Universal York

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Not all York County news of the past was good

Newspaper ad for 1929 Ku Klux Klan meeting
Newspaper ad for 1929 Ku Klux Klan meeting

Most of us probably think of African American persecution when we hear Ku Klux Klan. The haters cast a broader net in York County in the first half of the twentieth century. Anyone not a white protestant was fair game to be threatened by these men who hid their identities under white hoods.

The KKK state convention was held in North York in 1929 and again in 1939. Their stand was adamantly anti-immigrant, and in 1939, much against the United States becoming involved in the European War that was heating up. I am always astounded that, then and now, so many people forget their own ancestors were immigrants not that long ago.

The KKK isn’t a pleasant subject, but we need to be reminded to never let that mindset prevail again. My recent York Sunday News column below records some of the newspaper coverage of the 1939 convention:

A dark side of York County history

Native Americans made their homes in this area at various times over thousands of years. In addition, we can soon mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first European settlers on this side of the Susquehanna River. Then, there are the later immigrants from all over the globe. All these people have contributed to York County’s rich and deep history.

That history, however, hasn’t always been pretty. The microfilms of York County newspapers at York County Heritage Trust attest to that. Every now and then I see something disturbing that I hesitate to share. Still, if unsavory past incidents are brought to light, perhaps that can remind us to never go there again.

Both the Gazette and Daily and the York Dispatch of Friday October 13, 1939, reported that Pennsylvania members of the Ku Klux Klan would hold their 13th annual meeting at the Queen Street playground auditorium in North York the next day. The reports were very similar, probably from a press release, and said that 500 delegates were expected, “grand and great officers” would select new officers, and, following the evening session, “the klan will burn a 12 foot cross on the hill adjoining the playground.” The “grand dragon of the order, from Philadelphia” would preside over the sessions. They were presumably secret, and no personal names at all are mentioned in any of the articles. The public was invited to witness the outdoor demonstration and cross burning at 9 p.m.

Monday papers both reported that 200 delegates attended the day-long meeting, not quite the numbers touted. A short piece in the Monday, October 16, Gazette and Daily relates that: “A resolution, endorsing President Roosevelt’s program for neutrality and the ‘Cash and Carry’ plan, was adopted by the Ku Klux Klan…representing provinces throughout the state, [they] voiced their approval of the administration’s stand in keeping America out of the European conflict.”

I question whether the press would have been allowed to attend; all the newspaper accounts could have come from provided handouts. The longest article was published in the Saturday, October 14th Dispatch. It quoted the detailed resolution adopted during the afternoon session. The white supremacist sentiments behind urging President Roosevelt to stay out of the war in Europe are quite clear. The resolution, “Time to help Our Own People and Stop Crying Over Aliens,” begins:

“Today we hear many appeals to help this group or assist some persecuted minority, but little do we hear about help for our native born, white, protestant, Christian, American peoples. The Klan suggests that you look at the facts. We have been so busy helping others and listening to their woes, that today we find our own people pushed aside to make room for immigrants, and in some cases illegal residents, who have been smuggled into the United States.

Our Congress has even drafted bills to admit refugee children and professional men and women; the authorities have permitted their entrance, and they are now here, freely taking the place of our citizens. We have been preaching the doctrine of free speech and free press and assembly to the end that we are now confronted with two powerful influences using free speech, press and assembly to prepare for a battle in this country; to determine which, the Communist or the Fascist (extreme Left and Right) shall dictate how we shall live in Free America.”
It continues: “We must remain United:–Trade with Americans; employ only Americans; vote for Americans; and, put only Americans on guard in every public office and in the free public schools throughout this great nation. The clarion call of the Klan is ‘Awake Native Americans, lest you lose your birthright and leave nothing but a bitter struggle for coming generations.’”

I am always astounded that so many Americans do not to seem to comprehend that they descend from immigrants, be it one generation or ten generations ago. Even the people that we used to term Indians and now call Native Americans came here from somewhere else thousands of years ago.

Even though this conclave was held in North York, I’m sure any number of other York County municipalities could have just as easily hosted the convention. It is mind boggling to me to think that this was just 75 years ago. And it is chilling to see the similarities of some of that period KKK rhetoric to opinions voiced at many levels today.

As now, extreme groups weren’t the only ones advocating isolationism. Americans were just emerging from the worst depression in their country’s history and more concerned about getting back on their own feet than what was happening in Europe. According to the U.S. Department of State website: in 1935 “Congress passed the first Neutrality Act prohibiting the export of ‘arms, ammunition, and implements of war’ from the United States to foreign nations at war…President Franklin D. Roosevelt originally opposed the legislation, but relented in the face of strong Congressional and public opinion.” The “cash and carry” provision in a subsequent 1937 Neutrality Act allowed nations at war “to acquire any items except arms from the United States, so long as they immediately paid for such items and carried them on non-American ships.” This meant the U.S. could sell oil and other vital materials to Great Britain and France.

“After a fierce debate in Congress, in November of 1939, a final Neutrality Act passed. This Act lifted the arms embargo and put all trade with belligerent nations under the terms of ‘cash-and-carry.’” President Roosevelt found a way in late 1940 to additionally help Britain and its allies through the Lend Lease program, exchanging such things as ships for base rights in foreign counties. As the State Department site points out: “In the end, the terms of the Neutrality Acts became irrelevant once the United States joined the Allies in the fight against Nazi Germany and Japan in December 1941.”

We look back to the pre-World War II period today filtered by what we know of the Holocaust and the world wide carnage that was soon to come. Could we have saved many from the Holocaust by less strict immigration restrictions? Should have we entered the war before we did, or did we need time to prepare? How much did vocal extremists color U.S. decisions? We can only guess.

Compared to the 1929 meeting, the 1939 convention was for one day instead of two, it seemed to be scaled down with less attendees. Many Pennsylvanians were starting to slowly become more sensible and tolerant. Seventy-five years later, we still need to keep working on it.