Reflecting on Anti-Immigrant Sentiment on Babel Proclamation's Centennial

May 29, 2018

One hundred years ago this month, then Governor William Harding signed an executive order declaring English the official language of the state. The Babel Proclamation banned languages other than English from being spoken in schools, churches, in public, and even on the telephone. 

During this hour of Talk of Iowa, Tom Morain, former director of the State Historical Society and director of government relations at Graceland University, joins Todd Dorman, Editorial Page Editor for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Kelly Lao, Executive Director of the German American Heritage Center, in a conversation about the Babel Proclamation.  

When Harding signed the proclamation, foreign languages were widespread in Iowa.

"Iowa was not a melting pot where we all ended up looking the same," Morain says. "It very much was a state of communities of ethnic distinction.

Even so, German settlers had sent more immigrants to Iowa in the 19th century than any other European country, according to Morain. In 1918, with World War I still raging, Americans of German descent faced anti-German sentiment.

This was reflected in language itself. German measles became liberty measles, and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. Not even dachsunds were spared - they became liberty pups, according to Lao.

In many cases, anti-immigrant policies like the Babel Proclamation encouraged Iowans to report on people speaking German and other languages, instilling a culture of fear and harming communities across the state.

"That ban on their native language cut them off from the only community activity that they had," Morain says.