Facebook Twitter RSS

East Side Freedom Library: Learning from the Progressive Germans in Minnesota’s Past

Date Published: 06/30/2016

Author: Paul Epland

Note: Paul Epland is a summer intern and research assistant from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Paul hails from Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minnesota. His interests include journalism, state and local politics, comparative literature, and wild (some would say dangerous) speculation regarding Game of Thrones. Paul's internship is funded by a grant from Paul and Rhonda Redleaf of the Redleaf Foundation.


“People haven’t forgotten history,” says Peter Rachleff, perched on a stool a corner of St. Paul’s East Side Freedom Library, “they never knew it in the first place.” Peter is a retired professor and looks the part. A historian specializing in immigration and labor history, Peter taught at Macalester College in St. Paul for 32 years. This evening he’s dressed somewhere between fly-fisherman and Mt. Rushmore tour guide. He speaks softly but with a practiced authority, gesticulating every-so-often with his white legal pad, pages of notes fluttering in the steady breeze coming from the air conditioner. He says it’s being fixed soon—apparently the air has been stuck-on for awhile—and although its noticeably cold inside the old Carnegie building, outside it’s raining hard and the streets are dark for an early-summer evening. No one complains.

Peter’s immense love for the city of St. Paul is obvious to everyone he meets, or at least it was to the five of us who showed up to hear his talk. It’s worth noting, I am easily the youngest person at this lecture by some forty years. More than thirty chairs are set in rows between the circulation desk and the shelves; a podium from which Peter would presumably speak on a more formal occasion stands in front of the half-empty shelves on the back wall (they’re looking for help cataloging books). Peter opts for the stool and we sit in an odd sort of half-circle amid the many chairs. Nevertheless, the library feels cozy. Peter is relaxed and familiar, (he greets everyone who walks through the door by name) and wields a comfortable knowledge with St. Paul’s migrant and labor history. Tonight, the topic at hand is St. Paul’s German influence, which could be boring. Except it isn’t.  

Rachleff opens by providing some context. Irish immigrants began coming to Minnesota in 1845, most migrants being poor farmers fleeing the infamous potato famine. They left rural areas and barren farmsteads in search of fertile land and sustenance. German immigrants into St. Paul presented a different case;  they were urbanites fleeing the political turmoil associated with the unification of German provinces. Germany had probably the most diverse religious and class identities in the world at this time. German artisans took their cultural identity from their work and saw, with the impending industrial revolution in Europe, that way of life slipping away.

Emigrants from Germany during the mid-19th century were, by and large, progressive and literate people. Karl Marx moved to London in 1848, and German intellectuals crossed the Atlantic in droves around this time. The German Reading Society of St. Paul was founded in 1852, and twenty German language newspapers were in print in St. Paul alone. Turnverein and gun clubs sprouted up around the city along with German music and theater societies—all before the start of the Civil War in 1861. German immigrants were natural abolitionists. Many enlisted in the Union Army immediately upon arrival. The first Germans in St. Paul were tolerant by necessity; they were consumer tradesmen, and cooperation was a mode of survival. They needn’t fear competition from newly-freed black farmers, as many agrarian immigrants did. Abolition could only increase their consumer base; more free men meant more people who needed shoes and hats, more people who would be as fiercely committed to education as the Germans had been for centuries, and more able-minds for the blossoming spiritual and cultural community they’d begun to build.

It should be noted that the progressive success of St. Paul’s German integration was due in no small part to the slow start industry had in the upper Midwest. The first major labor disputes don’t arrive in St. Paul until the spring of 1894, by which time immigrants had established influential labor unions, a tactic they’d brought over from Germany. St. Paul’s unions were inclusive from the start. The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor took all cases; men and women of all races and creeds were welcomed into the ranks of laborers who were among the first to champion the eight-hour work day in Minnesota. Unions ensured the German language papers were chock-full of labor news and labor organizers created mutual insurance unions for dangerous jobs. Union involvement was an integral part of an immigrant’s social life, alongside religion.

German immigrants had planted themselves firmly at the intersection of intellect, labor, mutualism and liberalism. Minneapolis elected its first socialist mayor in 1916, a German-American by the name of Thomas Van Lear. St. Paul quickly followed suit and elected its first socialist mayor in 1932, William Mahoney. But Germans in Minneapolis and St. Paul were not loved universally. Van Lear lost reelection in 1918 due to widespread suspicion that his supporters secretly desired a German victory in World War I. Germans were no strangers to the nativism and xenophobia felt by migrants around the world today; people of German decent were forced to undergo citizenship tests. Many had their property confiscated and some were even interned during the First and Second World Wars. During this period of intense geo-political angst and economic depression, German schools and newspapers began dying out. Ultimately, it was the well-established labor unions in St. Paul and Minneapolis that helped convince communities to accept German migrants during the World Wars and interim. With resentment of immigrants front-and-center once again in state and national politics, perhaps it is time to reexamine our immigrant past—the good parts and the bad.

Books are a bridge into the past, so when Peter set out to connect the old St. Paul with the new, he built a library: a small, abandoned, Carnegie relic—built from the steel that made the first railroads and bridges in Minnesota. Now the building has a second life, and an opportunity to bridge the ever-diversifying communities on St. Paul’s East Side. When the economy took a dive in 2008, the East Side lost manufacturing jobs, business were forced to close. Naturally, St. Paul natives blamed a new wave of migrants from East-Asia and Africa for the strain on local business. Peter hopes that a new bridge into St. Paul’s immigrant past can help relieve the tension; if we can reconnect with our past, perhaps we can envision a better future. Despite the gloom pounding at the windows, for the first time all week I’m feeling downright hopeful.


Post Your Comment

Support Our Work