Every generation of Americans has its own racial challenges; its own inherited values, its own education and understanding to expand; its own tolerance issues to temper.
People act like there is a start and end date to achieving equality; but it has always been a continuum, since the beginning of the American experiment. We are all individually undertaking the journey to get there, and it takes many generations to get everyone there.
Each generation along the way has its own story in this ongoing process of revealing democracy’s freedom. Some stories are weirder than others.
This story is about the 1920s when weird was formally institutionalized.
Mansfield has some moments in its history that are difficult to address; of dark times and demeaning events.
I’m not afraid to go there because I love this city. I know how important it is to draw the secrets into the light: to achieve greater wholeness by filling in the missing pieces.
Some of our history is shameful. That’s one of the things that makes us interesting. Those stories are what we have as proof that our community has grown up.
Not quite black & white
It is a difficult thing to write in a politically correct way about racism in a city that was 95 percent white during the Ku Klux Klan era of the early 20th century. But then, the Mansfield Klan was not so exclusively focused on color as it was in other areas of Ohio and the country.
I don’t mean to downplay the racist elements of this story: it certainly was there loud and strong; but the race riots in Mansfield took place years before the Klan arrived.
Unquestionably, in keeping with the national ideology of their organization, the local KKK wanted to keep African Americans subdued. But around here the Klan was far more worried about other targets: the Catholics, the Jews, the immigrant Not-Americans.
It takes very few fingers to tally up the number of incidents in Richland County when the Klan used its powers of intimidation to formally antagonize black people.
But there were quite a few events in the county staged by the KKK between 1920-1928 directed toward Catholics.
When they burned the 50-foot cross at the top of Ashland Hill it wasn’t so much to frighten the black folks in Mansfield: it was to make sure all the Poles, Italians, Macedonians, Greeks and Hungarians were aware that Mansfield is a “Christian Land,” which, to them, meant Protestant.
The Mansfield office (Klan #75 on North Main Street) engaged in a number of cross-burning events, as was typical of KKK groups across the U.S. in 1923, but their mission in Richland County was more clearly summed up in their other headline-making formal gestures: presenting American flags to schools and churches.
Their job, as they saw it, was to keep our community very clearly “100 percent American.”
The Birth of the Movement
In the first decades of the 20th century everybody had heard of the Ku Klux Klan from their history books: as a violent Southern movement that rose up after the Civil War to counter US policies presenting equal opportunities to newly liberated slave people.
Officially, the conflagration of the Klan was put out in the 1870s by the federal government. There were embers that continued to smolder underground however, and the flame reignited in 1915.
That was the year when the film industry initiated a new art form of propaganda that mesmerized the American public; and inadvertently redirected the national agenda toward intolerance. The movie was The Birth of a Nation; it was an unbelievably popular movie that happened to glamorize the morality of Klan values.
The film was banned in Ohio in its early days, but once it was allowed in 1917, it always did a brisk business in Mansfield. In the 1920s, when it showed at the Mansfield Memorial Opera House, it drew standing-room only crowds.
During the first half of the 1920s the reawakened Klan gained in numbers as the organization became established in every state and, though the group came back to life in Georgia, the largest membership rose in northern states. It is likely there were 300,000 Klan members in Ohio by 1923, and no fewer than 4 million in the U.S. by 1924. They marched through the streets of the nation’s capital in ranks measured in miles, so it was no secret movement.
The first formal efforts to create a Klan organization in Mansfield happened in 1921 when representatives from huge groups in Indiana and Cleveland came to town quietly looking for recruits.
Only two years later, by 1923, there were already dozens of Klan events taking place in Richland County very publicly, with tremendous attendance.
It was like any social fad in U.S. history: it mounted gradually from a groundswell; rose in a terrific wave; and then crashed on the shore and faded away. The high-water mark of the KKK in Richland County was 1923-24.
At that time the local Klan numbered at least 3,900 members from every town and village. There were crosses burned across the entire county on the highest hills.
All of the public Mansfield cross-burnings were staged in proximity to the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) in order to catch attention of passing travelers. Both east and west of town in the summer months, long lines of cars parked on the side of the road to watch the spectacles.
The biggest events took place at the fairgrounds, which was at that time on Springmill Street, near where Route 30 is today. The Klan ‘demonstration and initiation’ events in 1923 brought far more crowds to the fairgrounds than the county fair ever did. In September they staged an initiation ceremony that invested 1,000 men and 500 women into the organization at one time.
This event went so well, they did it again barely six weeks later. Emboldened by success, thousands of Klansmen lined up in ranks to stage a parade through Mansfield. In full hooded and robed costume, they marched from the fairgrounds down Springmill Street to downtown, around the Square, and back.
It is a nearly four-mile hike, and accounts said it was done in almost complete silence, except for scattered polite applause from the bystanders downtown.
Who they were
It is easy to think, by today’s standards, that these huge crowds of robed folks drew in all the disaffected characters from the fringes of society, but that was not true at all.
In the 1920s the KKK manifested in Ohio more like a fraternal service organization, that was appealing and beneficial to community leaders. Roll calls of the local Klan included prominent businessmen, industrialists, judges and city leaders of the highest positions.
Belonging to the KKK was considered a patriotic duty.
In fact, the chief activity of public promotion that the Klan undertook was presenting American flags to schools and churches in formal ceremonies.
For example, they marched into the Methodist Church in Butler all in costume in the middle of a Sunday service, and presented the minister with a flag, a Bible, and an envelope full of cash.
This was a typical Klan activity, and it made headlines when it happened in Mifflin, Taylortown, Shelby, Lexington, Plymouth and Mansfield.
The Klan made flag presentations at grade schools, high schools, even the Boy Scout camp. They wanted to make it difficult to criticize their motives.
Even though the Klan put forth an appearance of benign benevolence with flags and Bibles, their exhibitions with disguises and cross-burnings were much more provocative as the trappings of intimidation and anger.
Look behind most peoples’ anger and the first thing you find is fear.
So what did the people in Mansfield have to be afraid of in the 1920s? To all appearances they were more than sufficiently secure: industry was booming at an all-time high and production was increasing every day. There were more jobs than ever before.
That was exactly the problem, however. More jobs meant more strangers to fill the positions. The city was growing at a phenomenal rate, which was wonderful; but it was filling up with black families emigrating from the South, and foreign families immigrating from Europe.
These newcomers brought with them an alien culture. The chemistry of the melting pot was changing, and Mansfield had many more people who didn’t speak English.
It was not the America that old Mansfielders had grown up with.
The first overt actions taken by the KKK in Mansfield were in the form of threatening letters. These letters weren’t sent to the foreigners, they were mailed to the Mansfield Police Department. They said if the cops wouldn’t control the foreigners, the Klan would do it themselves with hot tar.
The Klan was indignant that foreigners were partying late at night. It was, after all, the Prohibition Era, and alcohol was illegal. Non-Americans were having too much fun.
The local Klan wasn’t concerned with race, specifically, or ethnicity, so much as principles and ethics. They considered themselves ‘guardians of public morality.’
They protested movies that showed women drinking.
No one was taking them very seriously as arbiters of public behavior, so they decided to make a demonstration of how fearsome they could be by burning a cross over the Mansfield skyline where no one could miss it.
One night in January 1924 they carried a 50-foot cross to the top of Ashland Hill and set it on fire.
It was, however, January; and everybody was inside where it was warm. No one was looking at the skyline.
So the Klan guys set off a bomb.
It was an effective tactic: startled folks ran outside to see what blew up, and there, clearly visible in the sky above Mansfield, was the flaming emblem of the Invisible Empire.
That was really the KKK red-letter day in Mansfield. Everybody noticed them that time. It was all downhill from there.
They burned a lot more crosses after that—one was 75 feet tall—but nobody was paying much attention outside the organization. Within a year the local Klan was already losing its magnetic appeal.
Folks stopped paying their dues.
Some unsanctioned rogue bands of Klansmen tried to stir things up in town: burning crosses in the Square and at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, but the individuals were quickly apprehended, jailed and disavowed by the Klan.
By 1925 when the Klan tried to rent Mansfield High School auditorium for an event, the School Board turned them away. That seemed to indicate an end to all official community blessing.
In 1926 they scheduled parades and hired police to guard their route, but no one showed up and the events were called off.
End of an era
Looking back at the 1920s can be kind of embarrassing. It’s hard to think of our town engaged in the politics of intimidation. Of course, how much righteous dignity can you impart when you’re dressed up in bedsheets like Trick-or-Treat? You have to be embarrassed for them: at the time they must not have recognized how bizarre they looked.
In 1929 the stock market crashed, and the plummeting economy leveled the playing field, so suddenly everybody was flat broke and no one could pretend to be superior. All those 100 percent Americans were too busy trying to survive to take time out to strut around in robes.
And besides, during hard times when every dime counted: no one wanted to spend $1 to get those robes cleaned.