Part I – Meacham Park: A History of American Change

March 21, 2008
by Don Corrigan

November 14-20, 1986

Last month, Kirkwood mayor Herb S. Jones mentioned the city's options for annexing adjacent communities in a speech to the Kirkwood Chamber of Commerce. Nearby Meacham Park was among those areas mentioned for possible incorporation into Kirkwood. This week the Times begins the first article in a series on the past, present and future of the community known as Meacham Park.

East of Kirkwood Road, from Big Bend Boulevard on the north to Sunset Hills' city limit on the south, is a community known as Meacham Park. At different times throughout its varied history, it has been called a farm village, a country resort, a black ghetto, and in the 1970s it was described as a shining example of community development.

The unincorporated area known as Meacham Park is something of an enigma to most citizens of nearby Kirkwood, Sunset Hills and Crestwood. The only sure thing that can be said about Meacham Park is that it has experienced constant change, and more change may be on its horizon.

In its heyday, Meacham Park may have had as many as 3,500 residents. Today's population is close to half of the 1960 census population of about 2,000. A once thriving inter-racial community just after World War I, Meacham Park today is predominantly black with only a few white families living within its borders.

Bertha Wood is a descendant of one of the early black families to take up roots in Meacham Park. Her father was Sandy Spears, who was a farmer and real estate broker in the Meacham Park area. According to Wood, there has always been debate about the beginnings of Meacham Park and how it was named.

"A lot of people have gotten the idea that Meacham Park was named for a black man, that it was named for John Berry Meachum," explained Wood, who has been a resident of Meacham Park for most of her 81 years. "This Meachum was a freed slave, and he was an important educator. He started a school for black children on a boat that had to be anchored in the middle of the Mississippi."

According to local historians, John Berry Meachum's School for Freedom, located on the Mississippi River, was anchored on the federal waterway after the Missouri Legislature passed a law in 1847 which prohibited any Negro from learning to read or write in the state. Meachum and a white Baptist missionary, the Reverend John Peck, were hounded and harassed by authorities when they taught blacks such perfidious subjects as reading, writing and arithmetic on land.

Meachum, a carpenter and barrelmaker, arrived in the St. Louis area in 1815 from Kentucky. There was plenty of work for skilled craftsmen in St. Louis, and Meachum was able to earn enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children and bring them to St. Louis. Meachum later bought freedom for other St. Louis slaves and put them to work in his own cooperage business.

While Meachum is a hero and historical legend for blacks throughout the St. Louis area and in Meacham Park, there is some dispute over the issue of whether the unincorporated community is truly named for him. In fact, Meacham Park may be named for a white man by the name of Meacham, who purchased much of the area in 1904.

"There is definitely another explanation, that it was named after the other Meacham," said Wood. "My father may have even purchased his property from that man. I know that my father, Sandy Spears, and George Bailey were among the first to buy lots in the area."

Other families to follow the Baileys and Spears in settling Meacham Park included the Davidsons, Allans, Hannahs, Ellingtons, Browns and Yancys. The community grew and in 1907 the First Baptist Church, which had its first church under a brush arbor, was established. For a time, the church was the center of social life in Meacham Park.

"What I remember of growing up as a child in Meacham Park is that it was a very nice place to live," recalled Wood. "My father raised ten children and he eventually sold a lot of the property in Meacham. He used the money to build our family house at New York and Shelby streets.

"We grew up with white families in Meacham, and my father sold milk to a lot of them," continued Wood, who still resides that the home her father built. "Everybody was very friendly then. Nobody had a lot of money, but things didn't really get tough until around the Depression.

"We grew up together, black kids and white kids. There was a lot of white families in Meacham then," added Wood. "I remember a white family, the Roders, and we played with their kids. Sure, we had fights, but we always made up the next day. We used to go swimming together in a creek in the summer, and in the winter we'd skate on a nearby pond."

One thing the black and white kids of Meacham Park did not do is go to school together. The Kirkwood School District established the Meacham Park School in 1908 in a rented house about 400 feet south of the entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery. But the Meacham Park School was for white children only.

Black children in the district were required to attend the Booker T. Washington School on Adams Avenue near Geyer Road. For many Meacham black students, this meant a three-mile walk to school. Black parents from Meacham Park approached the school board in 1908, 1909 and again in 1910 for a school closer to their community, but to no avail.

In 1916 the school district established a traditional one-room schoolhouse for Meacham blacks, but in 1920 the effort was abandoned and all of the youngsters found themselves walking to Washington School again. In 1924 it was determined that there were more black children from Meacham Park attending Washington School than black youngsters from Kirkwood.

As a result, a four-room frame school was built to serve the black children of Meacham Park, though the Booker T. Washington School remained open to serve Kirkwood black youngsters. Black children who wanted to study beyond the elementary level, whether in Meacham Park or Kirkwood, faced special problems.

According to Marion Brooks, a black Kirkwood educator and historian, the past problems of area black students are what inseparably tie Meacham Park and Kirkwood together from a historical perspective. Brooks dislikes the term "blacks" and prefers to speak of "sun-kissed people" when explaining her view of this history.

"You simply cannot tell the history of Meacham Park without talking about Kirkwood. You cannot bifurcate Meacham Park and Kirkwood," declared Brooks. "The history is largely intertwined because of the school district situation.

"Up until about 1920, there was no place in Kirkwood or Meacham Park for sun-kissed people to go to school past the eighth grade," said Brooks, who has relatives in both communities. "About 1918 a few families voiced concerns that this situation was wrong and went to Jefferson City to appeal for tuition help to get these children into high schools.

"That was passed in 1920, but the Kirkwood School District often wouldn't pay the St. Louis School District the tuition for the kids to go to Sumner High School. Sumner in St. Louis was where the sun-kissed people had to go, since they weren't allowed to attend high school with whites in the district," Brooks explained.

According to Brooks, area black children were often kicked out of Sumner by the principal at that high school because the Kirkwood District wasn't making the tuition payments.

"The principal would come into the classrooms and point out the Kirkwood and Meacham Park children and say, 'You, out! You leave now.' It was embarrassing, because the city kids then knew these kids were 'country,' and they'd make fun of them if, and when, these kids came back.

I can remember when my mother told my sister not to come home the day before the Sumner principal kicked her out. She told my sister to just come back, and sit at the Kirkwood District office, and let them figure out what to do with her. My sister cried all night before such days. She didn't want to go to school or to the school board office.

"An awful lot of sun-kissed children were just discouraged from going to school all together because of that," added Brooks. "Those that kept going would miss school at the beginning of each semester until the Kirkwood District would finally pay the tuition. I can remember my mother going before the board and asking: 'How do you expect my children to be decent – and ignorant.'"

Brooks has been studying the history of Meacham Park and of area blacks as part of a project initiated by the Kirkwood Historical Society in 1980. She said a number of oral histories and transcripts of long-time Meacham Park residents have been taken in connection with the project.

One of the residents interviewed by Brooks in her research is Robena Spears, who was born to Emma and Arthur Ming in 1905. Spears recalls growing up in Meacham Park without electricity, water and roads. She recalls getting fuel for heat by going "out anywhere to cut a tree down and using that." She was brought up by her grandmother, Ann Main, after her mother died when she was eight.

"My grandmother, she raised me," Spears told the Historical Society Project. "She took in washing all the time. We didn't have electric, so my grandmother would have to iron with these old irons on a coal stove. They had a well out here in Meacham Park down on Chicago. You would have to go around there and pack the water up here to do laundry.

She would put them in this big kettle we had and boil them in lye soap," continued Spears. "She was half Indian. And she could set that basket of clothes up on her head and walk from Meacham Park all the way to Kirkwood, where she had to deliver it."

Like her contemporary, Bertha Wood, Spears remembers some happy times growing up in Meacham Park. There was ice cream sometimes at the church, and lots of good things to eat out of the family garden.

"I had a happy childhood life," remembered Spears. "I was just like a tomboy. That's the reason my ankle got broke, because he [her nephew] climbed a tree and I climbed it and fell … My grandmother, she put clay mud on there and wrapped it up … After it got well, it was crooked and my daddy, he had to and have special shoes made with braces on them.

"Well, I had to wear them for the longest time," Spears continued. "That's the reason I didn't get a better education, because it was too hard for me to walk all the way over to Kirkwood (to Booker T. Washington School), especially in the mud weather, you know, when it's cold and things."

"Mud weather" brought things to a standstill for many in Meacham Park up until the 1970s, when the streets were finally paved. Next week, the Times will examine more Meacham Park history.

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