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‘Ethnic St. Louis’ highlights communities that once made the city ‘most foreign-born in the U.S.'

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis has a long history as a melting pot of different cultures and a new, photo-illustrated book, “Ethnic St. Louis,” is striving to do justice to the various immigrant communities that have made their home here. While many people know the stories of the French and German settlers that helped to create the city from the very beginning, the book delves into lesser-known ethnic groups as well.

“When you read the newspaper, all you see is black-white issues,” said John Wright, one of the authors of the book and a retired public school administrator, on Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air.” “It is a rainbow of people here. I think people would be surprised—it has been that way for years, we just haven’t looked at it.”

Historian Elizabeth Terry, another author of the book, said that although the word refugee hasn’t always been used, St. Louis has been a place of refuge. That started in the 1840s, when Europeans and Eastern Europeans fled failed revolutions in their home countries.

“By 1850, 43 percent of St. Louisans were born in Ireland or Germany,” Terry said. “By 1860, St. Louis was the most foreign-born city in the country.”

Historically, St. Louis’ ethnic communities include those of Irish, German, French, African, Bosnian, Italian, Bulgarian—even Syrian/Lebanese groups, though from farther back in history than the current conflict producing refugees from the region.

“Back at the turn of the century, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed Lebanon, Turkey and a huge swath of neighboring nations as we know them,” Terry said. “Many of the people who lived in those regions fled during the unrest there between 1890 and World War I. St. Louisans didn’t know what to make of them.”

That confusion led St. Louisans to lump people from the region into one group, “Syrians,” who settled into an area of St. Louis known as “Little Syria,” in south St. Louis between Papin, Lafayette, Fourth and 14th streets. The group was looked down upon when they arrived in the city because they did not come with money. Terry said that as they did eventually find their economic footing, the group separated and dispersed throughout the region. St. Raymond’s Church is a notable outgrowth of that community.

Also joining the show was Patrick McCarthy, the associate dean of libraries and director of the Medical Center Library at St. Louis University, who was another co-author of the book. McCarthy has been active in the Bosnian community and said that group’s flourishing in St. Louis has shown the impact immigrants and ethnic communities still have on the region.

“When people come, they’re looking for peace, stability, a new beginning,” McCarthy said. “The experience of the Bosnians is particularly relevant today especially when we’re talking about Syrian refugees.”

Wright said that everyone in the U.S. besides Native Americans had come from immigrants. Looking back on that history is important.

“We began the book before the events in Ferguson,” Terry added. “We began the book before the Syrian crisis really came to the forefront. It really began as a celebration of the various ethnic groups and honest look at how ethnic groups came to St. Louis and lived in St. Louis. Now, we see the importance of it.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.