An annual celebration remembering St. Louis’ participation in the Underground Railroad had added meaning this year. The 12th Mary Meachum event on Saturday also marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
Held on the banks of the Mississippi where free black woman Mary Meachum tried to lead slaves across the river to freedom in Illinois, this year’s historical remembrance was billed as “The Great Jubilation” — a re-enactment of the days in the spring of 1865 when enslaved St. Louisans learned the war was over and they were free.
“Freedom to me (implies) that you have control of your destiny, you have control of your life,” said Angela da Silva, the Lindenwood professor who organized the celebration. “When you look at life under slavery, they didn’t own their own bodies; they didn’t own their own children. They were told when to get up, when to go to work, when lights out had to be in the cabin. … I always try to place myself in that position, to see what that would feel like to be on permanent lockdown and all of the sudden told the very next day you’re free.”
Ladies in long dresses and men in soldier’s garb braved the rain Saturday to perform the reenactment, and performers dressed like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln also made appearances.
Da Silva said remembering the end of slavery is important because the country has yet to fully confront its slave-holding past. Instead it moved straight into the punishment of Reconstruction.
“There’s this concept in Africa called sankofa, and that is that in order to look towards the future you have to know where you came from or look to the past. And I truly believe that. I think that a lot of the things that are going on in our country today is because we tried to just bury the past,” da Silva said. “There are some people who say that we shouldn’t be talking about slavery at all, and that’s the problem. Nobody did talk about it. Everybody wanted to forget that they were a slave owner or the source of their wealth was on the backs of blacks.”
The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing site is now part of the Great River Greenway’s Riverfront Trail in north St. Louis. The trail hosted a blacksmith’s shop, a freeman’s school, a lady’s guild and a station symbolizing Benton Barracks Saturday for the reenactment. Benton Barracks was located where Fairground Parks is today, at the intersection of Natural Bridge Road and Grand Boulevard. During the Civil War the barracks housed two all-black units of the Union Army.
High school seniors Austin Johnson and Wyatt Harmon were among those dressed as Union soldiers. Earlier this spring they took part in a Civil War battle re-enactment in Hartville, Mo. as part of a class at North County Christian School.
“Seeing what they went through and stuff, and then thinking about the fact that when they were out there — when they (died) they (didn’t) get back up. They’re not shooting blanks. There were actually bullets flying around. It’s a surreal experience,” Johnson said.
Nearby at the Lady’ s Union Aid tent, Pat Baehr explained how the ladies of her society raised money and outfitted hospital steamboats to take care of wounded soldiers. Across the tent Kevin Ryan and Pat’s husband Randy debated the underlying cause of the Civil War. Ryan said the South seceded for much the same reasons that the United States fought the Revolutionary War — taxation and sovereignty, not just because of slavery.
Randy Baehr disagreed, saying slavery was the root cause underneath it all.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.