Here is a slightly corrected version of my prepared remarks before the Board of Aldermen’s Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee on Thursday:
Mr. Chairman, members of the Streets, Traffic and Refuse Commitee, Citizens of St. Louis.
Allow me to share some history involving your predecessors on this committee. In 1918, Sixth Ward Alderman William Tamme, chairman of the Streets, Traffic and Wharfs Committee, reported out to the Board of Aldermen bills changing the names of six streets. The board of aldermen passed them, and Mayor Kiel signed them into law. The name of one of them, Knapstein Place, east of the historic German St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, was changed to Providence Place. Alderman Craig Schmid’s Bill 96, which you are considering today, would create the honorary designation of Knapstein Place and remind the public of the original German name. I’m passing out information about the streets whose names were changed.
Changing a street name is neither good nor bad. But ninety-six years ago, the intent was. This was part of an effort to demonize a group of people to make it easier to fight a war.
This is a personal matter to me. It was not enough for my German-American great-grandparents to watch as their son – my grandfather – marched off to fight in the Great War. To show their loyalty, my great grandparents had to sit by as “patriots” sought to kill a proud heritage. They watched as a German alien was lynched in Collinsville, German aliens were kept away from downtown and as people who spoke words considered disloyal were jailed under the Espionage Act.
My great-grandparents must have cringed when the Post-Dispatch referred to streets with German names as “objectionable” or “enemy.” Enemy? Objectionable? Many were named after patriotic local German-Americans.
In coming weeks, I will work with the German-American Heritage Society of Saint Louis to ask aldermen in other wards with streets whose German names were changed to consider introducing similar honorary street designation bills. By approving Bill 96 and future bills, you can declare that your predecessors were wrong. At the same time, you can remind future generations of that fact. Mayor Slay’s signature on those bills would put St. Louis on record that the anti-German hysteria of World War I was a black mark on the history of the city and the nation. Whether it is German-Americans in World War I, Japanese-Americans in World War II or American Muslims after 9/11, this is always wrong. Thank you for your time and consideration.