An examination of the nineteenth-century community of German immigrants in Charleston, SC: the ethnic community's beginnings, the nature of its development, the role it played in the evolution of ante- and postbellum Charleston; how the once-vibrant ethnic community fared in the face of the anti-German sentiment that developed after the turn of the century through the years of WWII.
With degrees in German Language and Literature from Duke University (B.A. 1960) and the University of Texas-Austin (M.A. 1962, Ph.D. 1966), Charleston-born Robert Alston Jones has extensively researched Charleston's nineteenth-century German immigrant community and has authored three books that focus on the development and nature of that ethnic community and the role it and its German-American descendants played in the history of America's "most historic city." His long career as Professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has facilitated his study of Charleston's German history. His latest book, Charleston's Germans: An Enduring Legacy, reveals how and why the ethnic community's character over the years was diluted, how and why its ethnicity was forced into the background, denied, and disclaimed. He argues that the legacy of Charleston's once-vibrant German ethnic community, while rarely acknowledged as integral to the city's history, lingers as a critical aspect of its cultural history. Now retired, Robert Alston Jones lives in Milwaukee, where he has been resident for over fifty years.
These days—when migration (forced or voluntary) from native lands to host countries (receptive or hostile) figures prominently in every sector of the media—I am struck by how profoundly history repeats itself. As those already in place observe—from comfortable "native" sidelines—the externalities of the immigrant experience, it is all too easy to remain innocent of how "we" relate to "them."
In reflecting on what transpired in Charleston in the nineteenth century, when a minority ethnic community was suppressed by the majority's endemic nativism fearful of the "other"—it is not a far reach to find parallels between what happened in that past and the present tensions between immigrants and natives, between majorities and minorities. In the present, as in the past, the "other" continues to be suspect and marginalized, rights and privileges are disputed, defenses brought to bear, prejudices strengthened and renewed.
It's all happened before.
Despite the hyperbole inherent in newspaper reporting during this period, it is difficult to overlook the fact that there was more than a modicum of judgment being passed by the newspaper reporter and, indirectly, by the editor.106 Charleston and its ruling class have not infrequently been accused of being paternalistic, and there is no lack of that in the passages cited above: “They” are a separate entity from “Us,” viewed and judged from a distance, as if the viewer in the center is looking at something on the periphery, ready and able to comment on “them,” “theGermans,” “their serious souls,” “the sunny splendor of their smile,” “their finest qualities,” “our most valuable citizens.” Obviously, “theGermans” had for some time been making a very good impression on the natives, but even though they were well-behaved and valuable members of the Charleston community, “old Charleston” would—if only subconsciously—keep these Neudeutsche somewhat marginalized for yet a while.
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