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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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"? .