My grandmother once defied the Ku Klux Klan, so they burned a cross at her front door.
This event did not occur in the south, but in Beaverton, Oregon. My grandmother, Annunziata Merlo, was not black. She was an Italian Catholic immigrant.
The Portland Tribune's July 1, 2020, article, "Racism entwined in Oregon's history," outlines the power of the Klan in Oregon in the early years of the prior century and shows how racism infected Oregon society from the beginning. The struggle has run on for decades. But haters do not aim their anger at just one group. Another target of the Oregon Klan was Catholics.
I own a Klan token minted in 1922 bearing these words:
"I would rather be a Klansman in a robe of snowy white than a catholic priest in a robe as black as night — for a Klansman is an American and America is his home. But the priest owes his allegiance to a dago pope in Rome."
Mrs. Merlo prepared Italian food for her boarders at her small boarding hotel, and for locals who came to eat there. She naturally served wine with her meals. Even before Prohibition, the Beaverton Klan demanded she stop serving wine. My grandmother refused, so in their anger, the Klan burned a cross before her front door. She did not quake.
The Klan's attacks on Catholics in Oregon were far more virulent than this incident. In Eugene, under the guidance of a prestigious University of Oregon professor, Frederic Dunn, their "Exalted Cyclops," the Kluxers carried on a vicious campaign against Catholic public officials and school teachers, forcing the resignation of Eugene's mayor, city attorney and police chief and the firing of three public school teachers simply because they were Catholic.
The Oregon Klan's major project was to abolish Catholic schools. In 1922, the Klan circulated an initiative petition to enact the Oregon Compulsory Education Act, also known as the Oregon School Law. The law provided parents who sent their children to schools other than public schools would commit a misdemeanor. To crush any defiance of the law, each day a child attended a non-public school would constitute a separate misdemeanor for the parents with a further piling on of criminal penalties. Oregon voters passed the law at the 1922 election by a vote of 115,506 to 103,685.
My mother Louise, a student at Beaverton's St. Cecilia's parish school, remembered the day her school closed after passage and their pastor, in tears, led her and her schoolmates across town to the public school.
My mother also recalled her family could look out from the second story of their hotel up the street to another two-story building in town, the Cady Building, which had meeting rooms on its upper floor. They could see Klansmen meeting there, "parading around in their sheets."
As they watched, my deeply religious grandmother led her daughters in the recitation of the rosary, not for protection from the Klan but explicitly for the conversion of the Klansmen from their hatred and for the salvation of their souls. After all, if they did not pray for the Klansmen, who would?
Eventually, the United States Supreme Court threw out the school law, and the Klan disappeared from Oregon. The Catholics remained.
Richard Botteri is a Beaverton resident.
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