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We the People    WWI Council of Defense


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.


State 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."

 

Meyer v. Nebraska

"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."

Robert T. Meyer     Zion Lutheran School
Robert T. Meyer and Zion Lutheran School in Hampton, where he taught.

 



The Mandarin 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 movement.
Photo courtesy of the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer

 Echtes Chop Suey

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.


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Last updated 4 January 2013

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