A group of people from all races and backgrounds gather together regularly to share their memories of growing up in a small Missouri town during strict segregation. The discussions are honest and candid, and no one shies away from difficult topics.
“I was the first black person to walk through the Davidson’s Café, and ordered me a cheeseburger and fries, and not have to go in the back,” Joyce Forrest said.
“I grew up in an extremely segregated town,” another member said. “I didn’t see a black person until I was six or seven. I was in Brownies and met a new friend, a little black girl. I came home and told my mother and asked her why she didn’t look like me. I wanted to have her over to play, but my mother said that my new friend couldn’t come over.”
This powerful discussion group was formed by Cecilia Nadal, a sociologist and playwright who is passionate about cross-cultural engagement. She became fascinated by a little-known slice of Missouri history – German immigrants who settled in Missouri were staunch abolitionists. The small town in Hermann, Missouri became ground-zero for an anti-slavery movement.
“These people came, speaking German, never being in America before, having to find a place in the Wild West to live, find work, build houses,” Nadal said. “Their challenges to acclimating to a new country were huge then. And yet, when it came to what position they would have on slavery, this group, particularly in Missouri, really had firm notions about what democracy should look like, and whether they knew a black person or not, or a slave, ‘We’re just not going to come to a country and let that be, because we’ve come from a place that had terrible oppression, so we would be hypocrites if we did not stand up for what democracy should be.’”
The story inspired Nadal to write a play that has been performed in Hermann and St. Louis, called “An Amazing Story.”
The drama portrays how German immigrants fought against slavery.
One key figure in the history is Arnold Krekel, who was a federal judge who ran an anti-slavery newspaper. In 1854, Krekel spearheaded the formation of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, the nation’s first degree-granting historically black college. He also represented freed men with disputes with employers.
The play was an icebreaker to spark conversations at the group discussion in small-town Missouri and has since led to Hermann’s first Black History Month celebration.
According to Nadal, building bridges and having face-to-face conversations, however difficult, are paths to healing and understanding.
“The German immigrant abolitionist story was one that was extremely important for where we are today in America. Why? Because these were people who did not know the people they were fighting for, but on principle, they said, ‘We’re going to do something about it,’” Nadal said. “They are an incredible example of what it means to be an American.”