© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

SLU exhibition spotlights 19th-century German immigrants' role in the fight against slavery

Why would anyone invite thousands of 19th-century German immigrants to join us in the middle of February, the month dedicated to American black history?

Isn’t the idea of formalizing a black history month a way to shift emphasis away from Americans of European descent, the better to shine the light of achievement on African Americans’ stories? 

Truly, black history is abundantly rich, intellectually fascinating, inspiring for its valor. It is also irrevocably and eternally intertwined with and scarred by slavery. The kidnapping and importation of enslaved men, women and children from Africa, and the fact that the institution of human chattel slavery was chiseled into law, seem as incredible as obnoxious.

While African Americans occupy center stage in this particular ghastly blight, individuals of other races and national groups impinge upon it, bringing along a grab bag of ideas and philosophies along with a willingness to work hard and even to die for a just cause. It was in that way that people and ideas from Germany met African Americans in the 19th century. 

Credit Saint Louis University
Sydney Norton

Sydney Norton, an assistant professor of German at Saint Louis University, has assembled an eclectic exhibition called “German Immigrant Abolitionists: Fighting for a Free Missouri” in SLU's Center for Global Citizenship. 

It appears modest at first, but when examined, it provides opportunities to take a 360-degree examination of moments of cataclysmic changes in 19th-century life in Germany and Missouri. The show demonstrates with artifacts and explanatory material how a wave of German immigration swept up on the shores of American abolitionism. There is a fascinating collection of material in the show —  everything from dumb bells and Indian clubs used by the strong-mind-in-strong-body Turners, to a facsimile of a singular document, Missouri’s own emancipation proclamation, a legal necessity because Missouri was a border state in which slavery was legal. There also are military uniforms, a delightful range of political cartoons, political handouts, prints and photographs. All, one way or another, fit into a vast socio-political narrative.

It suggests eloquently the immigrants' die-hard dedication to the abolitionist cause. As claimed Anzeiger des Westens --  the first German language newspaper in St. Louis -- “Even the most bullheaded native cannot deny the fact that at the time of the president’s first call for volunteers the Germans of the United States were the best Americans, the most sincere Unionists, the truest patriots, and the men most ready for battle.”

Norton is a linguist, not an art historian or an objects curator. However,  she worked for a number of years in the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the St. Louis Art Museum and also at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. At the museum she became acquainted with its important German holdings, and in both places she developed a hankering to organize an exhibition of her own.

The show rests on a rocky landscape of early 19th-century discontent that spread widely over Europe, discontent born of the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. Its ambitions were built on a shared understanding of liberal ideas and notions of liberty, and reflections on the successes and failures of the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century. Once kindled, the spirit of revolution grew and spread through Europe like wildfire, generating pop-up conflagrations of popular revolution all over the place. All this represents ideals we recognize today as bedrocks of democracy: 

  • the dismantling of the old feudal order of things;
  • an eagerness to end the arbitrary powers of princes and kings;
  • the advancement of economic and political equities;
  • the institution of democratic governments that protect liberties such as freedom of the press;
  • and support for the improvement of the lot of the working class. 

In 1848, all this blew up into a rather fragile, loosely interconnected revolution. It was not, however, connected strongly by any unified leadership or organization, and, to put it very, very simply, probably because of this lack of definition the cellular revolts petered out rather soon.

Civil war uniforms and civilian clothing are on display at the SLU exhibit on 19th-century abolitionist Germans.
Credit Heather Schier
Civil war uniforms and civilian clothing are on display at the SLU exhibit on 19th-century abolitionist Germans.

At the time of the revolts, German visionaries, moralists and intellectuals who struggled with their native patriotism and belief in revolution were powerfully attracted and affected by the the radiance and promises of America. They came here — both intellectuals on the lam and displaced, disgruntled workers and farmers -- hoping to find greater intellectual and political freedom or a share of the earth. From a distance, America appeared free of blemish, a utopia, until a contradiction became apparent, one deeply disturbing to a majority of the immigrant Germans and to many Americans who became their compatriots. That contradiction was slavery, and it offended German morality deeply.

Certainly, not every German immigrant was an abolitionist, but most were. Some regarded slavery as a necessity for running households, for businesses and cultivating farmland, but most considered it an abomination.

These settlers were not necessarily beloved of their neighbors. For starters, they were foreigners, and attitudes about anyone “different” were no more temperate and accepting then as they are now. Because the Germans were suspect, they kept to themselves, arousing new suspicions. They spoke a different language that mystified the locals. They drank alcohol and were dead set against the temperance movement of the time. They regarded prohibitions against entertainments on Sunday afternoons as anathema, Norton said.

But it was their abolitionist fervor that started fights. The Germans’ neighbors, after all, were slaveholders — or aspired to be slaveholders, Norton said. They set fire to German property and stole their possessions. Motivated partly by anti-abolitionist fervor, partly by blind prejudice against Germans, mobs attacked the immigrants, Norton said.

Threats and fights didn’t deter the devout, however. Back then, it took only five years to gain citizenship. As new voters, as speakers, as writers and journalists, the German immigrants preached the cause of abolition, and it is no exaggeration to say they won the day. They were Republicans and supported Abraham Lincoln stalwartly. They urged him on to battle and backed him up once the Union Army, in which many of them served, arrived at the fronts. 

Portrait of Carl Schurz (1829-1906), 1870. Steel Engraving by George E. Perine.
Credit Missouri History Museum
Portrait of Carl Schurz (1829-1906), 1870. Steel Engraving by George E. Perine.

No one would urge the president onward with more zeal than Carl Schurz, a brilliant German immigrant, who, having been on the lam, came to America in 1852 and ended up in Missouri in 1866. He was the definition of polymath — a journalist, a politician, a political strategist and counselor to a U.S. president. He was an ambassador, and in 1869, he was elected U.S. senator from Missouri, becoming the first German-born person elected to the Senate. He was apparently an inexhaustible orator. 

His true and everlasting achievement was his role as advisor to President Lincoln and his role as a strong, relentless, pro-abolition, pro-war wind at Lincoln’s back. When Lincoln wavered, it was Schurz who was there, reinforcing his belief in the evils of slavery and in the necessity of emancipation of the slaves — and of the noble cause of war. 

In 1860, Schurz was invited to speak to the Emancipationists of St. Louis. His speech was called “The Doom of Slavery.” Here’s a tiny portion of it, a couple of paragraphs addressed to slave owners, who were, of course, not in attendance in the Verandah Hall on the corner of Fourth and Washington downtown:

"Slaveholders of America, I appeal to you," said Schurz. "Are you really in earnest when you speak of perpetuating slavery? Shall it never cease? Never? Stop and consider where you are and in what day you live.

"This is the 19th century. Never since mankind has a recollection of times gone by, has the human mind disclosed such wonderful powers. The hidden forces of nature we have torn from their mysterious concealment and yoked them into the harness of usefulness; they carry our thoughts over slender wires to distant nations; they draw our wagons over the highways of trade; they pull the gigantic oars of our ships; they set in motion the iron fingers of our machinery; they will soon plow our fields and gather our crops. 

"The labor of the brain has exalted to a mere bridling and controlling of natural forces the labor of the hand; and you think you can perpetuate a system which reduces man, however degraded, yet capable of development, to the level of a soulless machine?"

This is the essence of the exhibition — a showing forth of an immigrant people’s willingness to stick to their convictions and to suffer, if necessary, for a cause that was stubbornly defended but manifestly cruel and immoral.

Schurz’s eloquence and persistence helped Lincoln to win the election that year, and the man who fled Germany went on to further greatness. But at the core of his being was a revulsion no different from that which gave his fellow countrymen and women, and the new Americans from Germany,  the courage to fight against slavery. 

Racial discrimination is slavery’s ugly spawn, and it persists to this day. Norton’s exhibition reminds us of this apparently intractable tragedy as well.

The show is open to the public, available by appointment, and continues through May 15.  Click here for more information.







Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.