Once the United States decided to enter the European War in 1917, a drumbeat of patriotic zeal was sounded to get the entire country behind the war effort, drafting young men to go fight and raising money through the sale of government bonds to fund the war. However, if your last name was different or you spoke with an accent, this wave of patriotism could be a very bad thing for your safety and liberty as an American.
This was the wall of prejudice and danger that met many members of the Mennonite community. Many Mennonites in central Kansas and western Oklahoma had German surnames and still spoke with a German accent (because many still spoke Low-German in their homes), even though their ancestors had lived in the United States for years, some since the 1700s. The Mennonite religion forbade participating in war in any way, so when these farmers and small town businessmen, with German surnames and German accents, refused to let their sons be drafted and refused to buy war bonds to support a violent conflict their religion opposed, they became targets for domestic terrorist attacks by home-grown “patriots.”
Local newspapers made it their duty to publish the names of area residents who did not buy war bonds or who were not flying American flags. Using these lists, gangs of “nightriders” broke the windows of Mennonite-run businesses, splashed yellow paint on the walls of homes, businesses, and churches and generally terrorized their Mennonite neighbors. Some Mennonites who refused to register for the draft or buy war bonds were even dragged from their homes and tarred and feathered.
Such was the story of young Henry Cooprider, a Mennonite farmer in McPherson County, Kansas. When nightriders came to his home and threatened to tar and feather his old father, Henry offered himself to the intruders in his father’s stead. Read about Henry’s story and about his time as a Mennonite conscientious objector interned at Camp Funston in the two-part Kansas History article, “The Cost of Conscience:”