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Forgotten flames

3:40 PM  Dec 9th, 2013
by William Vance Trollinger Jr.

The Ku Klux Klan terrorized Catholic universities in the 1920s. But somehow, we forgot. Professor William Vance Trollinger Jr. uncovers stories of great courage in a struggle to define who is an American.

The University of Dayton served as the headquarters of Catholic subversion in southwest Ohio.

That’s how the Klan saw it.

In the years between 1923 and 1926, the Dayton chapter of the Ku Klux Klan — which had at least 15,000 members — devoted much of its energies to harassing the University of Dayton by burning of crosses.

A UD student in the 1920s, Jack Brown later recalled, “it [was] their joy and delight to come out on the campus and burn a cross or two.” But the students did not passively accept the Klan’s harassment. They fought back. As a student at the campus high school later reported, on more than one occasion he and some of his peers raced out of class to chase the Klansmen away, all the while calling on the cowards to “show their faces.”

The Klan responded to such defeats by lighting crosses in Woodland Cemetery across from the University, as the cemetery fence gave the Klansmen some protection from enraged students. But even there the Klansmen were not safe. On one occasion UD football coach Harry Baujan learned that the Klan was en route. So Baujan, as he recalled a half century later, went “to the halls and called out all my big football players.” Gathering them near the cemetery, he instructed the players to wait until the Klansmen got “around that cross.” Once the cross was ablaze, he exhorted his players to “take off after them” and “tear their shirts off” or “anything else, whatever you want to do.” But the Klansmen saw them coming; Baujan lamented, “we never got near any of them,” as “they went … so fast through that cemetery.”

I think this is a great story of courage in the face of terrorism. But you will not find it in any official UD history. There are more stories of student resistance to Ku Klux Klan harassment at other Catholic universities, but most of those stories are also not included in the official histories. As a historian I have a responsibility to uncover such stories and retell them. In doing so we can better understand the struggle to define who is an American and the struggle to secure a university education — struggles which did not end with the cross burnings of the 1920s.

While for many the decade after World War I is best known as the “Roaring Twenties,” these were also the years of the anti-Communist Red Scare, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Trial, and the Ku Klux Klan. Having virtually disappeared in the late 19th century, the Klan was reorganized in Georgia in 1915 and exploded into national prominence in the early 1920s.

While the original Klan concentrated its animus against the newly freed slaves and their Republican Party supporters, this “second” Klan had an expanded list of social scapegoats that included Catholics, Jews and immigrants. Moreover, while the first Klan was based primarily in the South, this Klan had its greatest numerical strength in the Midwest and West. Indiana was the site of the Klan’s greatest achievements, but Ohio may have had more members than any state in the Union; as David Chalmers — who estimated Klan membership in Ohio as 400,000 at its peak — observed in Hooded Americanism, “there was a time during the 1920s when it seemed that mask and hood had become the official symbol of the Buckeye State.”

This certainly fit Dayton. Having recovered from a disastrous flood in 1913 that killed hundreds, in the early 1920s Dayton was a thriving industrial city of more than 150,000 residents and such going concerns as Delco and National Cash Register. Dayton’s factories attracted immigrant laborers; according to the 1920 Census, 28 percent of the populace was either foreign-born or of foreign parentage. Eighty percent of the foreign-born Daytonians were from central, eastern and southern Europe, particularly (in descending order) Germans, Hungarians, Russians, Poles, Austrians, Italians, Slavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Czechs and Romanians. Such immigration patterns meant a strong Catholic presence in Dayton. According to the 1926 Religious Census, 35 percent of reported churchgoers were Catholic, with almost all the rest Protestant. According to Chalmers, this was the perfect setting for the Second Ku Klux Klan: a majority of native-born residents, but with a substantial minority of non-Protestant immigrants.

With at least 10 percent of the city’s population as members of the Ku Klux Klan, Dayton joined Indianapolis; Portland, Ore.; Youngstown, Ohio; Denver; and Dallas as “the hooded capitals of the nation.” And these Klansmen and Klanswomen were determined to make the Klan’s presence felt. Newspaper articles and oral interviews suggest a Dayton illumined by burning crosses in the mid-1920s.

Perhaps the biggest night of cross burning came on May 6, 1924, when the local Klan celebrated the 58th anniversary of the KKK’s founding. The Dayton Daily News reported Klansmen burned a “30-foot cross … in each of the four districts of the city,” attracting supportive crowds of “several hundred persons” to each site.

While only a small percentage of cross burnings in Dayton found their way into newspaper and Klan reports, oral interviews with Catholics who lived in the 1920s help fill out the story. One woman who was a teenager in the Klan’s peak years admitted that she is still spooked by the memory of “crosses burning almost every night” near her home. One resident of Dayton in those years recalled that the “threat of Klan violence was always there … [this was] the big threat in the Catholic mind: what [the Klan] could do to us.”

The Society of Mary, a Catholic order of brothers and priests, founded St. Mary’s School for Boys in Dayton in 1850. Renamed the University of Dayton in 1920, the school by 1923 had 280 full-time undergraduates (85 percent of whom were Catholic), 36 law students and 174 students who took night classes, not to mention the 560 students who attended the high school on campus. A contributor to a locally published KKK newspaper asserted that the University “stands like a giant fortress upon a high hill overlooking the surrounding country,” with a ROTC program that had been established for the purpose of training a Catholic army to fight religious wars against American Protestants.

On Sept. 21, 1923, the Dayton Ku Klux Klan held perhaps its largest rally, including a 3-mile march down Main Street (its sidewalks packed with cheering spectators) and a “naturalization ceremony” for prospective Klansmen at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. Fifteen thousand Klansmen formed a ring around 7,000 kneeling initiates, while 10,000 spectators filled the stands. The ceremony included prayers, songs and the oath taken by the Klansmen-to-be affirming their “pure American nationality” (that they were white and they were Protestant). Then, celebration.

It would have been very difficult for the students and staff on the campus just down the road not to hear the cheering and singing of an estimated 32,000 white Dayton Protestants, not to feel the tremors of bombs being set off, not to see the Klan airplane (with a cross illuminated with red electric lights) circling the Fairgrounds, not to see the fireworks exploding in the sky, not to see the 100-foot burning cross.

This rally seemed to embolden the Dayton Klan in its campaign against UD. The autumn of 1923 saw more cross burnings on or near University property. In early December the Klan planted a cross on campus and set it afire; as the Dayton Daily News later reported, this incident “terminated in a clash between a group of students and the alleged klansmen [sic], [who] were outnumbered by the students,” and who ran off into the night “before identification could be made.” It was an embarrassing failure for the forces of militant Protestantism and may have motivated the Klansmen to up the ante in their next attack.

Wednesday, Dec. 19, 1923, was the first day of Christmas break at the University of Dayton. By the time evening had arrived fewer than 40 students remained on campus. At 10:30 the calm was shattered. Students leaped out of their beds and ran out into the night as 12 bombs exploded throughout campus, all at some distance from University buildings. No one sustained serious injuries and the property damage was minimal; it could have been much worse, given that at least one bomb went off near campus buildings that stored guns and ammunition for the university’s ROTC program.

But what caught the eyes of the frightened students shivering in the cold was a blazing 8-foot, burlap-wrapped, oil-soaked cross on the west edge of campus. As the UD students ran toward the cross in order to tear it down, they discovered the perpetrators waiting for them. As reported by the Dayton Daily News, several hundred Klansmen had filled 40 to 50 cars, which they very slowly drove in single file “past the blazing emblem,” all the while issuing “a volley of threats” to the badly outnumbered students. But the tables soon turned. Angry at losing their sleep, hunderds of neighbors charged the hooded intruders, yelling their own “menacing threats” as they approached the line of cars in front of the blazing cross. The alarmed Klansmen hit the gas and sped off into the night. Faculty and students, along with the University vice president, “hastened to the cross and battered it to the ground.”

In the bombing’s aftermath, local residents vented their frustrations to the press, complaining that “they ha[d] made repeated remonstrances to the police in regard to the demonstrations at the university,” but to no avail. There were rumors that the police department was filled with Klansmen. The UD administration, however, had also worked to keep city authorities from responding to the disturbances; as Vice President Father Francis Kunnecke, S.M. ’06, admitted after the bombings, the University’s plan had been “to cope with the situation without seeking the aid of the police.”

But the “brazenness” of the Dec. 19 attack led Kunnecke to assert that these “demonstrations directed upon the university were unjustified and unlawful,” and thus the University would “do everything in its power to force prosecution.” When Dayton police detectives reported (after a one-day investigation) that they “were unsuccessful … in finding clews [sic] which would reveal the identity of the invaders,” President Father Bernard O’Reilly, S.M., responded by publicly expressing his frustration with the history of Klan attacks on the University, attacks that “forced the students to lose sleep, which greatly handicapped them in their studies.” He met with “city officials … and asked that immediate action be taken to discover the identity of the alleged klan [sic] members.”

The Dec. 19, 1923, incident was the high point of Ku Klux Klan harassment of the University of Dayton. There were no more bombings. But it does not appear that the Dayton Police Department ever identified the bombers, much less brought them to justice. Moreover, the Klan continued to burn crosses on and near campus, and held more large rallies at the fairgrounds. It was not until the late 1920s, when the Ohio Klan entered a precipitous decline, that the University of Dayton could begin to consider itself safe from terror administered by “100% Americans.”

In spring 1996, I was hired as an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. That summer, Provost Father James Heft, S.M. ’66, asked me to write a brief article on some aspect of Dayton’s religious history, to be distributed to those attending an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Bill Trollinger for UD Magazine by Larry BurgessI knew nothing about Dayton’s religious history, but I did know that the Second Ku Klux Klan had been strong in Ohio. That fall I turned my undergraduate American religious history class — which had just four students: Erin Flory Camargo ’98, John Jauch ’97, John Nally ’96 and David Yarosz ’96 — into a research seminar on religion and religious conflict in Dayton in the 1920s. The secondary literature on the Ohio Klan was minimal, and there was virtually nothing on the Dayton Klan. But their careful reading of the Dayton Daily News showed that the Klan had been very active in Dayton, and that the University of Dayton had been a target of Klan wrath. Students interviewed Marianists who had been on campus as students in the 1920s, as well as Catholic laypeople who had resided in Dayton in those years. From our two months of intensive research I wrote — with my students as secondary co-authors — a very short pamphlet, “Toward a Tolerant and Inclusive Community,” which was distributed at the interfaith celebration.

What surprised me most was that virtually no one I talked with at UD knew that the University had been the target of Ku Klux Klan harassment, much less knew that the school had been bombed in 1923. There is no mention of Klan harassment in institutional histories written in 1937 (just 14 years after the bombing) or in 2000 for the University’s 150th anniversary. And the oral history of the attacks seems not to have made it from one generation of students to the next; in response to my paper on this topic at the 2011 American Catholic Historical Association meeting, Philip Gleason ’51 commented that never in his time as a University of Dayton student (nor in the six decades since graduation) had he heard a word about the Ku Klux Klan’s attacks.

To underscore this point, I return to the story of coach Baujan and his football players chasing the Ku Klux Klan away from campus. The story becomes more dramatic when one realizes Harry Baujan’s place in University of Dayton athletic lore. Having played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and for the Cleveland Tigers/Indians in the nascent National Football League, Baujan came to UD in 1922 as an assistant coach, taking over as head coach in 1923. Over the next few decades he created a stellar football program; not only does the UD soccer field (which had been the football field) bear his name, but in 1990 he was posthumously inducted as a coach into the College Football Hall of Fame.

For all of Baujan’s renown, I had heard nothing about his team’s encounter with the Klan until the summer of 2011 when I visited the University archives. The archivist on duty mentioned in passing that there was an unsubstantiated rumor that UD football players had confronted Klansmen. With this rumor in mind, I discovered the story in a transcript from a 1974 oral history interview with Harry Baujan and one of his players. Five decades had likely muddied some facts, but it seems almost certain that sometime in the mid-1920s the University of Dayton football team — prompted by its legendary head coach — confronted cross-burning Klansmen and sent them running.

kkk2How and why does an institution “forget” an exciting, even heroic, story such as this? Clues go back to July 1920, when the board of trustees voted to change the name from St. Mary’s College to the University of Dayton, a decision that obscured the school’s Catholic identity while publicly linking the school to its home city. While I have not been able to locate records of the board’s deliberations, in October 1920 President Father Joseph Tetzlaff, S.M. ’05, published an article in the University of Dayton Exponent explaining the board’s decision. Tetzlaff provided three reasons for the name change, the second of which focused on how the term “university” better fit the “scope” of academic work being done at the institution.

But the first and third reasons had to do with the city itself. Tetzlaff began with the confusing assertion that making the change from St. Mary’s College to University of Dayton would “bring home to the City of Dayton” the “work of premier order accomplished” at the school “in the domain of cultural and technical education”; this statement suggested that naming the school for its home city would induce Daytonians to have pride in their local university, thus implying that city residents had not felt such pride about St. Mary’s College. Tetzlaff’s third reason for the name change was equally ambiguous: “To do honor to the City of Dayton, which has always entertained a kindly interest in its principal school. … We entertain the fondest hopes that the citizens of this progressive community will make permanent this sympathetic attitude” by providing “their further moral and material support.” If the city had truly maintained “a kindly interest” in the school since its 1850 founding, why the concern that Daytonians “make permanent” their “sympathetic attitude”?

kkk3Perhaps the most that can be said for Tetzlaff’s ambiguous explanation is that it was aspirational. But in the next few years a significant percentage of native-born Daytonians joined or supported the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, which had as one of its primary and ongoing activities a harassment campaign directed against Dayton’s “principal school.”

Still, UD’s administration stayed quiet, perhaps grasping at their “fondest hopes” for the University’s relationship with the city. Then came the December 1923 bombing. Silence was no longer an option. But in breaking the silence it is telling what the administration said. Both President O’Reilly (who had become president that year) and Vice President Kunnecke focused their comments on the threat to the ROTC arsenal on campus; because the Klan was now threatening the property of the United States, its attacks on the University must be stopped. It does not appear there was one public comment from either administrator about the Klan’s anti-Catholicism, or about how Catholics in Dayton and Dayton’s Catholic university were weary of being harassed. To the contrary, the vice president went out of his way to downplay the school’s Catholic identity, observing not only that “students of all denominations attend” the University (thus eliding the fact that 85 percent of UD undergraduates were Catholic), but that this interdenominational “student body” has made “a universal remonstrance … against the picturesque demonstrations that have been staged” on campus.

One plausible reading of the University of Dayton’s almost instantaneous institutional amnesia regarding the Ku Klux Klan harassment and attacks is that there was some sense of shame that a large portion of the community in which they resided and in whose name they had titled the University did not understand UD as truly American. The faster all of this could be forgotten, the better.

What happened and then was forgotten at the University of Dayton leads to questions about the Klan and other Catholic universities, which numbered 69 in 1926, according to the Catholic Education Association.

In Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century, Philip Gleason relates the famous story of the confrontation between University of Notre Dame students and the Ku Klux Klan. As Gleason observes, in May 1924 university students “broke up a regional rally and parade in South Bend,” an attack followed two days later by a student march “on the local Klan headquarters in response to rumors that one of their number was being mistreated there.” Thanks to “the calming effect of an emotional appeal by Notre Dame president [Father] Matthew J. Walsh,” the students were “persuaded … to return to campus before the second episode got completely out of hand.”

UD and Notre Dame were surely not the only Catholic schools to encounter the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. What do institutional histories say — or not say — about such encounters, and what does it tell us?

To answer these questions, I focused on Catholic colleges and universities in nine northern and western states where the Ku Klux Klan was particularly active in the 1920s: Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. I located 23 institutional histories of 17 Catholic universities and colleges in these states. Nine of these histories make reference to Ku Klux Klan activities near or related to the university, but none of these histories make any mention of Klan activities on campus.

For example, in his history of Xavier University, Roger Fortin tells the story of 1928 Ohio Republican gubernatorial candidate Myers Cooper, whose “association with St. Xavier College and its Catholic identity” — Cooper had led the fundraising campaign for Xavier’s football stadium — provided fodder for attacks by his Democratic opponent at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was organizing hate campaigns in Cincinnati.

Detroit was also a center of Klan activity in the 1920s. In his 1977 centennial history of the University of Detroit, Herman Muller relates the story that every Saturday evening in the summer of 1925 Klansmen drove by Gesu Chapel, a church the Jesuits had been “empowered to build” very close to the new campus site of the university. According to a Catholic resident who lived nearby, the University president, Father John McNichols, S.J., “call[ed] for me and my uncle, who was a deputy sheriff,” to protect the church: “My uncle had a double-barrelled shotgun and I had a pump gun. One of us stayed in front and one in back. Father Mac did not want them to burn down the church.”

The story is similar in John Stranges’ 2006 history of Niagara University, The Rainbow Never Fades. Stranges observes that a gathering of some 5,000 hooded delegates shocked “the Catholics of western New York”; Niagara students interpreted the Klansmen as a “demoralizing blemish” or, more hopefully, a “monster reptile doomed inevitably to extinction.” But in The Rainbow Never Fades — as in the histories of Xavier and Detroit — there is no reference to Klan attacks on or harassment of Niagara University.

The Ku Klux Klan receives more attention in James Covert’s history of the University of Portland, A Point of Pride, but it is only in the context of Oregon’s infamous Compulsory Education Bill. As Covert notes, the “Ku Klux Klan … was a motivating force” for this ballot initiative, which made it illegal for “any parent [or] guardian” to “fail or neglect or refuse to send [their] child to a public school,” and which was passed by Oregon voters in November 1922. Covert observes that the University of Portland (known as Columbia University until 1935) not only supported the legal campaign to have this decision ruled unconstitutional — which the Supreme Court did in 1924 — but the lead attorneys in this legal effort were “all formerly connected” with the university. But again, no reference to the Klan on campus.

In their 1953 and 2007 histories of Marquette University, both Raphael Hamilton and Thomas Jablonsky report that the local Klan chapter was prominently involved in the successful campaign to persuade the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to reject a proposal to sell a square block of county-owned property to the university for purposes of building a health complex. What’s curious here is that this only mention of the Klan’s political intervention took place in 1927, at the very time when the Milwaukee chapter of the Klan was, as David Chalmers observes, rapidly splintering into irrelevance. In the mid-1920s, when the Klan was stronger, was it harassing Marquette students?

Finally, there is Denver’s Regis University. The Klan was a dominant force in Colorado politics in the early 1920s, including the election of a Ku Klux Klan executive committeeman as state governor. In keeping with the other university histories, the two institutional histories of Regis are silent about cross burnings on campus. But in his 1955 study of Catholic education in Colorado, William Jones notes that on April 1, 1924, “a large cross was placed on the campus near Carroll Hall and ignited before the faculty or students were aware of the incident.” In his 1989 work, Colorado Catholicism, Thomas Noel also reports this incident, but he gives a different twist on the Regis response: “According to [one source], ‘the Jesuits held the boys back inside or they would have torn those Kluxers apart.’”

One more point about Regis. In April 1921, the trustees changed the college’s name from Sacred Heart to Regis. Institutional histories report that school officials were unhappy with how many schools in America were named “Sacred Heart,” and they were concerned (to quote Ronald Brockway) “about the profane use of a clearly sacred name in sports yells emanating from frenzied fans” as well as unhappiness with students corrupting the school’s initials (S.H.C.) “into the unflattering nickname of ‘the Shack.’” Interestingly, in his unpublished 1997 piece entitled “The ‘Regis’ of Regis University,” John Callahan takes a different tack, arguing that another reason for the name change was that Sacred Heart “provided a clear target for the Ku Klux Klan, which was growing quite powerful in Colorado.” A less obviously Catholic name would provide cover, and “Regis” was “chosen because John Francis Regis was a Jesuit saint who worked in the mountains. Simple as that.”

The confusion as to why Sacred Heart College became Regis College in 1921 is indicative of the larger point that there is much we do not know about the Ku Klux Klan and Catholic higher education in the 1920s. We can say definitively that Notre Dame was not the only Catholic institution of higher education that had direct encounters with the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan harassed and attacked both the University of Dayton and Regis College, and it may very well have harassed and attacked other Catholic universities. Moreover, and as with Notre Dame, UD and perhaps Regis, students were not passive victims; instead, they responded aggressively to the Klan attacks, more aggressively than did their school’s administrators.

As I told students at the August 2013 academic convocation, in chasing off the Klansmen UD students were saying, “we are true Americans.” But they were saying more than this. They were also making clear that while the Klan could hold gigantic rallies two blocks away, light crosses on campus and even explode bombs, the Klan was not going to keep these students from a university education, from a University of Dayton education. It was too precious.

This gift of a university education was precious in 1923; it is precious today. Of course, and as I also said to the students at convocation, UD students today don’t have to deal with Klansmen lighting crosses and exploding bombs. But there are still obstacles to overcome. Those obstacles include the fact that we live in a culture that repeatedly tells all of us that thinking about ideas is a waste of time, that seeing the world in simple terms is better than seeing it in its complexity, that seeking beauty and justice and truth is a frivolous quest, that understanding the “other” is irrelevant.

As in 1923, then, there are challenges to securing a university education. So it behooves us here at UD to remember our history, to remember the time when — just 90 years ago — UD students tore down burning crosses and the UD football team chased the Klan away from campus. Forgetting history is never good, and in this instance the UD community has a story of determination and courage to draw upon. So we should.

William Vance Trollinger Jr. is professor of history in UD’s history and religious studies departments and director of the CORE program. He and his wife, Susan Trollinger of UD’s English department, are writing a book on young earth creationism to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This article is an abridged and revised version of an article that appeared in the spring 2013 issue of American Catholic Studies: “Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s.”

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