Lost Histories of Bilingualism

A week ago, while watching the Superbowl with friends, I saw Coca Cola’s now-famed ad E Pluribus Unum. At first, I was puzzled why I wasn’t following the lyrics to America the Beautiful, then realized they were being sung in multiple languages — English, Spanish, Keres (an indigenous American language), Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French and Hebrew. Regarding pluralism as normal, I appreciated what Coke was doing (even though I don’t appreciate sugary drinks), admired the artistry of the ad, then promptly forgot about it.

I was surprised a few days later to hear about the tremendous uproar it prompted. We have certainly lost our histories of bilingualism! On Coca Cola’s Facebook page, while there are far more likes than dislikes, the comments section includes things like the following:

  • Disgraceful!
  • Unpatriotic
  • Speak English or go home
  • No Coke for me
  • De-Americanize America, divide and conquer

While I do not know those who are offended by the ad personally, I do know many people (most of whom are of European descent) who share their sentiment. Many us Euro-Americans assume our ancestors readily and willingly traded in the languages and cultures they brought in order to become American. For a huge number of us, however, this assumption is false. But since our own histories were suppressed in the process of erasing our ancestors’ languages, we aren’t aware of those histories. Let me share a bit of mine that I uncovered using family history research tools.

My father’s side of the family was of German descent. My German immigrant ancestors arrived to the U.S. between 1843 and 1868, most coming to Illinois but at least one to Pennsylvania. As nearly as I have been able to piece together, they left Germany primarily because of a combination of war as Prussia was expanding, poor crops leading to the possibility of famine, and to join other family members who preceded them. They helped to create and lived within what became bilingual, bicultural communities. In their case, the German church was an important institution that maintained bilingualism for about sixty years. How do I know that?

1. Visiting where my ancestors lived. Browsing through Ancestry.com, I learned that in October of 1855, one of my German immigrant ancestors helped to found Zion Chapel (which had been a German Methodist church), in Boody, Illinois. So, on a trip to Illinois, I visited the church. There, I was able to read church records, including hand-written records from its early years. In so doing, I not only saw that its language had been German, I also learned the German origin of my name – Sleeter — which was Schlichter in church records. (Apparently church members had two sets of names: English names for records kept in English, and German names for records kept in German.) I was also able to read Zion Methodist Church centennial records, where I learned that Rev. Peter Hehner had been sent to Boody by the St. Louis Conference of the German Methodist Church in 1855; 18 German residents (including great-great grandfather Wilhelm Schlichter and great-great grandmother Amelia Farharenhorst’s father) established the church, initially in Wilhelm Schlichter’s home.

2. Digitized old newspaper articles. While I do not have access to the German press from that era, English newspapers occasionally featured German church events. For example, an article in the Saturday Herald, describing the anniversary celebration of Zion Chapel’s Literary Society in August, 1887, noted that “some of the songs, and most of the other exercises were in German. Since the audience was made up of those who spoke both languages equally well all were alike enjoyed.”

3. Library and historical society research about specific churches. Writing in 1923 about Zion Chapel in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (vol. 16), N. M. Baker noted that its services were held continuously in German “until the late war [WW I] made the use of German unpopular” (p. 102). More about that below.

One of the other German immigrants in my family tree was a German Methodist Episcopal pastor. Once I found that out, I sought information about the denomination and the training of pastors. A little internet research revealed that German Methodist churches had been started in the U.S. in the 1830s, as a way of ministering to German immigrant communities. Dr. Wilhelm Nast, who has been called the father of the German Methodist Church, was a missionary to the U.S. who translated basic Methodist documents into German in the 1830s. Two seminaries were established to prepare German Methodist ministers: Nast Theological Seminary in Ohio, and Central Wesleyan College in Missouri. According to Rev. G. Davies, writing in the 1929 publication Journal and Year Book of the Illinois Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Wagoner Printing Co., p. 375), noted that my ancestor Rev. Ross continued his earlier education in Germany by attending Central Wesleyan College, located initially in Quincy Illinois. In 2006, O. E. Kriege described the program at Central Wesleyan College as producing “well equipped bilingual ministers” who are generally expected to do German services in the morning and English in the evening; and demand outstrips supply (in S. M. Jackson, editor, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol VII. Kessinger Pub,, p. 367).

So what happened? To investigate, I read newspapers published in Illinois during World War I. The quotes below are all from the Decatur Review.

In July, 1914, war erupted between Austria and Serbia, then Germany declared war on Russia, France, and Belgium in rapid succession. While the English-language press joined England in siding against Germany, German-Americans attempted to present Germany’s point of view while also reaffirming their own American patriotism. For example, Decatur lawyer Albert G. Webber wrote on August 11:

A German-American citizen in expressing his view upon the very unfortunate war situation in Europe is liable to be misunderstood and have his loyalty to the government of the United States questioned. First, let me say, I believe every thoughtful honest German-American citizen cannot help resenting every insinuation, that because of his sympathy for the German people, that he is betraying disloyalty to the United States. When the destiny of this government was trembling in the balance of uncertainty, no nationality furnished a larger percentage of valiant soldiers to maintain the union than was furnished by the German-American people.

After pointing out German-Americans’ active role supporting the Union during the Civil War, then distinguishing between the German Kaiser and ordinary German citizens who had no control over the Kaiser, Webber went on to situate the conflict within European resentments toward Germany.

Another German American, making much the same argument, pointed out a month later that “The German people are looked upon as foreigners, the English as ancestors.”

In 1915, Germany added England to its list of enemies, and sank the Lusitania, believing it was carrying munitions. By 1917, as Germany increased its submarine attacks against non-German ships, German-Americans worked to affirm their loyalty to the U.S., now downplaying their German roots. For example, a national convention the National German American Alliance passed resolutions “endorsing the action of President Wilson in severing diplomatic relations with Germany and pledging its loyalty to the United States.” The Alliance also lamented a growing backlash against German-Americans: “Our delegates felt that we have been greatly misunderstood and unjustly criticized during the war, but if it comes to a war with Germany, our actions will not be susceptible to any further misunderstanding, for we will back up our American government with our lives and our means.”

In August, 1917, former President Teddy Roosevelt announced that “some senators, congressmen, and newspaper editors” were “standing where the copperheads stood in the civil war.” He demanded “suppression of the German language press” and “deportation of ‘fifty-fifty Americans.’” A month later, the Post Office Department considered “exclusion from the mails of certain influential German language newspapers printed in various sections of the United States . . . as a part of the government’s determination to prevent circulation of anti-war propaganda.”

The governor of Iowa announced a plan to “stamp out disloyalty,” saying that he hoped to see “a sentiment created in our state so strong, so vigorous and so overpowering that no disturber or enemy sympathizer will dare to start his disturbance in any community in our state.” (Iowa shortly after that outlawed any use of the German language whatsoever.)

German-Americans, particularly those born in Germany, were targeted as spies in a German plot to colonize America, using the German press to give the Kaiser’s orders to Germans in America. In summer, 1918, newspapers noted to the internment of German-American citizens in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and the lynching of a German-American coal miner in Collinsville, Illinois:

  • “Half a dozen German civilians interned at Hot Springs, NC are reported dead of typhoid fever and 165 ill as a result of drinking unfiltered water from French Broad river with the hope that their illness would prevent the war department from transferring them to the military prison camp at Fort Oglethorpe, GA.” (Aug. 14, 1918, p. 1) 
  • “Huns After Facts on Prager Lynching. That the lynching of Robert Paul Prager allegedly German spy April 5, last, will be made a matter of representation by the German government was indicated in a letter received by John Mellon, clerk of the circuit court. Requesting accurate information regarding the lynching.” (July 21, 1918, p. 23) 

Reports in Decatur newspapers sketched assaults on the German language; here are a few from the Decatur Review:

  • “Warn town to stop talking Hun. Lincoln, Neb., Aug 29 – Citizens of Harbine, Neb. yesterday rode by automobile to Plymouth, a neighboring town and placarded the place with notices demanding that the use of the German language in Plymouth be stopped.” (Aug 29, 1919, p. 1) 
  • “Mrs. Zua Hobson, patriotic Instructor of the W. R. C., ‘called down’ one of the Alhambra players at the chautauqua Saturday afternoon for using the German language in telling a story. He continued with his story and was branded as a German sympathizer by Mrs. Hobson, who searched tor him after the program with the intention of prosecuting him, but he could not be located.” (Aug 27, 1918, p. 6) 
  • “A communication was received from citizens of the west asking that the minister of a German church be requested to preach in English and that the songs be sung in English.” (June 15, 1919, p. 4) 
  • “Painters are engaged at the German church in Belleville in removing the yellow paint placed there a week ago by vandals. The building is to be repainted. The authorities are unable to find any trace of the parties who desecrated this house of worship.” (July 29, 1919, p. 9) 
  • “Singing of German opera in the German language is banned in New York until after the peace treaty is ratified.” (Oct. 28, 1919, p. 11) 

The teaching of German in high school was suspended. When the superintendent of Decatur schools was asked in June, 1919, whether German might be restored after the war, he replied: “I suppose it will be put back sometime. But there will not be any hurry about it so far as I am concerned. The more I learn of the German conduct of this war the less I am in sympathy with things German.”

Methodist church publications concurred with the sentiment to ban German. Writing in The Christian Advocate, a weekly newspaper of the Methodist Church, Bishop Cooke proclaimed: “nothing separates humanity like diversity of tongues . . . let our preachers and people use only the English language . . . we should preserve the unity of the nation and foreign language is not the language of the young people of America.”

German was so thoroughly suppressed by the end of the war, and further with World War II, that not only was German-English bilingualism destroyed, but so too was historical memory that it had even existed. I invite readers to look into their own family histories, using research tools and frameworks available to them. We need to resurrect these suppressed histories and make them public, so that we do not continue to do to others the violence done against our own ancestors.

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