As a lawyer to his fellow Lithuanian immigrants in Springfield, Isidor Yacktis (1883-1953) leveraged his higher education and social status to serve as a mediator between his own people and mainstream Americans, to whom the immigrant “hordes” seemed unruly, threatening–and potentially even disloyal. It couldn’t have been easy being an ambassador of the higher potential largely invisible within his community of illiterate miners and laborers back around the time of World War I.
Yet it appears that Yacktis was first publicly called upon — and rose — to perform this role as soon as he was admitted to the Illinois Bar. The year was 1915, and the extreme barbarity of World War I in Europe had already become frighteningly apparent. Neutrality-loving Americans were feeling queasy about immigrants manifesting the national interests and hostilities of their countrymen back home and dragging the U.S. into the Great War.
Therefore, on July 4, 1915, the Illinois governor, lieutenant governor, and other dignitaries held a large, public meeting to welcome newly naturalized citizens at the Illinois State Arsenal, Second Street and Capitol Avenue, according to the Illinois State Register.
Around 1,000 people attended and were exhorted by the governor to give up all former lines of nationality in hopes “that America might be spared participation in the War.” The “right hand of fellowship” was extended on behalf of the city, a speech was given on The Ideal Citizen, and Isidor Yacktis addressed his own people, along with newly-minted U.S. citizens of German, Italian, Scandinavian, English, Scottish and Irish birth, to set a public example of “his unequivocal allegiance to the stars and stripes.” The Declaration of Independence was read, and “Illinois” was sung, accompanied by the Capital City Band.
Eighteen months later, as the U.S. was officially entering World War I, America’s “loyalty” concern became immigrant men responding to the new military draft. The Illinois State Register described an “Americanization” mass meeting on Jan. 12, 1917 at Palmer Elementary School on Springfield’s north side. “While nations across the sea are at war, the United States is busy arousing the love of America among her foreign-born citizens,” the paper proclaimed.
Germans, Italians and Lithuanians were gathered at the school to be formally addressed by a representative of each of their nationalities, including Yacktis. “The foreigners listened attentively to the admonitions of the representatives of their own governments, who told them they must give unfaltering allegiance to the country of their adoption and be loyal to the American flag and American institutions,” the Jan. 13 article reported.
Included on the program were “simple” explanations of American government at the city, state and national level by a U.S. district court judge. Then a chief examiner for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization explained the requirements of U.S. citizenship. The mass meeting closed with the singing of “America”—and most likely, the registration of many young immigrant men to enter the charnel house of trench warfare in Europe.
Many male immigrants officially documented their intent to become citizens at this time and achieved citizenship upon their discharge from military service, provided they survived the War.
That same year, Isidor Yacktis expressed his identity as a Lithuanian by writing an op-ed for the Illinois State Register entitled, “Lithuania, a Separate Nation,” explaining the distinct nationality of the Lithuanian people and arguing against Polish designs on parts of post-Russian Lithuania.
Several months earlier, Yacktis had leaned a little more to his American side, publishing his name in a display ad in the Register supporting the “Committee to Make Springfield Dry.” Prohibition was certainly not a sentiment shared by the majority of his immigrant countrymen. However, that may have been precisely why he supported it, as a way to combat alcoholism and its attendant social ills.
In 1918, Yacktis appears in an article encouraging community-spirited individuals to join the YMCA and pay for a six-month “Y” membership for two returning soldiers or sailors. Again in his role as an official voice and ambassador for his community, Yacktis’ name appears in several additional display ads placed by members of the Illinois Bar on major political and social issues. Another newspaper report finds Yacktis investing $25,000 in a Flexotile (roofing and wall tile material) manufacturing concern with four other local men, probably lawyers. No mention is made of the success or failure of that business.
In his legal career, Yacktis seems to have operated from an office at 213 S. Sixth St., where he also let at least one room for $5 a month in 1946. He also appears in a 1937 newspaper mention for regularly giving food and water to a stray kitten living near the Johnny Orlove Tavern. The kitten’s paw had been gnawed off by rats.
Along the way, Yacktis represented families in estate matters, couples in chancery (divorce) court, and individuals in personal injury matters, including a Max Bracius, who had been struck on his bicycle by a city water truck.
Thanks to Bill Cellini, Jr. for originally drawing my attention to Isidor Yacktis — Sandy Baksys
Copyright Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois. Reprinted with permission.