Ku Klux Klan came to Valley in early 1920s
The Ku Klux Klan established itself in the Mahoning Valley in the early 1920s, and by 1923, held sway in the election of mayors in Warren, Niles and Youngstown. The group also played a role in the election of school board and city council members in Niles.
KKK groups in the area then mostly were made up of white Protestants whose families had for generations been moving into the Western Reserve from northern Europe and Germany to establish lives in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to William D. Jenkins, author of “Steel Valley Klan: The Ku Klux Klan in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley.”
Jenkins, a retired Youngstown State University history professor, said early KKK leaders stoked fears about Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe coming to the U.S. to take jobs and challenge religious traditions.
“The Klan was emphasizing a kind of Americanism which focused on areas being populated and controlled by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” Jenkins said. “The focus was more on religion than on ethnicity. They worried foreign speaking people, about the Catholic church and influence of the pope and the Catholic schools that were opening.”
KKK leaders had rallies in local communities to garner interest from residents and to show their increasing influence and power. Members went to churches, schools and social organizations, providing gifts and to espouse their beliefs about the white superiority and their view of faith, Jenkins said. They spoke against any of those who looked and sounded different.
Also, growth of the organization coincided with Prohibition. KKK leaders tailored their message to support of vice laws, close illegal liquor establishments and to throw bootleggers in jail.
“Communities south of Youngstown were strongholds for the Klan,” Jenkins said. “There were hardly any immigrants in those areas, so they were spreading the fear of the unknown.”
KKK leaders followed a similar pattern in Trumbull County. There were about 10,000 people in the mid-1920s in the Mahoning Valley who identified as KKK members.
CLASHES IN NILES
In communities with larger immigrant populations, like Niles, which had high numbers of people of Italian and Irish decent, there was resistance to the KKK, Jenkins said. Differences between the two sets of immigrants were set aside in united opposition to the growing strength and open antagonism of the KKK.
“There were a series of increasingly violent clashes in 1923 and early in 1924,” Jenkins said. “While there were a number of attempts by the Klan to have rallies and marches go through the center of Niles, they failed each time.”
Plans were made for a KKK parade Nov. 1, 1924, that had about 25,000 people scheduled to attend. In the days leading to the event, opponents of the KKK and former Trumbull County Sheriff John “Brickey” Thomas tried to convince Niles mayor, Democrat Harvey C. Kistler, whom the KKK supported in his 1923 election victory, to rescind the permit for the parade to avoid a violent confrontation.
But Kistler, who expressed sympathy to the KKK’s argument of free speech, refused. Yet the parade never happened.
Each time members of the KKK tried to make their way through the city, they were met by violent protests by members of the anti-KKK group Knights of the Flaming Circle and residents.
Some Klan members were described to have been turned away by hail of machine gun fire, Jenkins said. Others who made it near the city’s border were pulled from their cars, beaten and sent on their way.
“The Italians and Irish in Niles took some pride in preventing the Klan from going through their community,” said Jonathan A. Kinser, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Case Wester Reserve University on the anti-Klan group.
The Ohio National Guard was eventually summoned to calm the situation.
“There were dozens of persons hurt and more arrested on both sides,” said Kinser of Wayne Township in Ashtabula County.
Afterward, the KKK’s power diminished in Niles and in northeast Ohio.
“The riot was part, but not the only cause,” said Ralph Tolbert, a member of the Niles Historical Society. “The Irish and the Italian communities elected people more sympathetic to their concerns.”
RALLY IN WARREN
The KKK rally Aug. 8, 1998, at Courthouse Square in downtown Warren was really set into motion several years earlier by a long simmering dispute between a black family and a white family living near one other on Bonnie Brae Avenue SE.
For years, each family accused the other of violent acts. Each took complaints to city officials and the courts, but neither was satisfied.
Kenneth Nemerovsky, who is white, in 1994 sought a permit for a white unity rally, but without a reason, failed to follow through on having the event. Then in 1998, he sent a letter to the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan soliciting help from the group in his dispute with the Dukes family, which is black, and his perceived indifference of city officials about his concerns.
Ohio KKK leaders responded they would hold a rally in the city.
Leading up to the rally, racial tensions in Warren escalated after the Rev. Thomas Spisak of Christ Our King Church claimed in June 1998 two black men broke into the parish and stabbed him dozens of times.
Spisak later admitted the story was a lie and he stabbed himself in a suicide attempt, but his initial story divided some of the city’s black and white communities.
“Tensions were very high,” then-Warren Mayor Henry J. Angelo said.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation gave Warren direction on how to handle the rally. Barricades were erected around Courthouse Square and mounted deputies with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office provided security on horseback. In addition, the city used sanitation and dump trucks to block off a six-block area around the courthouse and police swept the area the night before the rally for weapons.
Other security precautions included installing chain link fences to separate the 30 or so KKK members from the crowd, which numbered about 150 during the less-than-30-minute rally.
“We did not require the downtown merchants to close, but recommended they should be closed during the rally,” Angelo said. “They could have opened if they wanted to, but there would not be any customers.”
The city, at BCI’s recommendation, also had the KKK go through metal detectors and be searched before they were bused to the rally.
One of the people on the bus was a young boy.
Former Tribune Chronicle photographer Gary Green said a photo he took of the boy that day stayed with him over the last 20 years. The boy, looking through the window of one of the buses dropping off members of the Klan, had his hood on, pulled up so the cut-out eye holes rested on his forehead.
“I think back to that day, that little boy, framed by the bus window, looking out at everything going on with such an innocent look,” said Green, who wonders whatever became of the boy.
“Did he do a 180 turn? Or is it deeply ingrained in him?” Green said.
Although the rally drew out strong reaction from protesters, only three people were arrested.
While the rally was taking place, the city, along with area churches and community organizations co-sponsored a Community Unity Day event at Warren G. Harding High School’s Mollenkopf Stadium.
“We had an estimated 15,000 people attending the Unity Day,” Angelo said. “It was blacks, whites and people from all area of this community coming together. It was beautiful. It was one of my best days as mayor.”
Reporter Renee Fox contributed to this story.