Collection owner: Buffalo History Museum
In the early 1920s, after decades of dormancy, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent, gaining new recruits in the Northeast by using modern sales techniques in which recruiters received commissions for signing new members. Capitalizing on anxieties about “foreigners” and racial purity, the Klan found new members in locales with otherwise strong traditions of interracial progress and tolerance. Buffalo was one such city.
Openly advocating white supremacy and white nationalism, the Klan was known for racist rhetoric and violence against African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. They also promised opportunities for business contacts, fraternal bonding, mystical ritual, and community improvement, casting themselves as defenders of Anglo-Saxon Protestant notions of morality and decency. As Klan scholar Shawn Lay notes, “. . .many men [joined] simply out of curiosity or because they did not want to be left out of what appeared to be an up-and-coming organization. An individual’s decision to join the Invisible Empire could not always be solely credited to racial and religious intolerance” (Lay, p.3).
The Klan’s arrival in Buffalo in 1921 exploited a bitter mayoral campaign that pitted Francis X. Schwab (1874-1946), a brewery owner born to German Catholic immigrants, against Protestant Yale-educated “establishment” attorney George S. Buck (1875-1931). The electorate divided along religious, class, and ethnic lines, and Schwab, who had campaigned in opposition to Prohibition, won a narrow victory, becoming Buffalo’s first Roman Catholic mayor.
In spite of hostility to the Klan from the Buffalo press, the Catholic Diocese, and leading rabbis and African-Americans, the Buffalo chapter’s first public ceremony took place in a vacant field on Harlem Road on October 25, 1922 (Lay, p.45). The initiation of 800 new recruits was accompanied by a burning cross and public denials of racial bigotry.
The Klan soon found allies among white middle-class Protestants, who considered Mayor Schwab’s administration to be corrupt and tolerant of vice, as demonstrated by his unwillingness to prosecute illegal drinking establishments. Known elsewhere for racist violence, the Klan in Buffalo was belligerent about the lax enforcement of Prohibition.
Operating out of the Calumet Building, 46-58 W. Chippewa Street (Lay, p.81), in offices rented by Kay-Bee Adsign Company, a KKK “front,” the Klan was soon infiltrated by undercover Buffalo police officer Edward Obertean, who supplied intelligence directly to Mayor Schwab.
By the summer of 1924, battle lines were clearly drawn, and the antagonism between Klan supporters and opponents erupted in the open. Anti-Klan efforts were led by the United Sons of America and the Liberty League. Rising tensions culminated in the bombing on April 18, 1924, of 34 Gallatin Street, the home of Rev. Littleton E. H. Smith, a Klan supporter (Lay, p.117)). The family was not at home at the time. The culprits were never found. Buffalo was on the edge of religious warfare.
Klan headquarters were ransacked on July 3, 1924, and the membership list stolen, perhaps by or with the assistance of Schwab’s undercover agents (Lay, p.120). The list was soon in the hands of police, who promptly put it on public display in police headquarters. Thousands of Buffalonians flocked to view the roster and note the names of friends, neighbors, and associates, many of whom quickly distanced themselves from the organization.
Those names form the basis of the membership list that is digitized here by the Buffalo History Museum.
The theft of its records and public exposure threw the Buffalo Klan into disarray and internal dissension. On the evening of August 31, 1924, Thomas Austin, a Klan investigator sent from Atlanta to investigate the break-in, guessed the nature of Edward Obertean’s involvement in the Klan and confronted him in front of 128 Durham Street (Lay, p.131). The two men exchanged gunfire and were both killed. Obertean is long overdue for recognition as Buffalo’s sole martyr in the battle against the Klan.
The ensuing public investigation and prosecution precipitated the decline of the Klan in Buffalo, and by the time Mayor Schwab was reelected in a landslide in 1925, it was no longer a viable organization. Its Buffalo office closed down in late 1925. Buffalo’s dramatic response to the Klan stands as one of its least-appreciated and most heroic moments.
This membership list formed the basis of Shawn Lay’s in-depth study of Buffalo’s Klan experience, Hooded Knights on the Niagara, which is readily available from booksellers and at local libraries. Lay sums up what he learned about Buffalo and this list:
“The hooded order followed standard legal procedure in securing warrants against illegal establishments, never engaged in violence against local African-Americans and immigrants, and hoped to establish itself as a legitimate force within the existing power structure. To characterize the KKK as a hopelessly aberrant and lawless fringe group would be manifestly inaccurate. Indeed, the most frightening aspect of the Invisible Empire was its ability to attract ordinary law-abiding citizens.” (Lay, pp.82-83)
Lead image: A new member being sworn into the Tiger’s Eye Society in 1922. The society’s aim was to combat the Klu Klux Klan. The secret society was known as the invisible jungle and the knights wore black masks and gowns that hid their faces and bodies. – Visible Republic and the Invisible Empire
Bibliography & Sources
Jackson, Kenneth T.
The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930
New York, Oxford University Press, 1967
The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York, 1922-1924: A Case Study
Greensboro, NC: MA Thesis, University of North Carolina, 1972
Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York
New York and London: New York University Press, ©1995