Multiculturalism is in their roots

Heritage: Ehrlich's, Schaefer's German ancestors struggled with assimilation in Maryland.

May 16, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When Clickner Ehrlich and William Henry Schaefer were born in Baltimore in the late 1880s, they became part of a multicultural city where German-American children were offered bilingual education at public expense, and their parents felt little pressure to jump into the melting pot.

The grandfather of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and father of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer would have enjoyed advantages unthinkable to the Latin, Asian and African immigrants to modern-day Baltimore.

Ehrlich and Schaefer, who have recently decried the pace at which immigrants are becoming "Americanized," are both members of an ethnic group that enjoyed tremendous influence in 19th-century and early 20th-century Maryland. Between the Civil War and World War I, German-Americans used that power to create a society in which they could prosper without speaking English.

In 1897, when Ehrlich's and Schaefer's ancestors would have been elementary school age, the city's public school system included seven schools that offered instruction in both German and English to 7,000 pupils. Maryland's laws had to be published in translation in German-language newspapers - of which there were many.

Baltimore was at that time part of the "German Triangle" along with Milwaukee and St. Louis - three cities in which Teutonic culture and language were pervasive. Germans in those cities in effect enjoyed all the benefits of multiculturalism, which Ehrlich recently described as "crap" and "bunk."

Schaefer and the Ehrlich family of today are thoroughly assimilated - as the governor has said all immigrants should strive to be. But while some 19th-century German-Americans plunged headlong into the English-speaking culture, others adapted slowly.

For instance, the governor's father, Robert L. Ehrlich Sr., confirmed in a brief interview that Clickner Ehrlich attended a German language school. He said his father became a longtime Baltimore police officer and died in 1965.

About his more distant ancestry, the senior Ehrlich is a bit hazy. He said he believes his paternal grandfather's name was Otto, but records at the Maryland State Archives list Clickner's father as Herman Ehrlick - multiple spellings are common in immigrant names of the era - and his mother's maiden name as Susan Dove of Gaithersburg. "I'm sorry now that as a kid growing up I [didn't ask] more questions," the governor's father said in an interview that he cut short because of disagreements with The Sun's editorials.

He said he was told that Clickner Ehrlich was born to a father who emigrated from Bavaria but died at the age of 33.

Someone named Herman O. Ehrlick was naturalized in Baltimore in 1888, and according to city directories he was keeping a saloon on German Street (Redwood Street after World War I) as late as 1901. At various times he was also listed as a machinist and a florist. He disappears from the public records after 1902.

According to Francis P. O'Neill, reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, Clickner is listed as part of his uncle Walter's household in 1890. Walter was apparently one of several Ehrlich brothers who arrived in Baltimore in 1883 on a ship from Bremen and later shared a home near what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard - not far from where fellow German-American George Herman "Babe" Ruth was raised.

Schaefer has seemed ambivalent about his heritage, sometimes claiming to be Dutch. But genealogical records compiled by the Mormon Church show that his German ancestors came to Baltimore some 30 years earlier than Ehrlich's.

The records show that the comptroller's great-grandfather, George Conrad Schaffer, emigrated with his wife from Germany's Hessen region between 1851 and 1855. Louis Schaefer, the comptroller's grandfather, was born in Baltimore in 1860 and used the current spelling of the family name.

George Schaffer arrived in Maryland when German and Irish immigrants were still under siege from nativist "Know-Nothings" who feared the cultural influence of the new arrivals and resented hearing them speak strange languages.

If the nativists thought their insults and attacks would speed German assimilation, they were wrong, according to Dieter Cunz's 1948 book The Maryland Germans: A History.

"They cut themselves off, founded their own societies, churches, schools, newspapers and built a wall around their German-American individualism that was to hinder the acclimation of even the next generation," Cunz wrote. "The oftener the Know Nothings broke into a German [festival] or attacked and beat a German, the more stubbornly the Germans stuck together in order to show they were not ashamed of being German."

During the Civil War, Baltimore's German community became a powerful political force courted in their language by both political parties - much as today's Democrats and Republicans run political ads in Spanish.

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