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Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Klan and Me

I grew up in a fairly small community in the rust belt in east central Ohio.  It was a mix of steel mills and dairy farms.

The Erie Canal ran through the farming community and expanded the area into a decent industrial community attracting immigrants to work in the mills.

It was not a diverse community then.  It is still 97% white.

I spent quite a bit of time with my grandmother while I was growing up.  I've always enjoyed the company of older people and both my grandmother (my mother's mother) and my grandfather (my father's father) were exceptional yarn spinners. I loved listening to their tales of the past- of the wars, life in Appalachia, relatives past- it was history brought to life.

My mother's side is Italian and my grandma would tell me stories about how her family came to the United States.  She was born here but some of her older siblings were not.  A set of twins had died in Italy before her parents moved.  They came through Ellis Island and settled directly in my small town and opened a small grocery store.  They loved their new country.  My great grandfather insisted they speak English and he embraced his new culture.  They were from the more northern part of Italy. 

They were, for all intents and purposes a fairly affluent family.  Small business owners. 

There were other Italian immigrants who also moved to the area.  Many, like my grandfather, had come specifically to work in the steel mills.  His family originally settled in Chicago where he was born and then moved eastward.

The new immigrants to the area were not received with opened arms, according to my grandmother.  In fact, they were often visited and threatened by men with pillowcases on their heads, as my grandmother described them.

Needless to say, that was the Klan.  You see, my hometown is just far enough to the South that until the 70s, there was an active Klan group.

Ahh... the sweet life of small town living....

Now, Italians are pretty good at being an organized group.  In fact, they came over with their own club- the Cosa Nostra- "our thing" or as you might know it, the mafia or the mob.

Since my grandmother's family was from the north, they were not part of it.

They also were not Anglo-Saxon so they were not part of the Klan.

My grandmother would tell stories of how both groups would try to convince her father to turn against the other.  Her father continued to do business with both groups.

And for awhile, being Switzerland so to speak, seemed to work.  Her family was happy.  Then the Depression came.

Money became tight.

And because her father refused to be loyal to either group, they ran his business into the ground and her family lost everything.

And I would say that she was exaggerating- because she was prone to do so-- but when she described the cross that was burned in their front yard and I could still see the fear in her eyes-- I knew that she hadn't been.

She had to drop out of school for a period of time and work as a domestic worker, cleaning houses, cooking, doing laundry.  She told me how she asked one family if they wanted her to wash the fancy pillowcases with the holes in them.  She returned to high school (at the encouragement of a teacher she was working for) and finished but returned to working as a domestic worker until she married my grandfather.

It was an unspoken history in my town.  Certain families were in the mob.  Certain families were in the Klan.

Growing up, I didn't know who was who but my grandmother did.  I knew exactly where the Klan farm had been.  When I met the kids of the people who owned it, they were nice to me and we all assumed time had moved on.

In fact, in my 20s, I dated a very nice man that I had gone to high school with and became close with his grandmother.  She was the same age as my grandmother.  When I asked if she remembered my grandmother- after all, it was a very small town and they both had lived there for 70 years- she danced around the question. It made her visibly uncomfortable.

I asked my grandma.  She was usually direct.  She really liked the guy and said she was sure they had probably met at some point.  She brushed it off.   It wasn't until he and I had been dating for more than a year that I pushed my grandma about it-- she didn't seem interested in meeting his grandmother.  I  couldn't understand-- they had so much in common.  They could be friends! Then my grandma in her more blunt manner said "I've met her family before-- they came to visit with sheets on their heads.  Trust me, she knows exactly who I am."

My jaw dropped.

His family's farm was right around the corner from the Klan farm.

This wasn't some history book.  This was my family's history.  This was my family's history colliding with his family's history  like a Danielle Steele novel. 

Well, not that interesting. I'm not a Countess in hiding. At least not that I know of...

His grandmother eventually did say "Oh... I think I remember meeting Viola..." 

And she was always kind and lovely to me.  And my grandmother was always kind and lovely to him.

And to me, it meant the world had moved on. His family truly could not have been kinder.

The Klan was something in the past.

It was dead.

When David Duke ran for Senate, I had the misfortune of visiting Louisiana.  I say misfortune because it warped my perception of Louisiana permanently.

It seemed silly and dated.

People were smarter than that.

They were.

He lost.

But now.... just last week there were Klansmen at the Republican caucus near my HOME.  In my city that is NOT 97% white.

In my city that I love because of the richness of its diversity.

The Ku Klux Klan.

A major presidential candidate has their support.

He refuses to denounce them.

He REFUSES TO DENOUNCE THEM.

This is not okay.

This is not even a little bit okay.

This is not funny.

This is terrifying.

This is how Hitler came to power.

People not voting.  People too busy with their own lives to pay attention.  People saying "Oh there goes Mama Bean again, all worried about silly politics..."

It matters.

It matters a lot.

This is real. 

This is happening right now in one of the most diverse countries in the world.

A candidate is running on the platform of hate.

Just like Adolph Hitler.

He is blaming immigrants and minorities for all issues.

He wants to turn back the clock.

Back to when my grandmother had a cross burning on her yard.

Because they came to this country to make a better life.

Please, turn off the Kardashians.

Please become engaged.

Please vote.

We can disagree on economic issues.

We can disagree on the best ways to reform immigration and education.

We can disagree on many things.

We cannot disagree on racism.  This is not who we are as a country.

Read "Reading Lolita in Tehran" to see how quickly angry zealots can destroy a country. In less than a year, Iran went from a progressive nation with less gender disparity than the US had at the time to a regressive nation which oppresses human rights.

In a YEAR.

Voting matters.

This matters.

This is real.

Please do not sit idly by.



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(I would also like to add the post thought that I appreciate that because I am white, I can make the comment that we moved on past the Klan in my home town.  I am very aware that racism has persisted and is alive and well in this country.  The Klan, however, and its hatred, to me, seemed to be waning and not growing.  I was clearly mistaken.

While racism effects all of us, I am not so arrogant as to say it impacts me the same way as a person of color.

However, if you are Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Black, Latino-- the Klan hates us all.)
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Some links:

Klan History in Tuscarawas County

Auction Time

Ohio Klan History

1 comment:

Kimberly Coats said...

You're right...vote. Stop being apathetic. I'm voting from Rwanda which is not the easiest thing to do, so no excuses for you all residing in the US. Honestly, I don't recognize the US anymore. From someone who's lived abroad for 7 years, the decline is shocking and even more so since the campaigning started. Great blog sister...