Ku Klux Klan lecture draws large crowd

NILES — Rocky Soriano was 4 and living with his family in Niles when he noticed the town seemed to vibrate with activity and the newspapers came with photos of “clowns” he thought were part of the Halloween parade.

Soriano was too young and “too nosy,” his mother told him in 1924. “Mind your own business,” she said.

But Soriano wouldn’t stop asking questions and took his curiosity to his grandfather.

His grandfather explained the people wearing decorated white robes and pointed hoods weren’t dressed up for Halloween, and gently helped the boy understand what was going on, Soriano said.

Tensions between members of the Ku Klux Klan in the area where coming to a boil in Niles, where a large population of Italian and Irish immigrants lived, worked and educated their children.

Soriano was one of more than 100 people who attended a historical presentation Saturday by Ralph Tolbert and Sandy Bilovesky of the Niles Historical Society at the Niles McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The lecture on the KKK in Niles was part of a series of events hosted this year in honor of the memorial’s 100th anniversary celebration.

Tolbert said members of the Klan joined together for political clout, getting sympathizers onto school boards, city councils and in other positions of power in the years after the 1915 film from D.W. Griffith, “Birth of a Nation,” a fictional film with a few historical anchors that used white actors in “black face” to portray a white supremacist view of the Civil War and its aftermath. Though widely regarded as racist, the silent film was one the first to draw viewers in with a dramatic plot line.

The film, Tolbert said, invigorated people who saw immigrants at the time akin to the way blacks were portrayed in the film — there to eliminate Protestant, white American culture with their Catholic religion, wine drinking during the prohibition age, need for jobs and co-mingling with their children.

Niles acted as a powder keg and people from all over the region planned to come to the defense of the immigrants or support the Klan’s effort to intimidate them.

After Tolbert and Bilovesky finished outlining the events of the Nov. 1, 1924, clash and the events leading up to it, the enthused crowd, which gasped at details and laughed at idiosyncrasies, seemed to be bursting at the seams to share their own memories or memories relatives had of the events.

Soriano said his grandfather’s explanation of the planned Klan gathering and the resistance to it — led by the Knights of the Flaming Circle — added slowly to his understanding of the racial tensions.

Knowing the Klan was stopped — even if the clashes sent some to the hospital and a handful of others to the grave — gave him a sense of pride in his community.

“But today… Who would have thought the Klan would still be around today?!” Soriano exclaimed as he spoke to the crowd Saturday.

Josephine Boccia Medovich said her father, who worked at the Niles depot of the Erie Railroad, recalled his tales of the day a train tried to drop of its passenger cars full of members of the Klan. She said her father warned priests in Niles of the imminent arrival, but the train wasn’t allowed to stop. There was a rumor the Knights of the Flaming Circle had rigged the tracks to explode, Tolbert said.

Tolbert said there were clashes in the streets between the groups in several “choke points” into town where anti-Klan people gathered to stop a potential parade of 10,000 that met in a field off North Road. It isn’t clear how many died, one report states three; many were shot, stabbed and hit with blunt objects.

Kelly McKinney was born and raised in Niles and grew up hearing about the Klan’s famed attempt to host the parade. Her grandfather told of a machine gun set up at Cedar Avenue and Mason Street in case the Klan got that far, she said.

McKinney had her own close call with Klan-like behavior, she said.

At 19, McKinney moved to Louisiana for three years, married to a member of the Air Force.

Working in a drive-thru restaurant, she greeted a truck full of men and held out her hand to accept their money, she said.

“One of them grabbed my arm. The other pointed a gun at me. They said, ‘Where you from?’ I told them, ‘Near Youngstown, Ohio.’ And they said, ‘We knew you weren’t from around here.’ At this point, I was crying and yelling for my manager. I was terrified,” McKinney said. “There is still a lot of hostility down there, against people of different races and northerners too, going all the way back to what happened in the 1880s, especially in the deep parts. I was very leery of everyone down there after that.”

Because there are no entrenched enclaves of the Klan in the area now, McKinney said she doesn’t think the people could be riled up enough to create a similar event again.

But if it did?

“I hope we would all get together, come together and drive them out. I know I would.”

rfox@tribtoday.com