America may be the land of opportunity, but history shapes our options. This week, history came to light in three St. Louis Public Radio reports.
Stephanie Lecci explored Paw Paw French. The vanishing dialect was once common in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. Now, two St. Louisans are planning to offer Paw Paw French classes here. They want to renew appreciation for the distinct language and culture that developed, much as Cajun did, when Old World immigrants met New World realities.
As a lifelong St. Louisan, I was well aware of our city’s French heritage and of Ste. Genevieve’s. But I knew nothing of this country cousin, whose influence continues most clearly in relatively isolated communities such as Old Mines, Mo. An annual festival, Fete de l'Automne, celebrates Paw Paw French with food and music each October near Washington State Park, about an hour south of St. Louis.
Language and traditions are more than a curiosity. They are vehicles by which people comprehend and interact with the world. They convey culture from generation to generation. They contribute to the rich, multi-cultural legacy we draw from to build the future.
No one appreciates the connection between past and future more than Esley Hamilton. For decades, he’s been a keeper of the flame for historic preservation, especially in St. Louis County. Last week, as Bob Duffy noted, colleagues threw a retirement party for Hamilton. Actually, he’ll continue to work part time as preservation historian for the county parks department and, as Bob put it, “to provide muscle and substance to maintain his presence as a custodian of our built heritage.”
Hamilton told Don Marsh on St. Louis On The Air that he’s currently concerned about Clemens House, a historic property owned by Paul McKee. McKee aspires to bring massive redevelopment to the city’s north side through his NorthSide Regeneration project. But using the past as a guide, Hamilton is wary.
“My background is in urban planning, and I left urban planning for historic preservation because I thought we were ruining communities by clearing buildings in the naïve hope that redevelopers would come rushing in,” Hamilton said. “We’re doing the same thing with Mr. McKee. He spent over $40 million of state funds buying up land, and he hasn’t turned one shovel as far as I know.”
History surfaced in the news a third time this week when Alderman Lyda Krewson proposed renaming Confederate Drive in Forest Park, as Rachel Lippmann reported. The move is part of a broad reevaluation of Confederate symbols brought on by the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Those who defend Confederate displays say they are intended to honor heritage, not racism. But regardless of intent, the effect has been deeply offensive to many. Removing such symbols is one small step toward coming to grips with the repercussions of history. Slavery and racial discrimination are no longer the law of the land. But as statistics show, life in America is still brutally stacked against African Americans. In fact, the pattern of racial disparities is so pervasive that many white people accept it as normal.
If America is to be a land of opportunity for all, then we must understand how history shapes our options. We must see the past with new eyes, enlightened by hindsight. We must see the present and the future with new insights, enlightened by the past. We must take to heart the truth that William Faulkner expressed: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."