoe on the moonlit Mississippi. In the other corner of the painting, menacing figures train rifles on them.
I teach a high school course on African American history and literature, so I took note of the mural (and snapped a picture of it as well), planning on mentioning it to my students that Monday. I biked to within eyesight of the bridge then turned around to head back to the trailhead. On my return, I noticed a plaque near the memorial. Although I almost sped by it in my rush to get home (I was late), I turned back and took the time to read it.
The marker explained that on the morning of May 21, 1855, a group of runaway slaves, guided by a free black woman named Mary Meachum, crossed the Mississippi River at that spot near the Merchant’s Bridge. On the Illinois side, they encountered a policeman and other authorities. Shots were fired. Some escaped. One member of the group was killed. Mary Meachum, the widow of prominent black clergyman John Barry Meachum, was arrested and jailed, and identified in the press as a participant in the Underground Railroad.
All of this was fascinating, but what struck me with particular force was a detail in the middle of the text on the marker. Some of the slaves involved in the incident belonged to “the prominent St. Louisan Henry Shaw.”
In this day and age in America, no doubt as a result of the labors of activists and historians of the African American experience, most reasonably enlightened people have considered the paradoxes of our national ideals and heroes: that Thomas Jefferson, for example, who wrote that line in the Declaration of Independence about all men being created equal, owned slaves (and fathered children by them). One of George Washington’s slaves actually fled from Washington’s estate during Washington’s time as our first President.
Nevertheless, the revelation that Henry Shaw owned slaves struck me with surprising force. It hit close to home. I live on the periphery of Shaw’s garden (which opened four years after the incident commemorated at the Freedom Crossing). I coach my daughters’ soccer practices in Tower Grove Park, which Shaw bequeathed to the city of St. Louis in 1868. On a couple of occasions I’ve toured Shaw’s house. I’ve held my daughters up to the windows of the mausoleum where Shaw is buried. For a while, my oldest daughter even used Shaw as a kind of yard stick for how old people and things are. “Was Henry Shaw alive then?” she would ask. In my mind, Shaw had always been a kindly, philanthropic environmentalist—not a slavemaster.
When I got home from my bike ride, I poked around on the Internet and read more about the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing site in a fine St. Louis Magazine article by Jeannette Cooperman. Cooperman’s account added an even more disturbing twist to the story, one that further tainted my sense of the man who is the namesake for a street, a neighborhood, and even a coffee shop near my house. As punishment for the escape, Shaw authorized a slave trader to sell one of the escapees, Esther, down the river to hard labor. He did not sell her two children, however.
As Angela Da Silva points out in Cooperman’s article, St. Louisans tend not to think of Missouri as part of the South. We’re the Midwest, we say. A Border State. We conveniently forget about the fact that the Border States were slave states, specifically exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War so as not to jeopardize their tenuous allegiance to the Union.
But hearing this shocking story about Henry Shaw is an unforgettable reminder that Missouri is actually the Upper South. The streets we walk were walked by slaves and slaveowners. I live on grounds that were once tended by slaves. One of our city’s most famous benefactors owned slaves and cruelly enforced their subjection.
“I wonder where the slaves lived?” my wife wondered when I told her the story. I thought of Henry Shaw’s house and the basement windows into which my daughters and I have curiously peered. Those basement rooms were for the “servants,” I think I remember hearing during a tour. Was servant just a euphemism for slave?
The story of Mary Meachum, of Henry Shaw and his slaves, offers a rather chilling lesson in historical memory. It speaks of the ways we deceive ourselves about our past, allowing ugly realities and episodes to fade and be replaced by comforting misconceptions.
In the Missouri Botanical Garden today, less than a mile from Henry Shaw’s country home, is a garden dedicated to the life and work of George Washington Carver. This stately memorial pays tribute to the botanical contributions of a famous African American scientist. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, yet the Carver Garden also seems a distinctly contemporary example of political correctness that avoids the discomfiting questions raised by a memorial like the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing.
The Freedom Crossing site, in the end, testifies not only to the moral failings of the venerable Henry Shaw, but also to the courage and commitment of black St. Louisans. It’s a shame that it’s virtually hidden from public view.
That hiddenness itself carries a message.