On a dreary Dec. Saturday afternoon, some Hermann area residents gathered upstairs in the Chamber meeting room at the Welcome Center to discuss a topic not talked about much in town—race. In a town with few African-Americans and a strong Western European presence, most notably from Germany, why would there be discussions going on at all?
The recent thread of race exploration in the Hermann area started with conversations between Cynthia Browne, who at the time was the historic site specialist at Deutschheim and St. Louis playwright Cecilia Nadal, founder of Gitana Productions, the company that produced a play Ms. Nadal wrote about German abolitionists along the German-settled Missouri River corridor.
“An Amazing Story: German Abolitionists of Missouri,” was performed to local critical acclaim last summer at the Showboat Theatre. It was only natural to share inspiring stories, to continue the conversation, because it turns out, “Amazing Story” begged for more dialog said Ms. Nadal. She wanted to hear the stories of those people still living in the area, to bring about an appreciation of those family remembrances for a deeper understanding of the change within the underpinnings of Hermann’s abolitionist history—good, bad or indifferent.
Conversations among people of different races can be emotional, and therefore easily avoidable, for reasons known only to those who might engage in them. Or, they can be opportunities to engage in a genuinely friendly way to find common ground among cultures that to this day, may be foreign to each other.
The ice breaker
In Part I of this organized discussion about race, (published Jan.1, 2020, in the A-C) Ms. Nadal asked the attendees about their first recollection from meeting a person of another race. This discussion continues:
Hermann resident and River Bluff Industries, Inc. Executive Director Muriel Brison said her first recollection was meeting Mr. Louie Kitterlan.
“My grandparents lived on his property,” she said. “I’d have to say he was a very kind man, from a child’s perspective.”
Hermann resident J.D. Kallmeyer said his family moved to the area in 1908 and said he was born and raised in the two-story brick house on the Kallmeyer Farm, now known as Hermann Farm.
“My family employed several African-American people, one of them being Henry Ellis (a relative of Hermann resident Leroy Mure), in the early 1950’s,” explained Mr. Kallmeyer. “They were a great family.”
He said they employed another man by the name of Joe Saunders and he and Leroy (Mure’s) father were good friends. He noted they did a lot of fishing together and ingeniously used a metal culvert to capture fish when the river rose in flood stage.
“The conservation man (agent) came by and told Jack ‘You’d better get that culvert out of there—those fish are going to die in there.’” relayed Mr. Kallmeyer. “Jack says ‘Yes we do—we’ve got to get that culvert out of there or those fish are going to die in there!”—the agent not realizing it was a fish trap.
Terry Loehnig’s great-grandparents came to America from Germany in 1859, settling in Bloomington, Ill. for a couple of years before coming to Hermann in 1861, where they bought a farm (now OakGlenn Vinyards and Winery) from George Hussman, the “Father of the grape industry in Mo.”
He brought a photo of an African-American (Lee McWilliams) who worked for his grandfather in 1896. The group was dressed up and seated at a family gathering.
“I’m sure that person spoke German,” said Loehnig, “because my grandfather wouldn’t speak English unless he had to.” “My father said that all the black people he knew, in those days, spoke German.”
He spoke of his mother’s family on the other side of the river (Albert Scharnhorst) that employed African-Americans from McKittrick, on their farm, one of them being Charley “Toots” Warner, who was known by Leroy Mure, who attended the meeting. The Scharnhorsts purchased the farm from the Talbots, who were slave owners, originally from Kentucky.
Cecilia Nadal made the comment that while conducting research of this area for the “Amazing Story” play, most of the photos taken of African-Americans were with German settlers in a social setting, as opposed to other locals, in those early days.
“They’re close,” she said. “You can tell that there is some kind of relationship there. So when you look at this (Terry Loehnig’s photo with Lee McWilliams), remember that this is exceptional—it is not typical at all. That’s why it’s to be cherished, without a doubt.”
Don Kruse shared a story about interacting with the black race through sports. While playing high school basketball for the St. George Dragons, the team played two black schools—Douglass, from Columbia and Lincoln, from Jefferson City. Mr. Kruse later played basketball for Lincoln University for two years, as the only white man on the team.
“On our first trip basketball trip to Quincy, Ill., my black roommate and I stayed at the Lincoln-Douglass Hotel, of all places,” he said. “My black roommate became a very close friend and he was later an administrator of a middle school in Webster Groves. Kruse said athletics brought him closer to understanding the black race, leading to good friendships that crossed the racial divide.
Adelia Parker-Castro (Brookins) grew up in Montgomery City. She was raised by close relatives, her mother having passed in a car accident. Her grandfather worked for the Wabash Railroad, so train rides were common. She and her mother were riding the train to St. Louis. When seated, a young blonde girl with a teddy bear and her mother were passing in the aisle of the train car.
“‘Oh, look,’ the young girl said to her mother, ‘She’s brown—can I play with her?’”
“I looked at myself and I looked at my granddaddy and asked, “I’m brown granddaddy? Because, they never told me I was brown—they told me I was just like everybody else—no better, no less.”
She said when the little girl asked to play with her, (mentioning color) she thought it was strange.
Kenny Briscoe, originally from Montgomery City, has been a Hermann resident since 2014. He said his first experience of a person from a different race was when schools integrated in Montgomery City in 1955-56.
“Through the years, I can truthfully say that I’ve had a great experience with people, period,” he relayed. He worked and lived in St. Louis for 32 years and found it to be somewhat impersonal. “People just go on by down the street.”
“But here in Hermann, everybody waves, so I just got to the point where I just throw my hand up automatically!” he said.
Mr. Briscoe mentioned that at times he has been apprehensive, thinking others may not like him because of his skin color.
“When I moved to Hermann, I went to the laundry mat, “ he started. “I’ll go in here and keep my mouth shut and stand over her in the corner until my clothes got done.”
He said he was shocked when a white woman came over and asked him how he was doing.
“She talked to me like she has known me for years and we’ve becomes good friends,” he said. “When I meet a person, I don’t know if they’re German [ of descent] or not, but this is a wonderful, courteous community.”
And so the stories went on, around the room. Then the subject matter changed from racial-lite to stories that took a darker turn.
Steve Mueller’s relatives came to Hermann from Germany in the 1840s. Mueller said his father was the first tavern owner (Sharp Corner Tavern) to ever serve a black man at the bar.
“There were others who sold it out the back door, but dad was the first one to let him sit there and take his time, have a second drink and do it in peace,” he said. “He took a lot of static over that and he lost some customers.” “But the next story is a tough one.”
Mr. Mueller said Hermann had its share of bigots and racists when he was growing up in the late 40s and early 50s. He said he would accompany his mother on Saturday mornings to go grocery shopping at the Kroger grocery store on 1st Street (where present-day Sav-A-Lot is located). Mueller said one day he saw a little guy about six years old, just like himself, except he was black.
“I’d never seen anything like him in all my life,” he said, “but we quickly became friends and could have a lot of fun together.”
The boys would ride bikes together on Saturday mornings while the mothers shopped.
“Mom would always make sure we had enough Hershey bars, and he liked the ones with almonds in them,” he said.
After about a year of seeing the white and black boys play together, the ugly side started to come out of some people. A man that lived in one of the apartments in the same building as Steve and his parents on Wharf Street said if he saw Steve and his black friend together again, he would create trouble or move out of the building, which was owned by an aunt of Steve’s. Steve’s family stood up for him and the man left in a huff. Steve said one Saturday, his friend didn’t show up. Nor the next Saturday or the Saturday after that. His dad started asking about the black family around town.
“Finally, someone said there was a little black boy that got run over on Hwy 94,” he said. “One of dad’s buddies said he overheard two old bachelors across the river might know something about it. They’d always sit together in one of the taverns by themselves and one of the tavern patrons overheard them one night down at the Barrel, talking about the evening they saw this little black kid fishing in Massas Creek (Montgomery County). They beat him unconscious, laid him on the highway and a car ran over him.”
Mr. Mueller said even though this conversation was overheard, “no one had the guts to stand up to them and nothing was ever done about it.”
He said there is no doubt that from the time of Hermann’s founding, something changed in the way the community viewed race relations in the late 1800’s up to WWII, in the 40s. He offers this possible explanation. The early 19th century Prussian-German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s teachings came back into vogue in the late 1800s and early 1900s, at the same time philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche took hold of the imaginations of great thinkers in Western Europe. Europe was an economic mess during this time, so it was a ripe breeding ground for revolutionaries.
“The whole idea of selective breeding and the super race came from Kant and Nietzsche,” said Mueller. “This was the root of fascism and Nazism.
This whole German society at this time was based on ignorance and fear. The Germans continued to come [to America], but now, they’re bringing a different mindset and I think that had a lot to do with what turned the ship here.”
(Editor’s note: According to the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, After Nietzsche’s death, his sister Elisabeth became the curator and editor of his manuscripts, “reworking his unpublished writings to fit her own German nationalist ideology while often contradicting or obfuscating Nietzsche's stated opinions, which were explicitly opposed to antisemitism and nationalism. Through her published editions, Nietzsche's work became associated with fascism and Nazism”).
Mueller says race relations are much improved in the area from when he was growing up as a boy. He thinks the improvements have come through decades of a strong American economy (minus the normal recessions) and events such as the Vietnam War, where thousands of African-American soldiers fought alongside white soldiers, with many in both races serving with distinction.
“They gained some respect for each other,” he said. “Hermann was particularly fortunate to have African-American residents that were (are) hard-working, god-fearing and intelligent, very quick to assimilate into the community and help with good causes when needed. I admire them and am pleased to have their friendship.”
According to Mueller, he says there was an ordinance—a curfew for African-Americans to be off the streets of Hermann, by sundown, not so much enforced by local law enforcement, as it was a scare tactic.
Muriel Brison’s father’s grandfather, Jack Mure, was a mulatto, as recorded on his birth certificate and he played a role in the curfew’s efficacy.
“From what I understand, he was allowed to sit in front of the Barrel [Tavern] on the steps to make sure that everybody (African-Americans) was out of town,” she said. “That’s what I heard, growing up.”
J.D. Kallmeyer added he doesn’t remember anybody being arrested for breaking the curfew.
Next week, the conversation continues, leading up to A Symposium: The Shared History of Germans and African-Americans in Missouri, to be held Saturday, February 29, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Hermannhof Festhalle. The topic will be contributions of Germans towards the abolition of slavery before and during the Civil War and relationships with African Americans then and now.
For more details on the Symposium or to register, visit www.mohumanities.org/German-heritage or call 800-932-8687.