On the 159th anniversary of Mary Meachum's attempted crossing of the Mississippi River — from what was at the time the slave state of Missouri to the free state Illinois — St. Louis residents, local groups and officials gathered at the crossing site to announce plans for a permanent monument. For many of those who attended, it marks 15 years of hard work to get the site more widely recognized.
James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, says the local group is still working hard to take the historic site to the national forefront. Clark hopes that the crossing site will be recognized on that level as construction begins in the next three to seven years.
The point of Meachum’s crossing has been designated a national Underground Railroad site — the first in Missouri, a former slave state. The site about three miles north of downtown St. Louis, just north of the Merchant's Bridge.
“This is a jewel," Clark said. "This is very, very pungent history, and we are very, very fortunate of having the responsibility of bringing it to life. This is a very powerful river. This is a very strong metropolitan area. We are just now recognizing this.”
At the riverfront, Angela da Silva, adjunct professor in American studies at Lindenwood University, helped re-enact the night Meachum, a free woman of color, tried to cross the Mississippi River with a group of nine slaves. Da Silva is also a seventh-generation Missourian and a descendant of Missouria slaves on both her mother's and father's side.
"We (St. Louisans) have lost so much of our history, and especially African Americans," she said. "If people really knew their origins, I'd say they'd come to the slave states."
For da Silva, a monument marking the Meachum crossing site would bring attention to its historical significance and even help some reconnect with their own family histories.
"We are truly blessed this site is still pristine, meaning nothing was built on it nor demolished," she added. "The vista we're looking at while we're standing here is the same vista those slaves saw on May 21, 1855. That's powerful to me ... to understand that river is both boundary and horizon if you are a Missouri slave."
Moreover, the monument, and tourism in general, would be one of the surest ways for economic advancement for the area, da Silva said. Clark added that the construction of the monument will bring needed tourist activity to the North St. Louis region.
“As we get the word out, as we begin to really tell the story, St. Louis will open up," he said. "We have elected officials on the state-level that will be looking for state support. We have support of Congressman (Lacy) Clay who will be looking for federal support.”
The committee behind the monument’s construction has secured an endowment, largely due to St. Louis City Alderwoman Dionne Flowers. Still, the committee is searching for other methods of funding and promoting the historic site's visibility.
While the committee searches for these other funding opportunities, it will also hold a design competition for the site.
The committee members hope the monument will be a noticeable landmark on the riverfront so both tourists and passersby will stop to visit the site. The monument competition committee has set aside nine acres for the chosen artist to develop.
"Creating a more permanent monument at the point of departure can commemorate the courage to cross the Mississippi or even the contemplation to do that," said Laura Lyon, committee member and vice president of H3 Studio, which is involved in regional planning of the site. "This would give a spot to tell that story, stand in their footprints. It's up to the artists to explore what that means and its physicality, whether it's two-dimensional or three-dimensional."
Entries will be voted on in October, and the committee will announce the finalist next year.
Members of the committee said artists interested in entering the monument competition should keep an eye on Great Rivers Greenway's website and the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration Facebook group for more details.