Exhibit features early German abolitionists


Known today for the wineries and the vestiges of their pronounced German heritage, Hermann and other towns along the Missouri River Valley have been revealed, in an exhibition curated by German professor Sydney Norton, for the crucial role they played in the Civil War-era fight for the abolition of slavery.

“Missouri has all these beautiful towns that are originally German, and often people don’t mention what their history is,” said Norton. “They say, Oh, you’ve got to go Hermann, the wineries are great, there’s Oktoberfest, they have a lot of German stuff.”

A panel of text in the exhibit summarizes this overlooked facet of Missouri history: “Several politically active immigrants who arrived in Missouri during the 1830s—Friedrich Münch, Eduard Muehl, Carl Strehly, and Arnold Krekel—followed by a younger generation of exiles from the failed 1848 rebellions in Europe —Friedrich Hecker, Heinrich (Henry) Boernstein, Franz Sigel, and Carl Schurz—became editors of or contributors to notable German-language newspapers in Missouri. Their articles and commentaries against slavery and in support of the newly formed Republican Party were crucial for Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and in mobilizing German immigrants into Union volunteer units at the outbreak of the Civil War.”

The “German Immigrant Abolitionists: Fighting for a Free Missouri” exhibit opened last Friday, Feb. 12 (coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) to an audience of approximately 75 students and visitors. The exhibit, which occupies two glass cases in the lobby of the Center for Global Citizenship in addition to a similar wall-length case in a rear seminar room, displays photographs, letters, military uniforms, maps and other period artifacts.

“It was very festive,” said Norton. “There are people out there who really want to see things like this.”

The exhibit is the culmination of two and a half years of research, visits to cultural institutions, and excursions to Hermann and other towns accompanied by descendants of the German thinkers represented. While her research focuses on 20th- and 21st-century German art and literature, Dresden, choreography and German Expressionism in the 1920s, Norton plunged headlong into Missouri’s German abolitionist movement after one of several trips to Hermann. At a museum there, she picked up a historical manual on Hermann’s role as a center for progressive thought in the 1830s.

She said that although she “knew the basics of what happened” during the Civil War, her research “completely changed” her understanding of it. “I didn’t realize how divided Missouri was and St. Louis was back in the Civil War, like real antagonism between blacks and whites and this notion of allowing slavery and not.” She saw a “real hatred” in the antebellum years.

“They were kind of an island among themselves,” she said of the German abolitionists. Considered the radical wing of the Republican Party, these immigrants’ harbored memories of failed revolutions, which spurred them to embrace abolition by way of the press, education and military action.

“They likened the slavery here to back home,” Norton explained. “They were very afraid that if the Union fell apart, then the same thing would happen here in the United States, that it would just be a bunch of aristocrats running the show, in this case plantation owners and slave holders.”

She found a quote from Frederick Douglass saying, “I never knew a German who wasn’t abolitionist.” While the German efforts were likely known by some prominent black abolitionists, Norton said, “They were working together for a common cause, but I didn’t get the feeling they were sitting down at the same table.”

Carl Schurz, a celebrity among German Americans, became a Missouri senator; Arnold Krekel founded Lincoln University for former slaves; and Friedrich Hecker, an immigrant to Illinois, rowed across the Mississippi River to join a volunteer regiment in St. Louis.

“The German role in the Civil War in this area has been downplayed,” said Norton, likely due to their newcomer status. “Many people [at the time] didn’t really want to give them the credit they deserved.”

Norton began her research around the time of unrest in Ferguson, which seemed like an historical reverberation. “What I see is a lot of carry over from that,” she said. “I mean, we’ve come a long way, but I also see a lot of divisiveness that may in fact have started back then. But I think it’s also improving all the time, that’s just a problem we have in this country. And it’s not only a Missouri problem.”

The Civil War even embroiled SLU’s campus in conflict. In 1861, Union troops (80 percent of whom were German, said Norton) fought a pro-Confederate encampment of militiamen based at Camp Jackson; this was a plot of land near present-day Olive Boulevard, at the eastern fringes of campus. General Frost, after whom SLU’s main campus is named, belonged to this militia group.

“It’s really hard to know what’s right, because you don’t really want to erase history, but at the same time, some of the things that they stood for were wrong, but it was still part of history,” said Norton.

A plaque representing this conflict overlooks the pond between Ritter Hall and the BSC. Norton said that a SLU security guard, an avid participant in war reenactments, lent a uniform to the exhibit. He believes this to be a good opportunity to change the faded, weathered plaque.

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