A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: WW I, six months after declaration of war, anti-German hysteria rears its ugly head

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

It was October 1917, six months after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6th. Already, the Cincinnati area was heavily invested in the war effort.

Over 12,000 men from Hamilton County, Ohio — and some from beyond who came here to recruiting stations — had entered the ranks of the U.S. army, navy, or marines by October. Nationally, the armed forces had more than one million men. In addition, 74,000 Cincinnatians had joined the Red Cross, and 2,700 the Home Guards.

Millions had been raised for the First Liberty Bond, another $1.6 million for the Red Cross, and $86 thousand for the YMCA’s war efforts. On Tuesday, October 2, a Liberty Bond booth was opened on Fountain Square. The day before, volunteers distributed brochures throughout the city, including the windshields of automobiles. Women assisted in handing out leaflets and hanging up posters. Schoolchildren brought home letters to parents encouraging them to buy Liberty Bonds. Department stores, savings and loans associations, and employers also offered Liberty Bonds for sale, some on a weekly-payment plan. All kinds of methods were used. For example, the Cincinnati Post of October 2nd reported, “Arthur Hill, trick bicycle rider at Keith Theater, distributed Liberty Bond appeals from an old-fashioned high bicycle.” The massive effort succeeded, and by the end of October, Cincinnati had surpassed its first quota of $35 million in Liberty Bond sales by $10 million, raising a total of $45 million.

Families and schools were growing war gardens, and Cincinnati factories were making uniforms. Cincinnati’s vast machine tool industry was producing mechanics to manufacture ammunition. And the US government was looking at the Baldwin Piano factory to consider whether it could make war airplanes there.

Already, however, anti-German hysteria was beginning to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the school year, Cincinnati Public Schools had terminated German classes at 15 schools, for lack of enrollment. The system also created a “jury of censors” to determine which textbooks to ban from public schools. The committee included Dr. H. H. Fick of Cincinnati, whose book Hier und Dort (Here and There), was already being criticized by a Cincinnati pioneer family, the Stites, for claiming that their English ancestors were German.

By October 1917, city and federal officials were conducting raids on, and seizing documents from, the homes and offices of newspaper publishers, pacifists, and socialists. Raids on the 75-year-old German newspaper, the Cincinnati Volksblatt, occurred, as well as a meeting of the People’s Council, a socialist organization. The raid on the latter was preceded by a “federal surveillance of activities of the People’s Council covering several months. Stenographic reports of what was said and done at all meetings are in the hands of federal authorities,” the Cincinnati Post reported on October 6th.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern industrial centers was underway. War industries desperately needed laborers, as the economy ramped up production for the war effort. Further, many factory workers had joined, or were drafted into, the armed forces. With the demand for labor high and the supply low, an ironic but volatile situation arose. White union members saw an opportunity to strike and to improve their wages and working conditions. On the other hand, factory owners actively recruited black workers from the South, and even used them as strikebreakers. The situation erupted in some of the nation’s worst race and labor riots, in May and July of 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois.

Recruiters, working as contractors for factories in Cincinnati, traveled south. They encouraged southern blacks to move north, where jobs were available. As an incentive, they purchased railroad tickets for blacks to move to Cincinnati. Chester M. Wright, a special correspondent for the Cincinnati Post, spoke to a contractor who related how he had recruited “thousands” to “Cincinnati and Cleveland” (July 6, 1917, p. 1).

Black migrants from the South to Cincinnati faced crowded living conditions and high rents, sometimes twice that paid by whites. Confined to African-American residential areas of the city, sometimes entire families lived in a single room. F. E. Burleson of the Better Housing League and C. M. Bookman of the Council of Social Agencies expressed their deep concern for the troubling living conditions in the Cincinnati Post of October 13, 1917, stating that “the influx of thousands of negroes from the south has caused a desperate situation in crowded downtown districts.”

Finally, vigilantes joined the efforts to challenge and control the free speech of others who disagreed with them. On Sunday, October 28, 1917, a pacifist pastor, Herbert S. Bigelow, was kidnapped and tortured. Bigelow, the pastor of the People’s Church in Cincinnati, had just arrived at the Odd Fellows Hall at 6th and York Streets in Newport to give a speech. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, gagged, and driven by car to a remote location in Boone County. There, more than 20 hooded men joined the vigilante crowd, stripped Bigelow, tied him to a tree, whipped him, and poured crude oil over his head. Then, they untied him and told him to leave Cincinnati within 36 hours.

The Great War — President Wilson’s war to “Save the World for Democracy” — was six months underway. But its repercussions would affect Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for decades.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

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One Comment

  1. Shana Holt says:

    That was very interesting

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