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Wives were stripped of American citizenship at the altar

by Finn J.D. John Thursday October 23, 2014    8:32 AM

Women who'd married German men suddenly learned they'd been legally (and very unconstitutionally) made stateless, and were forced to register as "enemy aliens"; those who'd married Chinese men fared even worse.

Nobody remembers it today, because it was so long ago. But the outbreak of the First World War changed Oregon – and the rest of the United States – a great deal.

News of America’s entry into the fight was greeted with excitement, eagerness and dread. But there was one particular group of Oregonians for whom the dread was particularly pronounced: The German-American community.

The German-born cohort of Oregon residents was bigger than any other foreign-born group, totaling 18,000 in the 1910 census, with another 22,000 children of German-born parents – roughly 6 percent of the state’s total population. Before the war broke out, they had been considered among the most desirable immigrants by the lights of the day – Northern European, mostly Protestant, hard-working, clean-living, solid.

Now, all of a sudden, they were “huns.”

Three years in prison. The crime: Singing.

J. Henry Albers, one of Portland’s most prominent citizens and the president of the Albers Brothers grain-milling company, found out the hard way how much things had changed, shortly after the U.S. entered the war. On his way home from a business trip to San Francisco, in the train's lounge car, he had a few too many drinks and started singing – in German.

Upon arrival in Portland, Albers was arrested and charged with “Seditious Conduct by a German Alien.” He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison – for singing!

Over the following four years, Albers appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court. The federal government fought him every step of the way, even years after the war had ended, only to drop its case on the day the Supreme Court was to hear it in 1921 – claiming that it had made a technical error. (It’s hard to read that in any way other than as a malicious move to make sure Albers didn’t get a chance to be vindicated.)

For Albers, the shame of it all was devastating. The final blow came when he was expelled from his Elks Lodge, and 10 days later he suffered a stroke and died.

Most of the German-born Oregonians didn’t suffer as dramatically as Albers did, of course. But many of them did have their lives turned upside down. President Woodrow Wilson had issued an executive order barring them from coming within 100 yards of the waterfront or a half-mile of the armory, which was a huge problem for non-naturalized Germans who worked as longshoremen (or even as owners of saloons on Front Street). This obstacle could sometimes be overcome, but not always, and it involved lots of red tape and hassle – hearings, paperwork, permits and so ... [Full Story]

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