The Fiery Cross: The Forgotten History of the Ku Klux Klan in Western New York

When one thinks of fraternal societies, what comes to mind? The Knights of Columbus? The Masons? The Loyal Order of Moose? How about the Ku Klux Klan?

Most citizens in Western New York today denounce the Klan and all it stands for, but there was a time within the lifetimes of our grandparents and great-grandparents when the Klan was active in many communities in Monroe and surrounding counties.

The Ku Klux Klan formed after the Civil War to resist Federal efforts to remake the South, and to defy the empowerment of newly freed African American slaves. The modern Klan owes its existence to the efforts of William Joseph Simmons (May 6, 1880-May 18,1945).

In 1915, Simmons obtained a copy of the Reconstruction-era Klan Rescript, the original constitution of the post-Civil War Klan. He refounded the group with a broader vision– opposing the rising influence of Catholics, Jews and immigrants, as well as African Americans. Under Simmons, the Klan’s motto was “100% Americanism,” meaning that the nation was for white, Protestant and native-born citizens only.

kk_questions_Dec_12__1922_

“20 Questions Asked of Potential Klan Recruits”
(From: Democrat and Chronicle, December 12, 1922).
Questions included: Are you a member of the White race or Colored race?
Do you believe in White supremacy?

Through the efforts of Simmons and two professional organizers, Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, the Klan expanded throughout the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West Coast in the 1920s.

It was during this period of rapid Klan expansion that the Klan entered Western New York. An organizational meeting was held on December 11, 1922 at the Knights of Malta Hall at 89 East Main Street in downtown Rochester. Another recruiting rally was held the following year on November 22, 1923, in the original Reynolds Arcade building. A reporter who attended the latter event heard an organizer rant about the “Catholic-Jewish menace.”

Despite recruiting rallies being held in Rochester, the group never caught on in the city. According to former City Historian Blake McKelvey, there was little resentment upon which the Klan could build. Relatively few African Americans resided in the city in the 1920s, and relations between Jews, Catholics and Protestants were copacetic.

Klan activity did exist, however, in the surrounding towns and rural districts.

kk__Apr_11__1965_

Ku Klux Klan Guards at the East Rochester “Konvocation,” September 1926
(From: Democrat and Chronicle, April 11, 1965)

Villagers in Nunda witnessed the first fiery cross in Livingston County on July 8, 1923. In the fall of that year, there were Klan activities in Henrietta and Hemlock. In 1925, when Father Daniel O’Rourke arrived to take over the pastorate of the Church of the Epiphany in Sodus, he was greeted by a cross burning across the street from the rectory.

There were Klan activities in Penn Yan in 1926, and in Geneva and Corning the following year. There are also records of KKK activities in Albion, Brockport, Fairport, Henrietta, Honeoye Falls, Ovid, Penfield, Pittsford, Webster, and other nearby communities.

The largest local Klan rally was held on September 25-26, 1926 in East Rochester. Klansmen and women from ten counties flocked in full regalia to the farm of Charles Ott (September 1, 1870-June 16, 1963) at Washington and Ivy Streets. Exactly how many attended is a matter of dispute. Estimates run the gamut from 1,000 to 19,000, but no official total was ever provided.

kk_ott certificate

Klan Certificate of Charles Ott, on whose farm the 1926 East Rochester gathering was held

Although there were Klan rallies and gatherings throughout the area, they did not have the support of a majority of the populace. There was as visceral a reaction to the Klan then as there is now.

In Monroe County, local fraternal groups indicated they would expel any members who belonged to the Klan. In Watkins Glen, parade participants were pulled from the line of march and beaten by local townspeople. During a KKK march in Geneva, several members removed their masks. One person who did so was a prominent insurance man, who was recognized by his neighbors. His business was subsequently boycotted, and he was forced into bankruptcy. Klansmen who revealed their prejudices to their neighbors frequently suffered the consequences.

How strong was the Klan in Monroe County? If available evidence is any indication, not very. In 1953, an anonymous donor left a small black book as a gift for local journalist, Arch Merrill. The book was the financial record of the “Headquarters Klan 385, Realm of New York” (i.e., for the Monroe County Klan) for part of the years 1926 and 1927. The largest balance on hand at any one time was $55.00. The last item in the record (July 1, 1927) records a balance of 94 cents!

As the book recorded the activities of Klan groups in Brockport, East Rochester, Fairport, Honeoye Falls, and Pittsford during the time of the East Rochester gathering, Monroe County support for the event must have been minimal, suggesting that most of the 1926 East Rochester attendees came from outside the area.

kk__Sep_25__1977_

Klan members Charles A. Holland (Ulster County, left) and John Anthony Ficcaro (Rochester, right)
(From: Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, September 25, 1977)

From its high point in 1926, the local Klan began to decline, but there was still a presence locally as late as 1977 when a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle interviewed two New York Klansmen and identified them by name: Charles Arthur Holland and John Anthony Ficcarro. Holland was from Ulster County and Ficcaro from Rochester. They admitted that the first duty of a Klansman was to recruit others as the organization had retained very few members.

Given the secretive nature of the Klan, no one knows for sure how many members of the group still survive in the area 40 years later.

-Christopher Brennan

For More Information:

Bill Beeney, “Supporters of Klan: They Were Here!” Democrat and Chronicle, 26 March 1964, p.12B, cols. 1-2.

“Colorful Scene Presented as 8,000 Klansmen Gather in East Rochester Field,” Democrat and Chronicle, 26 September 1926, p. 25.

“I.R. Hignett, Grand Organizer of Atlanta, Harangues Audience in Hiokatoo Hall for Over Two Hours: 50 Apply for Membership,” Times Union, 23 November 1923, p. 1.

Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2017).

Larry King, “Recruiting Klansmen: The KKK is Still Going but Not Strong,” Democrat and Chronicle, Upstate Magazine, 25 September 1977, pp. 26 and 29.

Robert F. McNamara, The Diocese of Rochester, 1868-1968 (Rochester, New York: The Diocese, 1968).

Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

Arch Merrill, “Venomous Black Book Tells: When Men Hid Faces Behind Masks of KKK,” Democrat and Chronicle, 31 May 1953, p. 2C.

Arch Merrill, “Klan Here (in 20s) Didn’t Last,” Democrat and Chronicle, 11 April 1965, p. 18W.

Justin Murphy, “White Supremacy Has a History in Rochester,” Democrat and Chronicle, 18 August 2017, p. 6A.

Louis Providence, “Village Looks Back on 1926 KKK Parade,” East Rochester Post-Herald, 30 September 1971, p. 9.

 

Published in: on May 17, 2019 at 3:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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