This book, inspired by a true story, uses free verse to tell the story of the Reverend John Berry Meachum (born in 1789) through the eyes of a young boy, James, who attends the school Reverend Meachum started to educate African Americans.
Meachum himself was a former slave. He not only worked and saved to buy his own freedom, but later bought the freedom of his wife and children. He even purchased slaves himself, only to free them and then hire them to work for him until they’d paid him back.
Meachum was ordained in 1825, and became the leader of an African American congregation in St. Louis, where he established a school in the church’s basement. In 1847, however, Missouri passed a law outlawing “the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing, in this State.”
Undeterred, Meachum moved his school to a steamboat in the Mississippi River, which was considered federal property.
The story ends showing James as a man, declaring:
“I’ve written it out like Mama asked,
but I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
For I’ve made up my mind to go to school
till I’m old enough to row the other
and teach the little ones to read.
I won’t forget,
because now I know that being brave
can sometimes be a small thing,
like lighting a candle, opening a book,
or dipping an oar into still, deep water.”
The only sad part of the story is revealed in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in which one discovers that Reverend Meachum died in 1854, too soon to see black emancipation. The author tells us that in May 1855, Meachum’s widow, Mary, was arrested for her work with the so-called Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to the North. In 2001, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing became the first site in Missouri to be recognized as part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
For further exploration, some web sites and a short bibliography are also included. If you are interested, you can read about Meachum’s life in his own words, in his “Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States” from 1846, and online here.
The illustrations are done by Ron Husband, who was the first African American animator at Walt Disney Studios. On his blog, he describes his technique, and how he employed “the philosophy of storytelling I gleaned from my years in feature animation.” He explains: “In animation you tell a story in a series of drawings, in illustration, a story is told in a single drawing with communication as the goal.” He uses a limited palette of sepia color schemes which helps convey the historic nature of the story.
Evaluation: This is an excellent story with the message that ingenuity, dedication, and hard work can help overcome obstacles.
Published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2016