Italian voices block KKK’s arrival

NILES — Talk to almost any Italian-American living in Niles and they have a story about one of their relatives who participated in the effort to stop the Ku Klux Klan from entering the city and holding a parade on Nov. 1, 1924.

Even the curator of the National McKinley Birthplace Museum, Patricia Scarmuzzi, has a story.

“My aunt talked about it. She was little at the time and would have been 97 or 98 if she was alive today.When that (the confrontation between the KKK and anti-KKK citizens of Niles) happened, they were living on Depot Street. They knew that the KKK was coming after the immigrants, the Italians. They told their children, ‘You come straight home from school today and you do not stop anywhere.'”

“When they got home, they were supposed to stay away from the windows. My grandparents didn’t want them to see what was going on outside. Somehow, my aunt got to a window and she saw the bonfires,” said Scarmuzzi.

The KKK was established in the southern states in 1866 in opposition to Civil War Reconstruction seeking unity of the country and the achievement of economic and political equality for the recently freed slaves, according to History.com.

It worked toward a return to white supremacy in the country. In the late 1870s, the group had some success through the election of politicians who held their views. After this, there was a period of decline in membership. But in the 1920s, there was a resurgence of KKK activity. In addition to African-Americans, the focus of intimidation were Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

“My father, Gennaro Boccia, was one of the group that warned Father Nicholas Santoro because they were worried about him being at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. He was the pastor there. They warned him to go into hiding,” said Josephine Boccia Medovich of Niles.

Her father found out about the KKK coming to the city through his job.

“He was a car inspector for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. He heard rumors that the Klan was coming in on the railroad,” she said.

The majority of the Italian immigrants lived on the east side of Niles within walking distance of their jobs and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which was almost entirely an Italian-American parish.

Some of the streets where they resided, raised their families and ran small markets were Baldwin Avenue, Scott Street, Ann Street, Depot Street, Mason Street and Fenton Street.The KKK knew the Italian immigrants lived in a clustered area.

“Grandpa (Neil Gatta) told me that the Ku Klux Klan came to burn a cross in Mason Woods, which is now Mason Street closer to Summit Street. Then the last time they came they were met at the train station by the people of Niles with guns, axes, shovels and bats,” recalled former Niles resident, Angie Gatta Byrom.

In Philomena Jurey’s book, “Bella Giornata and Elbow Grease, Remembering Papa and Mama, the Sparanos of New Castle, Pennsylvania,” she relates an account from then-12-year-old Niles resident Roger Lateano. He witnessed the confrontation between the KKK and citizens of Niles from his hiding place under a railroad trestle.

Lateano commented the KKK never made it to town for the parade and the governor brought in the Ohio National Guard. The city was under martial law with more than 1,000 soldiers sent there to keep order.

Don Andres of Niles learned of the efforts of the Italian immigrants thwarting the Ku Klux Klan from his father, Nick Andres.

“It worked. They (the KKK) went on to Warren,” said Andres.