By HAL GORBY and SEAN DUFFY For the News-Register
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about Wheeling during the First World War leading to a centennial observation of Armistice Day (Veterans Day) to be held at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11 at the Doughboy monument at Wheeling Park. If you are a descendant of a World War I veteran or nurse, contact email@example.com.
Wheeling was a “German town” throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with social clubs, turnverein (gymnastic clubs), a German language newspaper and German singing societies hosting regional festivals or saengerfests. World War I changed this, fostering a climate of fear in Wheeling, which overly targeted Germans.
Once America entered the war in April 1917, pro-German events ceased. All Germans had to register as “enemy aliens” with the local draft boards. Throughout the war, rumors spread about possible sabotage to factories by pro-German spies. Local law enforcement worked with federal agents of the Bureau of Investigation to check on cases of suspected espionage.
Pro-German allegations carried over into politics. The 1918 congressional race in the First District saw Democrat Matthew Neely running against Republican Charles Schuck of Wheeling. During an October speech in Arion Hall, Neely alleged Schuck praised the Kaiser, and defended Germany’s unrestricted U-boat policy. Schuck lost the election in this anti-German climate.
The most visible attacks came in banning the use of the German language. By April 1918, public pressure led St. James Evangelical Church to discontinue using German in Sunday services. On April 12, Four Minute Men speakers at the Windsor Hotel adopted a resolution “against the German people and against the teaching of their language” in schools. Linsly Academy acted first to ban German, and then on April 19, the Board of Education voted unanimously to cease German as a requirement in the elementary schools, and leaving it an elective at high schools.
Today it’s hard to see Wheeling’s German culture around town, as local businesses removed “German” from their titles. The Germania Half Dollar Bank was noted as sounding “displeasing to American ears.” The German Fire Insurance Co. dropped German to “keep Wheeling in the foreground as a city of big business and loyalty.”
Even as they witnessed the impact of this anti-German sentiment, the city’s more recent immigrant groups saw the war as an opportunity to prove their patriotism and loyalty.
In 1917, immigrants and their children comprised one-third of the U.S. population, and Wheeling mirrored that national average. In April, as the nation prepared for war, the Wheeling melting pot eagerly fell in line.
First, the Ohio County Conscription Board offered foreign-born men the chance to “display their loyalty” by serving as interpreters, helping fellow countrymen who could not speak English to register for the draft.
Soon after that, 1,000 Greek citizens marched from their Center Wheeling church to the city building. A few days later, 2,000 Polish citizens did the same. Both groups waved flags and sang “America” and the “Star Spangled Banner” while placing a wreath on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
On July 4, 1918, the city staged a massive “Americanization Day Parade,” featuring more than 3,000 marchers. “Foreign Born Citizens Join with Americans in Showing Their Loyalty,” the headline proclaimed.
Various “divisions of foreigners” marched, including Slovaks, Lebanese, Greeks, Polish, Italians, Irish, Ukrainians, French and Belgians. The parade ended at the Market Auditorium, where the marchers gathered for an “Americanization Meeting,” swearing loyalty and singing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Meanwhile, recent immigrants by the hundreds volunteered for the ultimate proof of loyalty, signing up to risk life and limb “over there,” by fighting against, in many cases, former countrymen. Wheeling’s immigrant soldiers included Greek-born Cpl. John Frank Joanou, just 10 years from Ellis Island. And the Blake family of Benwood (who left Germany so that their children would not end up cannon fodder in German wars), lost two sons, Leo (at sea) and Tom (Battle of Argonne).