All across the city Saturday, groups are holding rallies, workshops and celebrations to counter the message of hate and intolerance and xenophobia that will be represented at the Ku Klux Klan assemblage scheduled to take place in Courthouse Square.
This would have been the perfect day for the University of Dayton to unveil a plaque or some kind of remembrance for the way its students – and especially famed football coach Harry Baujan and his team – not only stood up to the Klan in the early 1920s, but, in one case, made the hooded thugs run off in fear themselves.
UD trumpets its sporting accomplishments and academic achievements and often showcases its celebrity graduates, but it has never officially acknowledged those students and athletes who defended the school and themselves against the Klan in a series of harassments, on-campus invasions and cross burnings and even a night of bombings in the 1920s.
»RELATED: The day UD football routed the KKK
Conversely, Notre Dame — which faced a similar anti-Catholic infringement by the Klan, though not one as long or aggressive as that at UD — has publicized and promoted the stand its students and athletes took.
An alum even wrote a book “Notre Dame vs. The Klan” that was republished in paperback after a similar white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. turned deadly in August of 2017.
Meanwhile, few UD students, athletes, coaches, administrators or graduates know much about the 1920s attacks on campus and the courage students showed.
“There is nothing about the Klan and UD anywhere and I think there should be,” said William Trollinger, a professor in the UD history and religious studies department who has done extensive research on the subject and six years ago wrote a compelling article about it that was published in the American Catholic Studies Magazine and later, in part, in the University of Dayton Magazine.
“UD students chased the Klan off campus again and again and again and that’s worth commemorating,” Trollinger said. “It’s a shame nothing’s come from the athletic department. What the football team did is worth celebrating.”
In the 1920s, the Midwest was a hotbed for the Klan.
Indiana had more registered Klan members – some 425,000 – than Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi combined. The governor of Indiana was in the Klan, as was the Indianapolis mayor and the entire city council.
At one time the Klan even had an agreement to buy failing Valparaiso University so it could teach its “100 percent American” curriculum.
Ohio mirrored Indiana in Klan embrace.
As David Chalmers observed in this book Hooded Americanism: “There was a time during the 1920s when it seemed that the mask and hood had become the official symbol of the Buckeye State.”
One Klan newspaper – two were published in Dayton – recognized Dayton (along with Youngstown, Indianapolis, Denver, Dallas and Portland, Oregon) as one of the six “hooded capitals” in the nation.
“Something like 18 percent of all Daytonians eligible to join the Klan did so in the 1920s” Trollinger said. “That’s really amazing.”
Dayton had a slightly bigger population then that it does now – something like 150,000 – which means 27,000 people were in the Klan.
That point was made clear in the city’s first-ever Klan rally on Sept. 21, 1923.
According to a Dayton Daily News story, the Klan gathering at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds on South Main Street drew 32,000 people, 7,000 of whom were sworn into the Klan that night beneath a 100-foot burning cross.
Preceding that ceremony, a Klan parade stretched from Monument Avenue to the Fairgrounds as thousands of spectators stood along the sidewalk and cheered. There were bands, women and junior KKK units and floats, some representing area schools and communities in Mercer, Greene, Warren and Miami counties. Out-of-town participants arrived here on special Klan trains and the interurban.
Back then the Klan targeted immigrants who had come to work in Dayton’s factories and especially Jewish people and Catholics, which made UD an inviting target.
The Klan was big into fake news. Its newspapers editorialized how the ROTC building at UD was actually a military training center for people beholden to the Pope, not the U.S.
The Klan repeatedly harassed UD students and burned crosses on campus or across the street at Woodland Cemetery.
In the UD archives, Trollinger found a long-forgotten transcript of a Baujan interview telling what happened one night when he was tipped off about a cross burning on Woodland hill overlooking the campus.
As Trollinger wrote, Baujan said he went “to the halls and called out my biggest football players.” He told them to wait until the Klan gathered around their burning cross and then to “take after them and tear their shirts off…or anything else you want to do.”
The Klan saw the football players coming and ran for their lives without getting caught.
Because of that the Klan’s most brazen attack on Dec 19, 1923 came when it knew the students, and especially the football players, were home on Christmas break.
Forty carloads of Klan members showed up a campus, set off a dozen bombs and burned a cross until the remaining students and nearby neighbors finally chased them off.
It was the third attack in three weeks – “terrorism” — Trollinger rightly called it — and when he got no satisfaction from the Dayton police department (which included Klan members), UD President Rev. Bernard P. O’Reilly made overtures for a federal investigation.
That threat — and the continued vigilance by UD students — eventually helped curtail the Klan’s interest in attacking the school.
Turning back the Klan at Notre Dame
Notre Dame faced a similar situation in May of 1924 when the Klan planned a three-day rally in South Bend.
Notre Dame students — especially the football players — resisted, sometimes pulling the robes and hoods off the Klansmen.
Students converged on the Klan office downtown and threw potatoes at a second-story window behind which stood a lighted red cross, the group’s symbol.
While they could not knock out one remaining red light, they called on Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback who a few months later would be immortalized as one of the Four Horsemen. He promptly hurled a potato and permanently darkened the hate group’s cross.
A Klan member pulled a gun on a student and more skirmishes followed, but finally the Klan cut its rally short.
No student was reprimanded by the university and some national newspapers praised the Notre Dame resistance, but a Youngstown newspaper chastised the students in an editorial calling them “papal pirates” and asking “is this Ireland or America?”
Not saying this was the answer to that question, but in 1927 Notre Dame authorized “The Fighting Irish” as its official nickname.
Discovering the attacks on UD
In the early days, UD didn’t publicize its issues with the Klan because it was trying to fit into the fabric of the community here. A 1937 history of the school — and later one in 2000 — never mentioned the situation.
Trollinger came to UD in 1996 and soon was petitioned by provost Rev. James Heft to write a paper on a religious aspect of the school he could present at an interfaith Thanksgiving gathering.
When Trollinger learned of the Klan attacks on UD and finally came upon the Baujan interview he had his fascinating tale.
Trollinger is now an Ohio Humanities speaker and has spoken a dozen times around the state on the subject. Not long ago he was at the Garst Museum in Greenville and the Allen County Museum in Lima.
“What’s been interesting is the size of the crowds in the last year. They’ve really grown,” he said. “I think it’s because people are concerned about the rise of white supremacy. They just feel it in the air that something isn’t right with everything going on.”
As for Saturday’s Klan appearance here he said he “agrees with the City of Dayton’s and UD’s approach … They’re suggesting people stay away and I agree. The Klan is a tiny group. They want an incident.
“But I also understand why people would go down and want to confront them. I’m sympathetic to that, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
That’s why a UD commemoration of its students and athletes who once stood up to the hate would have been perfect for Saturday. It would have bridged both responses.
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