Missouri’s Oral History v. Written History

    Mary MeachumMissouri’s oral history has always believed that St. Louis hosted part of the Underground Railroad; however, written history has always been lacking – until recently.

    To honor February as Black History Month, the Higher Education Chanel TV (HEC-TV) set out to examine both the oral and written traditions surrounding the history of the Underground Railroad in St. Louis with host Alex Freese. What was discovered changed history.

    The St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, a collaborative effort between Washington University, the St. Louis Circuit Clerk, Missouri State Archives and others, has uncovered freedom suits dating from 1814 to 1860.

    Freedom suits are petitions for freedom by people of color. The St. Louis freedom suit archived collection is currently the largest collection available to researches in the United States. The original Dred Scott case is just one of the 300 suits uncovered.

    “St. Louis was clearly a venue for slaves that were trying to get their freedom,” Missouri State Archivist Kenneth Winn said. “If they couldn’t get their freedom through the courts, then it makes since they would travel by the Underground Railroad to get their freedom.”

    Mary Meachum, a free St. Louis woman of color and the widow of a prominent black clergyman, was uncovered in these records as having helped a group of fugitive slaves escape to Illinois. Unfortunately, police were waiting for this group across the river and Meachum was arrested.

    The National Parks Service officially designated Meachum’s site – three miles north of downtown St. Louis on the Riverfront Trail – as an official spot where slaves gathered on their way to freedom.

    It is evident now that St. Louis is rich in both oral and written history. Our past, however, has not defined us. Our past has allowed us to learn and grow.

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