Trace the Origin of the "Floating School Story"
In footnotes and in bibliographies, historians cite the works of others so that readers can pursue a topic in more depth. Since we are interested in the origin of the story about the floating school, let's look at the two citations provided in the Dictionary of Missouri Biography.
The first citation is: Rufus Babcock, ed., John Mason Peck: Forty Years of Pioneer Life (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1864). This book has been reprinted with an introduction by Paul M. Harrison: (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965). In his introduction, Harrison writes that Peck (1789-1858) came to St. Louis in 1817 and moved to Rock Spring, Illinois in 1822. He lived at that location, about eighteen miles from St. Louis, until he died.
In his memoirs, Peck made two references to Meachum. The first, on page 90, noted that "J.B. Meachum and his first wife, were Baptists and truly religious." On page 271, Peck wrote that he visited St. Louis in November 1836. He "preached three times, and aided his colored brother Meachum in administering the communion." Although Peck lived near St. Louis at the time that Meachum is said to have operated his floating school, he made no mention of it.
The second reference is: N. Webster Moore, "John Berry Meachum (1789-1854): St. Louis Pioneer Black Abolitionist, Educator, and Preacher," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, 29:2 (January 1973), 94-103. This is how Moore tells the story of the floating school:
"One day while the [church] school was in operation, the sheriff burst in, arrested the white teacher, an Englishman hired by Meachum, and scattered the school." (p. 100)
- "In 1835, the Rev. Meachum built a steamboat and equipped it with a library and made it into a temperance boat which supplied the needs of other boats up and down the Mississippi River with their needs." (p. 100)
- "Meachum decided to build another steamboat and establish his 'Freedom School' on it. He would anchor his boat in the middle of the Mississippi, because the river belonged to the federal government. . . . Thus, Meachum's 'floating school' was permitted to operate unmolested, the laws could not bother him and his 'School for Freedom' became famous throughout the nation."
The only citation for this portion of Moore's article is: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 August, 1971. That edition of the newspaper celebrated the 150th anniversary of Missouri statehood. The paper carried an article by Robert Joiner entitled "From Slaves to Leaders." Without citing any sources, Joiner told the story of the floating boat:
"Meachum defied the law. He taught Negroes to read and write, although the Legislature passed a law in 1847 that prohibited this. . . .
"When the law forbidding such teaching was enacted, Meachum set up a school for children in the basement of the First Baptist Church where he had been pastor since 1827. The school operated until authorities closed it.
"Meachum then built another steamboat to use as a school and anchored it in the river. Because the river belonged to the Federal Government, it was permitted to operate and Meachum's School for Freedom became famous."
Following the citations provided by the Dictionary of Missouri Biography has led us to a dead end. It is not possible to determine where the author heard or read the story of the floating school. If we want to pursue the subject further, we must turn to a different historical source for the floating school story: Gary Kremer, James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Black Leader (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 13-14. Kremer wrote:
"Turner gained much of his early education in a clandestine school run by the Reverend John Berry Meachum. . . . Sometime later Meachum's school closed and he built a steamboat-school that operated from the middle of the Mississippi River, a location that was not subject to state law. Meachum continued the operation of this school until his death in 1854."
Kremer's source for this passage is: Donnie D. Bellamy, "The Education of Blacks in Missouri prior to 1861," Journal of Negro History, 59 (April 1974), 143-57. Concerning the floating school, Bellamy wrote:
- "One account of Meachum's continued efforts claimed that hundreds of blacks learned their 'Three R's' on the Mississippi after the church school was closed. The schoolhouse was a steamboat built by Meachum. The students traveled from the bank of the river to the boat in skiffs, and no one interfered with them since the river was not within state jurisdiction. Meachum's 'School for Freedom,' as it came to be know, became famous, and teachers from the East came to St. Louis to assist with its work." (p. 156)
Bellamy lists two sources for this passage. Chronologically the first is: Helen Baldwin, et al., Heritage of St. Louis (St. Louis, MO: St. Louis Public Schools, 1964), 59. Here, then, is the earliest known source of the story of the floating school:
"If he [Meachum] could not get the school one way he would try another. He built another steamboat to use as a school building. This floating school was anchored in the middle of the river. The students went from the bank of the river to the boat in skiffs. No one bothered this school because the river belonged to the federal government. John Berry Meachum's School for Freedom became famous. Teachers from the East came to help him. Hundreds of children learned their Three R's on the Mississippi."
Here, too, we reach a dead end: The Baldwin book offers no footnotes or bibliography.
The fact that the story of the floating school did not appear in print until 1964 does not mean that it did not originate until that date. In all probability, it emerged from the historical memory of African Americans in St. Louis. If so, it is a memory recorded in print at a time when African Americans struggled to overcome state segregation laws and when they looked to the federal government for assistance. Nevertheless, the fact that the story of the floating school is not rooted in historical sources confronts the student of history with a dilemma: is the story "true"? .