Carl Wittke, Historian, 1892–1971


Academic historians, as a rule, prefer to observe time’s ragged pageant from a safe distance. Carl Wittke, though his objectivity was impeccable and his relentless pursuit of the facts at times astonishing, wrote from a rather different perspective. The very title of his monumental history of the nation’s immigrants, We Who Built America, suggests the pride and passion he brought to his subject as the son of immigrants who grew up at a time when “hyphenated” Americans were looked down upon and even suspect.

A nationally respected scholar, Wittke was also an outspoken champion of civil rights in an era when other academics shied from taking public positions. When the campus workers of Oberlin College were struggling in the 1940s to unionize, Wittke, a professor of history and dean of the college, championed their cause. Indeed, according to such reliable sources as his long-time secretary Thea Johnson and Cleveland historian Thomas F. Campbell, who wrote his dissertation under Wittke, his passionate involvement may have cost him the presidency of Oberlin.

Wittke, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, at the turn of the 19th century, had performed in minstrel shows during his student days at Ohio State University. In the preface to Tambo and Bones (1930), a history of the American minstrel stage that was praised by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson, he admitted to “happy memories of the burnt-cork semi-circle.” The experience had fostered in him “an abiding interest and a real love” for the culture of a downtrodden people—from its folk songs and spirituals to cakewalking ballads and the unaccompanied harmonizing of pick-up quartettes in black barbershops. “Here is a music,” he wrote, “which voices the joys and sorrows, the longing, the fatalism, the aspirations and the sufferings of one of the most musically gifted peoples of the earth.” He took pains to point out important differences between “the stage Negro” and individuals of African-American descent.

As the son of a German immigrant—his father Carl Wilhelm had come to Columbus in 1889, three years before young Carl's birth—Wittke himself had experienced ethnic bigotry in the anti-Hun hysteria that swept America during the First World War. “For the German element in the United States,” he wrote in 1936 in German-Americans and the World War, “[the war] initiated a period of emotional crisis, conflicts of loyalties, misunderstandings, persecutions, tragedy which few of their fellow citizens appreciated.” German was banned from Ohio schools, and German books were burned.

The Wittkes must have taken comfort from the fact that their son had earned not only his bachelor’s degree from OSU (1913), but also a master’s in history from Harvard (1914). By the time German-Americans appeared, he had also earned a doctorate (1921) from Harvard, published five books—including a highly praised History of Canada (Knopf, 1928) and a life and times of George Washington written in German (Bremen, 1933)—to say nothing of more than 30 scholarly articles. OSU had appointed Wittke to its history faculty as soon as he completed his Ph.D, four years later naming him full professor and chairman of the department. German-Americans and the World War was widely admired for its rigorous research. Wittke had, among other things, demolished the popular myth that German-Americans had conspired against American neutrality in the 1916 elections.

His continued exploration of little-read German-American periodicals and personal documents from the second half of the19th century would result in a series of ground-breaking books: Against the Current: The Life of Karl Heinzen: 1809–1880 (1945); Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-eighters in America (1952), which showed the formative influence of the aborted uprising of 1848 in Germany on many immigrants; and The German Language Press in America (1957). The first of these, published even as Americans were reveling over the defeat of Hitler, challenged the stereotype of Germans as a brutish, lockstep people fostered by anti-Nazi propaganda. Heinzen had been a courageous crusader against censorship, militarism and reactionary repression in Germany in the years leading up to the abortive1848 uprising; he had emigrated to America in 1850 in search of a more just society, only to find himself back on the barricades, this time as a radical abolitionist and an advocate for women's rights and many other political, economic and social reforms. Wittke himself, an ardent champion of free speech, had addressed the City Club of Cleveland during the war and would later speak vigorously against red-baiter Joseph McCarthy.

But the book that made his reputation was published in 1939. We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant opened many eyes in both the scholarly and lay communities, as to what Wittke argued was the real epic of America: the story of the “forgotten thousands who have helped to build this nation.” In opposition to those who saw immigrants as a “problem” that could only be cured by assimilation and Americanization, Wittke stood up for the value of human diversity and the then-radical idea known as “cultural pluralism.” Delving deeply into contemporary sources, including foreign-language newspapers, he exposed the shadowy history of immigration restriction, while exploring the contributions of various groups of “Americans Who Missed the Mayflower” (the title of a talk he liked to give).

In 1948 Wittke joined the faculty of Western Reserve University as professor of history and dean of the graduate school; he became chairman of the history department in 1952. Somehow, he found time to write four more books—including an eye-opening history of The Irish in America—and a score of articles. By now a scholar of national reputation, he was asked to be general editor of a six-volume History of the State of Ohio. In 1959, he was named Elbert J. Benton Distinguished Professor of History; in 1962, vice president of the university. Unlike many scholars preoccupied with publishing, however, Wittke, insisted on teaching at least one course every semester. After he retired in 1963 as chairman emeritus of the university, the institution established a Carl F. Wittke Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching.

In retirement, Carl Wittke was to write one more book, The First Fifty Years: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1916-1966. The local focus of the subject surprised no one. In a collection of essays entitled In the Trek of Immigrants by 16 leading historical scholars presented to Wittke in 1964, O. Fritiof Ander noted that Wittke was more than an authority on the great wave of humanity that had so enriched America. He was, said Ander, a “grass roots” historian and a regionalist who “played a significant role in reviving an interest in state and local history” and encouraged and inspired others to mine that precious lode.

—Dennis Dooley


America’s Minstrel Heritage

The troubadours of the American burnt cork circle were utterly different from the minstrels of other lands and earlier times. There was little in the American minstrel show even remotely suggestive of the troubadours, minnesingers, jongleurs and bards of medieval Europe, except perhaps a genuine love for song and a common gift for improvising endless verses. The theme of the American performer generally was quite different from that of his European predecessors. All minstrels, to be sure, have sung of lovable eyes and faithful hearts and the mist of moonlight evenings, but the repertory of the blackface minstrel included so many additional themes that minstrelsy became a distinctive American institution. The burnt cork artist of the United States of the nineteenth century could have originated in no other country in the world. His art was indigenous to the United States, and from here it was introduced, with only moderate success, to England, the Continent of Europe, and to other parts of the globe. If it did not flourish elsewhere as it did in the United States, the primary reason was that foreigners could not understand or fully appreciate the peculiarly American conditions from which this entirely new form of entertainment had sprung.

Often in ante-bellum days the master, in quest of amusement and entertainment, [had] summoned those of his slaves who were specially gifted as singers or dancers to perform for him at the Great House, and on occasion he invited his guests and friends to the performance. More often the Negroes danced and sang because of their own innate and irrepressible fondness for rhythmic and musical expression. As early as 1784, Thomas Jefferson, in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, described “the banjar,” which the slaves had brought with them from Africa and which the Sage of Monticello believed to be the “origin of the guitar.” . . . From the pathos and humor of the Negroes, their superstitions and their religious fervor, their plaintive and their hilarious melodies, their peculiarities of manner, dress and speech, the white minstrel built his performance . . . . In the process . . . the stage Negro became quite a different person from the model on which he was formed.

—Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968)



The Anti-German Hysteria

A seventeen year old girl was dismissed from an Illinois school for refusing to stand and sing America. Apparently, she had acted on the advice of her German parents. Unusually provocative was the conduct of two German-Americans who offered a pianist in a saloon twenty-five cents to play the German national anthem . . . A patriotic celebration of Germans in northern Ohio brought a hurried visit from the sheriff who had received a report that the German flag was on display. He found it to be the Stars and Stripes, but so old and patched that in the distance the banner looked like a German flag. The sheriff who had come to make arrests, dramatically raised his hat in salute to the flag, and quietly departed for home. . . .

In Toledo, Ohio, a mob marched through the German-American section to intimidate its residents. Men were knocked down in the streets for failing to remove their hats while the National air was being played . . . . A Home Defense League was organized at Delphos, Ohio, and a vigilance committee instituted a hunt through several counties for the editor of a German-language paper who had wisely fled from the vicinity. Four hundred men, in the dark of night, proceeded from house to house, nailing up flags. The editor of the Delphos (Ohio) Herold was finally brought back from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Trembling for his life, he was forced to declare his loyalty in the public square. At Coshocton a mob broke into sixteen homes and forced the “pro-Germans” to yell, “To hell with the Kaiser,” and weekly meetings of the League of American Patriots were instituted to keep the community steadfast in its loyalty.

—German-Americans and the World War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1936)



Americas White Slaves

The problem of securing an adequate labor supply for the manifold activities to be carried on in a new land led to the introduction of white servitude in the colonies, and thousands of immigrants, too poor to make their way to America by other methods, came as “redemptioners,” or indentured servants. Strictly speaking, indentured immigrants were those who had signed a contract before embarking binding them to service for a specified number of years to pay the cost of their transportation to and maintenance in the colonies, whereas redemptioners were transported without pay or indenture and might be “redeemed” by having friends or relatives pay for their voyage within a certain number of days. Otherwise, they too became indentured, and were sold into service by the captain of the ship to the highest bidder. . . . That families were often disrupted by these auction sales of white labor, and that the immigrant was frequently a victim of the fraudulent practices of sharpers, was perhaps inevitable.

Colonial newspapers contain many advertisements that throw light on this traffic in indentured servants . . . . The American Weekly Mercury for May 22, 1729, advertised the arrival from Scotland of “a parcel of choice Scotch Servants; Taylors, Weavers, Shoemakers and Ploughmen, some for five and others for seven years; Imported by James Coults.” Schoolmasters were advertised as regularly as tailors and other artisans, and seem to have brought a lower price . . . . Advertisements for runaway indentured servants were fairly common, and laws for apprehending those servants were passed by several colonies. The names of Irish and English runaways seem to appear in the colonial papers most frequently, and the names of Germans very seldom. This is not necessarily a tribute to German steadiness or a comment on lack of initiative. The difference may be accounted for by the difficulty the Germans experienced with the English language. Occasionally, advertisements were placed in Pennsylvania German papers to find out the whereabouts of children who had been sold without the consent or knowledge of their parents.

—We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1939)


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