The state legislature
created the Nebraska Council of Defense in 1917.
The Council's first task was to coordinate
production and conservation of food, aid in the supply of farm
labor, engage in Red Cross work, and organize Liberty Loan drives. Soon it became an extra-legal police force monitoring
the loyalty and attitudes of Nebraska's citizens, especially
those of German heritage. Those the Council deemed questionable
were "dealt with by the Council in a manner suited to the
circumstances." Written threats, inquisition-like panels,
violence and imprisonment were aimed at people who spoke German
or were otherwise "questionable."
World War I ended late in 1918, and the
Council was disbanded shortly thereafter. Its impact on Nebraska
communities would be felt, however, for years to come.
Council of Defense Booth at Nebraska State Fair.
Blood and gore
Tom Kerl of Oakland, Nebraska was accused
of saying the following in a report to the State Council of Defense:
"All the statements made in newspapers of this country against
Germany are lies. The men who like this blood and gore and like
to get their hands into it should go to the stockyards and get
a job sticking pigs or killing beef."
Three men at Avoca tar and feathered
"Wednesday evening some 150 people of
Avoca and vicinity visited the home of John Burhne, Fred Buckman
and Fred Barkell and treated each of them to a nice coat of tar
and feathers, a rope was placed around the neck of Fred Buckman
and he was led to the home of his sister who is also said to
be pro-german and they both promised to be good and contribute
to the Red Cross or anything else they wanted him to, if they
would let them go. A sign was put up in front of the post office
"No German talk in this town" or there will be more
tar and feathers."
It seems you have been indescreet in your language (p. 3)
November 6, 1918
"Complaint has been made to the State Council of Defense
of your having made disloyal and seditious statements. From the
information received it appears that you have been indiscreet
in your language. Feeling at this time in this country runs very
high against any man who is suspected of disloyalty and a man
of German birth should be even more careful than any other in
his conversation and conduct. You are therefore urged to careful
consideration to your speech in the future in order that you
may avoid giving offense to your neighbors."
"No person, individually or as a teacher,
shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school,
teach any subject to any person in any language other than the
English language." This foreign language prohibition, known
as the Siman Act, was enacted by the Nebraska legislature in
1919. Children who had not successfully completed the eighth
grade could only be taught in English.
In May of 1920, Robert T. Meyer, an instructor
at the one-room Zion Parochial School near Hampton, taught the
subject of reading in the German language to 10-year-old Raymond
Parpart. The Hamilton County Attorney entered the classroom and
discovered Parpart reading from the Bible in German.
Meyer was tried and convicted in Hamilton
County Court and fined $25. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed
his conviction by a vote of 4 to 2. Meyer appealed to the U.S.
Supreme Court. His lead attorney was Arthur Mullen, an Irish
Catholic and a prominent Democrat, who had earlier tried and
failed to obtain a Nebraska Supreme Court injunction against
enforcement of the Siman Act.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of
Meyer. In his decision, Justice McReynolds wrote that the "liberty"
protected by the Due Process clause included teaching in and
learning foreign languages. "That the state may do much,
go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens,
physically, mentally and morally, is clear; but the individual
has certain fundamental rights which must be respected. The protection
of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other
languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue.
Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding
of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods
which conflict with the Constitution--a desirable end cannot
be promoted by prohibited means."
T. Meyer and Zion
Lutheran School in Hampton, where he taught.
Café on East Third Street in Grand Island was operated
by one of the few Chinese immigrants who inhabited the town.
This photo was taken about 1917, right at the height of the anti-immigrant
Photo courtesy of the Stuhr
Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
The Mandarin Café ran ads
written in German in the Nebraska Staats Anzeiger and
Herald, which was published in Grand Island. Anti-German
sentiment during and after World War I made German-language publications
suspect. The 1925 Supreme Court ruling in Meyer v. Nebraska
protected rights to teach, learn, and speak foreign language,
and by extension, to publish newspapers as well.