Part 4: The Shameful History Be hind Iowa ’s English Only Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Sep 26 15:44:13 UTC 2008

Part 4: The Shameful History Behind Iowa's English Only Policy

by Nancy Thieman, LMSW, Sioux City, Iowa

An original Blog for Iowa exclusive in four parts

Government-sponsored Coercion Leads to Mob-mentality Violence

The fact that the State of Iowa and the U.S. Marshall officially
supported the anti-German sentiment that was rabid in Iowa led
citizens to take liberties with people and property that they no doubt
would not have during more peaceful times.  For instance, it was
fairly common for German churches and businesses to be vandalized with
yellow paint.  In 1917, in Hamburg, Iowa, the Lutheran church had its
windows broken and yellow paint thrown all over the church, both
inside and out.  This was said to be the mark of the "slacker," or one
who did not support the war full out.

Even on Armistice Day, the day the war officially ended at 11:00 am on
November 11, 1918, the mob mentality was in full swing.  One merchant
in Hamburg, Iowa, was informed by a group of men that all businesses
were going to close their doors at 11:00 am in honor of the armistice.
 The merchant said he would shut his doors at noon.  The men roughed
him up for not cooperating, and he fled out the back of the shop and
hid out until after dark.  In the meantime, a huge crowd of men
gathered and waited for him to return.  The street was completely
blocked till nightfall until most of the men in the mob finally gave
up, too hungry to wait any longer, and went home.

As the War Ends, Anti-German Sentiment Gains Ground

In many instances, it was not until the war had ended that the
enforced Liberty Bond sales and the slacker courts reached the full
thrust of their power.  In fact, many county councils employed
returned soldiers to enforce their authority and harass the
German-speaking population.

A full six months after the war had ended, in April, 1919, the Iowa
legislature passed a law requiring that all instruction in schools in
Iowa be in the English language, legitimizing at least a portion of
the Babel Proclamation.  Foreign languages could only be taught in
ninth grade or above, a dictate which seems to have consequences even
today as most Iowa public schools do not offer foreign-language
classes until ninth grade.

Modern-day Language Policy in Iowa

In 2000, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack made a big push to bring new
immigrant populations to Iowa to bolster the dwindling workforce.
Ironically, almost as soon as the newcomers got here, Gov. Vilsack
turned around and signed a bill into law making English the official
language in Iowa.  The 2002 Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act
also encouraged non-native speakers to improve their English skills
and, shockingly, to assimilate into "Iowa's rich culture" (SF 165,
Section 1a, 2002).  But thankfully, Iowa has come far enough that the
legislature felt no pressing need to try to force assimilation by
outlawing foreign language use.  In fact, the law stipulates that
"nothing in this section shall disparage any language other than
English or discourage any person from learning or using a language
other than English" (SF 165, Section 5c, 2002).  That, in and of
itself, is a 180 degree turn in Iowa language policy in the last 90

Whether the Babel Proclamation and the 1919 Iowa law requiring all
school instruction to be in English ended up having the effect that
Iowa's Gov. Harding had hoped they would have, or whether the German
language died out naturally, one would no doubt be correct if one
concluded the worst.  It seems likely that the death of German was
hurried along in Iowa by the official anti-foreign language policies,
the English-only school law, and the widespread system of persecution
of German speakers.  In fact, researcher Nancy Derr goes so far as to
say that this persecution and "the pressures it put on Iowa's society
led to the virtual obliteration of the self-confident, aggressive
German-American community."

Allen, L., (1974). Anti-German sentiment in Iowa during World War I.
The Annals of Iowa, 42, 418-429.

Davidson, M.E., (1979, July/August). The homefront: Hamburg, Iowa. The
Palimpsest, 60(4), 116-120.

Derr, N., (1979, July/August). The Babel Proclamation. The Palimpsest,
60(4), 98-115.

Frese, S., (2005, November). Divided by a common language: The Babel
Proclamation and its influence in Iowa. The History Teacher, 39(1),

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