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The Melrose Turn Verein in the Bronx

A few years ago I asked officials in Germany and German American organizations in vain to protect a unique building in the Bronx, that symbolized the democratic history of today’s Germany and at the same time honored the history of immigration in the United States and especially in the Bronx, as well as the history of the abolition of slavery and the Civil War. It was called the Melrose Turn Verein and I took a picture of it in 2008, when I first moved to the South Bronx.

It has since unfortunately been torn down which is why I am memorializing it here. The history of the building on Courtland Avenue and E. 150th Street was closely associated with the German revolutionaries of the 1848er generation, Friedrich Hecker (co-founder of the Turner Movement in the United States), Franz Sigel (Member of the Melrose Turn Verein and Civil War general), and Carl Schurz (Sigel’s pallbearer at the Melrose Turn Verein and Civil War general). These men and others represent democratic Germany’s Founders. But all we learned about them in high school in Germany was that their heroic effort at a democratic revolution in Germany failed. They had to flee. That’s it. We never learned where they fled to (the United States) and what they did after they fled (fought for the abolition of slavery in the US). Here are a few biographic blurbs pieced together from Wikipedia entries and a few books that I will list in the reference section.

Friedrich Hecker led an armed revolutionary uprising, the “Heckerzug” starting on April 13, 1848, from Konstanz, Germany, towards the seat of feudal government in Karlsruhe, Germany, and was defeated in the southern Schwarzwald region. Hecker fled first to Switzerland and then to France, from where he emigrated to New York on September 20, 1884. He joined the new Republican Party in Illinois in 1856 and supported Lincoln’s candidacy for US President. Together with his son he raised a volunteer regiment of German Immigrants during the Civil War and served under General Sigel, who had himself been part of the “Heckerzug” back in Germany and had also emigrated to the United States. Hecker is associated with the founding of the Turnverein movement in the United States. Robert Knight Barney (1984) writes: “By the late summer of 1848, Forty-Eighters from Germany were known to have settled in Cincinnati, but no efforts were undertaken to organize a turnverein in the city until the arrival of Friedrich Hecker, popular patriot-hero of the defeated Republican uprisings in Baden, Germany earlier that same year … Hecker set about the task of drawing-up a constitution and set of by-laws for the perceived turnverein” (p. 134).

Franz Sigel was a lieutenant in the Baden army who switched sides and joined people like Friedrich Hecker in the liberal democratic movement during the German Revolution of 1848. In April 1848, he led the so called “Sigel-Zug” to lay siege to the city of Freiburg, Germany, but was defeated. Like Hecker, he first fled to Switzerland and from there to England and emigrated to the United States in 1852. During the Civil War, he fought for the abolition of slavery and was promoted to major general in 1862. He was extremely popular among Germans of the “Forty-Eighter” generation whose slogan was “I fights mit Sigel” (Engle 1993, p. xvii). fter the war, Sigel settled in the Bronx, New York, where he led a campaign for free public mass transportation.

The image shows the proposal of an elevated subway train for New York by General Franz Sigel. Bill Twomey (2007) writes: “His connection with Bronx history is strong, as he moved here in the 1880s to continue his writing and enjoy the comradeship of his numerous friends at the Melrose Turn Verein. He passed away on August 21, 1902 and services were held right in the clubhouse” (p. 263). General Schurz was one of the pallbearers and gave the eulogy for Franz Sigel during his funeral ceremony at the Melrose Turnverein on August 24, 1902 (see historical photograph).

Carl Schurz made the steepest political career in the United States after fleeing his native Germany. Together with his professor Gottfried Kinkel and Franz Sigel, Schurz took up arms in defense of Germany’s constitution of 1848. Defeated by the Prussians in 1849 at fortress Rastatt, Carl Schurz fled through the sewer system across the Rhine into France (Trefousse 1998, p. 25) and ultimately to Switzerland. From there he briefly returned to Germany to bust his former professor Kinkel out of Spandau prison in Berlin. Trefousse (1998) writes that Schurz “… discovered … a jailer named Georg Brune, and after some preliminaries, it turned out that Brune was willing to help Kinkel escape … Shortly after 11:30 p.m., Brune entered Kinkel’s cell ... hurried Kinkel to the roof and lowered him to the street, to find Schurz ready to receive him.” (p. 32-33). Kinkel fled to Scotland, and Schurz via Paris to London, and ultimately in 1852 to the United States. In Wisconsin, he joined the new Republican Party and participated as a speaker (mostly in German) in favor of Abraham Lincoln against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. He spoke out powerfully against the nativist streak of the abolitionist movement and managed to move the Republican party to the left, embracing “not only the expected denunciation of the spread of slavery to the territories, but also a ringing reaffirmation of the rights of the foreign born” (Trefousse 1998, p. 85). Trefousse further writes that, “On February 25, 1862, Charles Sumner declared that without ‘our German fellow citizens’ the Republican cause ‘would not have triumphed at the last election.’” (p. 94). In 1861, Lincoln appointed Schurz ambassador to Spain with the purpose of preventing Spain from supporting the South. During the Civil War, Schurz was promoted to major general. After the Civil War, in 1868, Schurz was elected to the United States Senate from Missouri and in 1876 he was named Secretary of the Interior by the Hayes administration. In 1881, Schurz moved to New York City. His wife Margarethe Schurz was a crucial activist in establishing the kindergarten system in the United States. Carl Schurz expressed a sentiment of dual loyalty that resonates with me as dual citizen of the United States and of Germany very powerfully. He said: “I love Germany like my mother and America like my wife. If one must choose, one stays with one's wife, but the love for one's mother lasts a lifetime.”

The fact that German immigrants of the 1848er Generation, like the Generals Sigel and Schurz, fought for the abolition of slavery, and defended themselves against attacks of nativist immigration opponents, would have made the preservation of the Melrose Turn Verein building interesting not only for German citizens, but also for many US citizens, and for today’s Bronx residents, many of whom, including myself, are immigrants from myriad places.

References and Further Reading:

Barney, Robert Knight (1984): Notes, Documents, and Queries America’s First Turnverein: Commentary in Favor of Louisville, Kentucky. Journal of Sport History, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1984)

Engle, Stephen D. (1993): Yankee Dutchman. The Life of Franz Sigel. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Honeck, Mischa (2011): We Are the Revolutionists. German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists After 1848. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

Trefousse, Hans J. (1998): Carl Schurz. A Biography. New York, Fordham University Press.

Twomey, Bill (2007): The Bronx in Bits and Pieces. Bloomington, IN: Rooftop Publishing,

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