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ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis School Board declared it was abolishing first-year courses in the German language. Its official reason: Not enough students signed up.

The issue was much bigger than enrollment. By April 27, 1918, when the board announced its decision, American soldiers were massing in France for their first major action in World War I. Public sentiment against everything German had turned ugly.

"I am glad to see the agitation now sweeping the country antagonistic to German-language newspapers, sermons in German and German textbooks," Rolla Wells told a cheering midtown crowd. "Why should such a custom be permitted?"

Wells was no street-corner crank. He headed the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis and had been mayor during the 1904 World's Fair. He was former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Wells uttered his sentiments during a speech at the influential St. Louis Club, then at 3663 Lindell Boulevard, where he was promoting Liberty Bonds to finance the war.

A few days later, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted to stop hiring local newspapers to print the city's official proceedings in both English and German. Henceforth, they would be published in-house and only in English.

The school board said students already taking advanced German could finish but cited "the public mind in St. Louis ... since the war began" to justify canceling introductory instruction. The board also banned three German textbooks.

G.A. Buder, president of the Westliche Post, a German-language newspaper in St. Louis, considered it necessary to declare in writing that his newspaper had bought $50,000 in Liberty Bonds.

Then as now, German was the most common ethnic origin in St. Louis. German immigrants came here in large numbers after the 1848 revolutions in Europe. In 1900, the city had more than 300 German-heritage associations.

When the Great War began in 1914, many German-Americans rooted for the Kaiser. But after Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, pressure grew to muzzle the slightest German tendencies.

That's why St. Louis renamed several streets, including Berlin Avenue to Pershing, Von Versen Avenue to Enright, Kaiser Avenue to Gresham and Brunswick Avenue to January.

But the insults weren't always just symbolic. A German-American shopkeeper in East Alton was beaten for not closing during a Liberty Bond parade. In St. Louis, a man was arrested over allegations of disloyalty based upon statements from two 12-year-old girls.

On April 4, 1918, a mob in Collinsville mob hanged Robert Prager, a German-born coal miner, on the rumor that he was a spy. Two months later, a jury quickly acquitted the 11 alleged ringleaders.

City schools eventually restored German instruction. Today, it offers the language at Dewey Elementary School.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

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