When peaceful and diverse protestors disrupted the German festival Oktoberfest in St. Charles County to bring attention to issues of social justice and the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stokely for the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, there were interesting parallels and ironies with the history of Germans in Missouri.
In 1848 a number of protests and rebellions emerged all over the European continent including Germany. Germans involved in the protests wanted liberty and equality from an autocratic society then under the control of Austria. The protestors were not successful and were forced to seek exile. Many of these freedom fighters, known as the “Forty-Eighters,” came to America with well debated ideas of what democracy should look like in practice. They were disgusted by the existence of slavery in America and found it to be a complete contradiction. The German Forty-Eighters continued their activism by becoming key leaders in the abolitionist movement across the nation and in Missouri.
Prominent German activists, such as Henry Boenstein and Franz Sigel, came to Missouri as a result of earlier immigration by such liberal Germans as Arnold Krekel, Friedrich Munch, Eduard Muhl and Carl Strehly. Educated and accustomed to presenting their case, these men passionately argued against slavery, mobilizing other German immigrants in Missouri and elsewhere. Their advocacy was important to counter-balancing those who supported slavery and their influence in the Republican Party was significant. (The Republican Party was pro-abolition in those days.)
Not all Germans in Missouri agreed fully agreed with the Forty-Eighters. Some Germans were caught in the middle, especially the farmers who needed workers in rural Missouri. Though they did not agree with slavery, they saw no way to work around the fact that they needed workers. As a result, many German farmers compromised their principles, looking more to the practical side of the problem. There was also a sense of insecurity from some Germans about their own position as legal citizens if they were to take a public stand against slavery. Would this position put their own people at a disadvantage?
In spite of a lack of consensus, Forty-Eighters like Friedrich Munch wrote prolifically and fiercely against slavery in support of the Union. Munch not only challenged Southern slaveholders but revealed the way that the North was both compromised and hypocritical in its position on slavery. While the North argued against slavery, it did not necessarily want integration once slaves were freed, nor did the North stop the importation of slaves. Munch points out that Lincoln and others wanted a separation between blacks and whites. Eventually, in spite of his opposition, Munch proposed sending African Americans to Florida as a compromise with his detractors.
Hermann, Missouri became ground zero for the abolition of slavery in Missouri, as Sydney Norton points out. She says the Forty-Eighters’ efforts in Hermann were “an unusual phenomenon since Missouri had entered into the Union as a slave state and there was little vocal opposition among the Anglo-American population during these early years.”
In 1852, Arnold Krekel founded the St. Charles Demokrat, a liberal newspaper that brought Germans together with a sense of unity and became a prominent voice for antislavery. When the Civil War started, it was the leadership of Judge Krekel that mobilized Germans as “the St. Charles Home Guard” blocking Confederate soldiers from a takeover of the region north of the Missouri River. Judge Krekel remained steadfast in his support of political and social equality for African Americans.
In 1865, it was Krekel who presided on the Missouri Constitutional Convention signing into law the freeing of all slaves. Against much opposition, he petitioned that the word “white” be removed from the constitution. When the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry asserted that blacks had the right to full political citizenship Krekel supported their petition. It is noteworthy that, despite Krekel’s best efforts, African-American men in Missouri did not receive the right to vote until 1870, and both black and white women were excluded from voting until 1920.
The contributions of German immigrants to St. Louis and Missouri are enormous. We have schools, streets, churches and many businesses that contributed over time to the cultural and social fabric of our region. If statues are removed to erase the horrible memories of the Confederacy, then perhaps we might consider replacing them with statues that remind us of the moral courage of people like Judge Arnold Krekel who believed in equality and social justice that was color-blind and was not afraid to bring that message to his own community with passion and conviction.
No doubt there were people of German descent participating in the protests in St. Charles on Oktoberfest and there were also those wishing that the protests had never come to St. Charles – that’s America! Knowing about Judge Krekel and the German Forty-Eighters enriches our understanding of how diverse leaders have fought for our democracy. It is important to acknowledge the history of contributions of different cultural groups to our community and the complexity that comes with fighting for social justice.
Judge Krekel, the Forty-Eighters and St. Louis protestors have an inextricable connection – a passion to correct what is unjust.
Cecilia Nadal is executive director/producer at Gitana Productions.