Recalling the day UD football routed the KKK

The University of Dayton football team has had some big victories over the years — when it won NCAA Division III national titles in 1980 and 1989, when it regularly would beat Louisville, Ohio University and Cincinnati in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when it dumped Butler on Saturday night at Welcome Stadium to go 7-0 this season — but nothing quite matches what it did on that fall night in 1923.

That’s when Harry Baujan’s Flyers sent the opposition running in fear to its waiting cars and a tire-squealing escape into the Dayton darkness.

That’s the night UD won in a rout over the Ku Klux Klan.

And that was a monumental victory for the Flyers. They not only kept their fellow students safe, but they managed to terrorize a bunch of terrorists.

And that’s what the Klan was when it came to UD.

Its members regularly drove by the school and harassed students. At night, they burned crosses on the campus grounds. Around the city, the group vilified UD at public rallies, including a gathering at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds that drew 32,000, and it attacked the school in print in the pair of Klan newspapers — the Klan Kourier and the Ohio edition of the Fiery Cross — printed in Dayton.

Then, in December 1923, the Klan launched its most brazen attack on the UD. According to a Dayton Daily News report, some 40 carloads of Klan members converged on the school — which was on the first day of Christmas break — and along with their usual burning-cross harassment, they set off a dozen bombs around campus.

Few people today around UD know anything about this and especially the story involving Baujan and his football team.

I was a student at the school in the late ’60s and early ’70s and heard nothing about it, nor have I in the nearly 27 years I’ve been back here writing about UD sports.

I asked Doug Hauschild, the director of athletics communications at UD, about the Baujan story and he had never heard it. Neither had football coach Rick Chamberlin or associate athletics director and Hall of Fame football coach Mike Kelly.

“I’ve never heard a thing about that, but I’m sure looking forward to read the story now,” Kelly said.

And the man who best tells it is William Vance Trollinger Jr., a professor in UD’s history and religious studies department and the director of its CORE program.

He has done extensive research on UD and the Klan in the 1920s. In the spring of 2013, his compelling article on the subject was published in the American Catholic Studies magazine and an abridged version later appeared in the University of Dayton Magazine.

I spoke to him a few days ago and the story he shared was fascinating.

And you will be able to hear much of it yourself on Nov. 11 when he’ll speak about Race, Religion and the Rise of the Klan in a free program at 3:30 p.m. at the Sears Recital Hall on campus.

To me, the best part of the saga was the match-up between the boys in the leather helmets and the men with the pointy white hoods.

“They called Harry Baujan ‘The Blond Beast,’ ” Chamberlin said with a laugh. “I guess that’s the night he lived up to his nickname.”

Ohio and the Klan

Back in the early 1920s, the city’s growing factories — like NCR and Delco — attracted a work force that included many immigrants, Trollinger said.

According to a 1920 census, 28 percent of Dayton’s population was either foreign born or had foreign-born parents. Most were from central, southern and eastern Europe and the majority were Catholic.

Add to that the growing prominence of the University of Dayton — which had changed its name in 1920 from St. Mary’s College — and you had a Catholic presence in the city that became a real target for a xenophobic, white Protestant hate group.

During that time it was estimated that Ohio had the most Klan members of any state. Summit County was said to have the largest chapter in the United States, some 50,000 members who included the county sheriff, the Akron mayor, several judges and county commissioners and most people on the Akron school board.

Licking County used to host the Klan’s state conventions at Buckeye Lake, annual affairs that regularly drew over 70,000 people.

Dayton, Trollinger discovered, was one of six cities in the nation to be designated Klan-friendly ‘’hooded capitals.” There were said to be 15,000 Klan members here and while they often held rallies around the city, nothing matched that crowd that poured into the Fairgrounds on Sept. 21, 1923.

I went through microfilm copies of the newspapers from back then and found several stories on the rally that drew some 32,000 to the fairgrounds.

“Dayton Mecca For Meeting of Klansmen” read the front page headline in the Dayton Evening Herald.

Special trains brought thousands of participants to town.

There was a massive parade up Main Street from the fairgrounds through downtown to the river and back again. The sidewalks were filled with cheering crowds who watched the spectacle that included:

Some 25 robed and masked men on horseback, a white-robed 70-piece Klan band and numerous floats including one by the Junior KKK and some representing area schoolhouses. Klan contingents from as close as Springfield and Middletown, as well as Mercer, Miami, Warren and Greene counties marched in the parade alongside groups from as far away as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.

Once back at the fairgrounds, a masked keynote speaker addressed the crowd. According to newspaper reports, he hammered home the same themes that again are popular with certain politicians today.

He warned of “the hordes of (immigrants) coming to these shores” and how the Klan was the one to stop all that.

Eventually the 7,000 Klan initiates from around the state who had come for the naturalization ceremony knelt and recited an oath, proclaiming they were of “pure American nationality.”

A plane circled overhead with an electric red cross on its fuselage. A 100-foot-high cross was set ablaze and finally there was a fireworks display.

It was during these months that the UD campus — just a few blocks away — had become an inviting target for Klan harassment.

Through it all, Trollinger noted, the students fought back as best they could, regularly knocking down the burning crosses and weathering the intimidation.

Then came that ultimate showdown between Baujan’s team and the Klan.

Baujan a Hall of Famer

The Blond Beast picked up his moniker as a four-year football letterman at Notre Dame. He then served in the Army in World War I and played pro football for teams in Cleveland and Massillon.

He came to Dayton as an assistant football coach in 1922 and a year later became head coach.

In his first game in 1923, his Flyers ran roughshod over Central Normal of Indiana, 161-0. That’s still the sixth-most points scored by one team in a college football history.

Baujan fielded winning teams at Dayton in 18 of his 21 seasons as head coach. He also was the basketball coach from 1923-28, compiling a 46-38 record, and later served as the school’s athletics director.

The football field he had built on campus in 1925 was given his name — Baujan Field — in 1961 and now is the home to UD soccer. In 1990, 14 years after his death, Baujan was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

There used to be a bust of him in the foyer of the Frericks Center, but now, thanks to remodeling, the remembrance has been reduced to a small plaque bearing his name near the entrance.

But the real monument to the man was the way he rallied his troops that night in 1923. It was a story long forgotten around campus until Trollinger discovered it tucked away in an oral history transcript in the school’s archives.

‘Tear their shirts off’

Trollinger came to the University of Dayton in 1996 and soon after was summoned by Rev. James L. Heft, the UD provost, who asked him to write a paper about some aspect of the school’s religious history that could be presented at an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

“I didn’t know anything about the history here except that the Klan had been big in Ohio, so I thought let’s take a look at Dayton,” he said. “I was teaching a seminar that term in American religious history so we turned it into a research seminar and the students went combing through the old newspapers.”

From those stories and other research, he put together a paper, but before submitting it he made one more trip to the UD archives.

“There had been virtually nothing about the Klan in the archives, but that day the archivist happened to say, ‘You know there was always a rumor that the UD football team chased off the Klan … but none of us believe that’s true,’ ” he said.

With just a short amount of time, Trollinger searched the archives, found nothing and was about to leave when he came across a box of tapes of interviews from the 1970s. Several were of Harry Baujan and soon after he found a written transcript of a 1974 interview conducted by Brother Joseph Gaudet.

“He’s being interviewed along with one of his football players (Jack Brown ) and at one point the player finally says to Baujan, ‘Well, tell them the story with the Klan.’

“And there it was! I couldn’t believe it. The story was absolutely fabulous.”

Baujan recounted how he had gotten tipped that the Klan was coming to campus and was going to burn crosses on a hill in Woodland Cemetery just across the street from the school.

As Trollinger wrote, Baujan said he went “to the halls and called out my biggest football players.” He brought them to the cemetery and 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 boys coming and ran through the cemetery without getting caught.

Baujan told Gaudet that soon after he was downtown and “some fellows at the Dayton Noon Luncheon Club” admitted they had been “among the Klan members who had been chased.”

He said “one of the best ones” was a well-known referee who regularly worked Dayton football games.

A ‘submerged’ issue

After the reaction it got from the football players, it’s understandable that when the Klan decided to make its biggest assault on UD — on Dec. 19, 1923 — it waited until the first day of the Christmas break. The players were gone and only 40 students and faculty members remained at the school.

The dozen bombs didn’t destroy much property, the newspaper said, but the noise drew hundreds of residents from the nearby neighborhood and many joined the students in rebuffing the car loads of Klan members.

Although UD had downplayed the attacks in the past in an attempt to better immerse itself in the city, new UD president Bernard P. O’Reilly appealed to Dayton police chief James Woodward to fully investigate the matter, especially since some of the explosions had been near buildings storing government ordnance for the ROTC program.

The Klan claimed the ROTC program was actually a training ground for a Catholic militia that would be used against the non-Catholics in the Dayton area.

The police conducted a one-day investigation and said they could find no clues as to who the perpetrators had been. Unsatisfied, O’Reilly contemplated asking for a federal investigation.

“Federal Guard May Be Sought by U of D,” read the Dayton Daily News headline the next day.

The threat of feds coming to town may have been enough. Although there continued to be big Klan rallies around the city over the next couple of years, the UD campus never was intensely targeted again.

As he did his research, what amazed Trollinger the most was how UD had “submerged” the whole issue over the years. Problems with the Klan are not mentioned in official histories about the university done in 1937 and again in 2000.

And even now that he’s published his work, the school still downplays the incident.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, has chosen another tact. Its football team and students had confrontations on campus and in South Bend with the Klan at about the same time and those moments of faith and backbone are not forgotten.

“Notre Dame is proud of it and brags about it,” Trollinger said. “They even have a movie about the football players versus the Klan. It‘s great PR — students standing up to bigotry.

“We should be proud of it, too. Our students showed guts, they refused to put up with the Klan’s intimidation. They did what’s right and took a stand on hatred. That should be remembered.

“And the stand taken by Baujan and his players should be celebrated. It’s a pretty cool story, one everyone should know.”

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