ST. LOUIS —
In a city where the physical and cultural specter of Anheuser-Busch still looms large, other living landmarks of those Teutonic roots can be difficult to spot.
That wasn’t always the case. Before a wave of anti-German sentiment in the early 20th century that also swept through cities such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans, a half-dozen St. Louis streets bore names such as Kaiser, Von Versen, Hapburger and Bismarck. Berlin Avenue was transformed into Pershing Avenue to honor the general who led U.S. forces in World War I, a Missouri native.
Local historian Jim Merkel, an author whose great-great-grandfather started a piano factory here in 1858, wants to honor the German heritage that was largely lost amid the war’s backlash. He initially pitched a proposal to add honorary street signs on Pershing Avenue, but some local neighborhood associations approached by Merkel and a St. Louis alderman were wary.
“It’s a one-word story. It just leads to confusion,” said Mark Jaffe, president of the DeBaliviere Place Association.
Merkel now hopes to add a historical marker elsewhere in St. Louis that would remind residents of the city’s strong German influences. One possible location: Compton Hill Reservoir Park in south St. Louis, where the 100-year-old statue “The Naked Truth” depicts a seated nude woman whose outstretched arms hold two torches. The statue was created as a tribute to three German-American editors of the St. Louis Westliche Post, one of at least 19 known German newspapers in the city in the late 18th century and early 19th century, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri.
The marker would read, in part: “In St. Louis and the nation, patriotic German-Americans during World War I were made to show their loyalty by denying their heritage. Schools stopped teaching German, libraries removed German books from their shelves, and churches were pressured to end German-language services... Kaiser-Huhn Grocery Co. —named after its German founders — was renamed Pioneer Grocery after hecklers pelted the company’s delivery wagons with rocks.“
Merkel said that such recognition can serve as a powerful reminder of the dangers of prejudice, whether racial, ethnic or religious. He is working with the German-American Heritage Society of St. Louis.
“Anybody can become a target for this kind of discrimination,” he said.
Other cities have also confronted the fallout of historical revisionism regarding street signs. In Cincinnati, elected leaders agreed in 1995 to add the original German names to 12 streets that had been changed a century ago, including on English Street, which was once known as German Street. The signs are in the colors of the German flag.
Jaffe, who is Jewish, acknowledged that Merkel’s request could draw concern among some of his neighbors, including Holocaust survivors. He also said that such sentiments are unfair to Merkel and others of German heritage who “forever hold that burden” of being deemed responsible, by proxy, for the atrocities of World War II.
“The story should be told,” he said, referring to the earlier wave of anti-German sentiment in St. Louis. “The message should get out. It’s a historical truth.”