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Oklahoma Journeys

Cordell German Newspaper Threatened

2009-10-31

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It's patriotism versus heritage this week on Oklahoma Journeys. The global conflict that was the First World War didn't really have any clear good or bad guys in the beginning, and for the US it was difficult to determine if we should become involved or remain neutral. For German-Americans in Oklahoma that decision was especially difficult, and that story is the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

As World War One broke out in 1914 between the large powers of Europe, the population of the United States was divided fairly equally into those who supported England and France and those that supported Germany. While the US under President Wilson tried to remain neutral, England's dominance in the Atlantic Ocean slowly shifted our trade and then our allegiance to the side of England and France against the Germans. For the many German-Americans in Oklahoma, this shifting loyalty made for an increasingly difficult existence. These Oklahomans, mostly wheat farmers in the north-central portion of the state, considered themselves Americans foremost but saw no need to abandon their German heritage. For a large number of families business and home life was conducted entirely in German, and many older immigrants never learned English.

As the US began to take on a pro-English anti-German stance in the war, pressure was applied to these German-Americans to forsake their roots and discard their history. Tactics used to persuade these German Oklahomans varied from polite requests to brutal intimidation. People overheard speaking German were at various times physically attacked. Being a small minority, the German-Oklahomans usually complied with the various requests and in several cases entire towns changed their names. Bismark in McCurtain County became Wright City; in Kingfisher County, Kiel became Loyal; and Korn changed their name to Corn.

One of the strongest and loudest voices of Germanic culture in Oklahoma came through the German press, and of these the Oklahoma Vorwarts, published by Julius Hussy, was one of the largest. While other German language papers were closing down throughout the state, Hussy and Vorwarts continued to promote German culture and heritage and defend German wartime actions. With the official entry of the United States into the war in 1917 the pressure on German-Americans intensified and Hussy's paper came under constant attack.

It was in this week of 1918 that 50 armed men stormed the Vorwarts office in Bessie, Oklahoma, and effectively shut it down under threat of death. Germanic culture in large part was erased from Oklahoma by World War One, but the history and struggle of these people is preserved for posterity in the collection of German language papers available for public use in the Research Library at the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma History Center is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.