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German names return on some St. Louis streets a century after World War I

An honorary street sign notes Providence Place's original street name – Knapstein Place – in the Dutchtown neighborhood.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
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St. Louis will soon have Bismarck Street again.

A yellow commemorative sign will go up Saturday morning at the corner of Seventh and Lami streets in the Soulard neighborhood, just weeks before the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Bismarck was one of several German named-streets that disappeared from St. Louis in the midst of the war. Its return, along with several others, is part of an effort spearheaded by Jim Merkel, who is working with the German American Heritage Society of St. Louis to raise awareness of how German-Americans were treated during the war.

"People were very wound up," he said.

Merkel, a local author and historian, said leaders in St. Louis and around the United  States were essentially "demonizing" innocent people during the war just because of family ties to Germany.

Robert Prager was an extreme example. The German-born coal miner was lynched by a mob in Collinsville in April 1918. Eleven men went to trial for the killing and all were acquitted. On Saturday the corner of Bates Street and Morganford Road in St. Louis will become the site of an honorary street sign: Robert Prager Way.

Merkel said Prager was killed at the height of what he describes as anti-German hysteria, which lasted for roughly one year.

"If it would have lasted two or three more years, I'm sure that there would have been a lot more German streets gotten rid of," he said.

Before WWI, Pershing Avenue was known as Berlin Avenue and Enright Avenue was Von Versen Avenue. Both now are being considered for commemorative signs.

The honorary name effort is included in a St. Louis city ordinance allowing any street, or part of a street, to receive a designation if at least 60 percent of registered voters in the area sign a petition in favor of it, but the current street name remains official.

At least three other St. Louis streets have been given honorary German names in recent years. Those include:

  • Knapstein Place, which is now Providence Place in the Dutchtown neighborhood.
  • Kaiser Street, which is now Gresham Avenue in the Princeton Heights neighborhood.
  • Habsburger Avenue, which now Cecil Place in the Boulevard Heights neighborhood.

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A community organization is required to pay for the historic signage. The German American Heritage Society is covering the cost for Merkel's effort.

He came up with the idea after writing a book, ‘Beer, Brats and Baseball: St. Louis Germans During World War I.’ Merkel says his research brought to light how many German-Americans in the area had to choose between the U.S. and their heritage because of actions by city leaders.

He hopes the effort helps future generations develop a better understanding of the effects of discrimination. Merkel points to how Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II and Muslims after 9/11 became targets of persecution in the U.S.

"You know, that's what people do when there's war," he said.

Saturday's events will come just 15 days before the anniversary of the end of World War I on Nov. 11.

The event for Robert Prager Way begins at 9 a.m., and the ceremony at Seventh and Lami streets starts at 10:30 a.m.

Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter: @WayneRadio

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