Fighting discrimination – Franco-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan

Often, people are surprised, including many in Maine, to learn just how active the Ku Klux Klan was during the 1920’s in New England, a history documented by Mark Richard in :  “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s- The forgotten story of Catholic resistance to the rise of the KKK in New England“.  In fact, the anti-discrimination group NAACP, working with the Knights of Columbus, fought the Klan during their dreaded acts of ethnic oppression in the 1920s, against French speaking Roman Catholics, a report heard at a Bowdoin College seminar in 2014, by Benjamin Jealous.

RÉVEIL- Waking up French, created by Ben Levine, contains film footage of Ku Klux Klan activities in Maine, when the group targeted its activities against the French-Canadian immigrants.

Waking Up French

Waking Up French provides film footage showing Ku Klux Klan activities in Maine

Unfortunately, haunting images and reminders of past discrimination spread by the KKK hate group are again appearing throughout Maine’s communities.

During the 1920’s, another period when anti-immigration sentiments were high, particularly focused against Roman Catholics, the Franco-American population was among the targets of Ku Klux Klan rallies in Maine. Although the passage of time, over the past century, has overcome sharp religious divides between American Roman Catholics and Protestants, a recurrence of the Ku Klux Klan propaganda is showing up again in many Maine communities.

Maine State Senator Shenna Bellows wrote the following social media post about the scary Ku Klux Klan messages showing up in her home town of Hallowell, and gave me permission to post her response on this Franco-American blog:

Shenna Bellows

“A constituent in Hallowell was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Someone, presumably a member of the KKK, entered her property and put Klan recruitment materials on her vehicle, most likely because of her ‘Black Lives Matter’ bumper sticker.”

“Maine has been standing up against the Klan for a long time. Mainers opposed them when they threatened, intimidated and attacked Franco-Americans and other Catholics who came here to work and to raise their families. We stood up to them when they descended on Lewiston to frighten refugees who had settled in the city…. Today, the Klan sees an opening for renewed recruitment and activity. Once again, they are threatening Mainers, new residents in our state and families with generational roots alike. But they will be disappointed, because while the Klan may be a pathetic shell of what it once was, Mainers’ vigilance has never wavered. Wherever the KKK rears its ugly head, it should expect resistance from the Mainers who have stood against it for decades. There can be no room made for white supremacy in our community, in our state or in our world.”

Sadly, other places have been the targets of recent Ku Klux Klan in Maine, incidents reported since Senator Bellows posted her message on her social media page.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, of Freeport, said she found the KKK wording on fliers distributed in Freeport to be threatening, not just to her neighbors, but to all Mainers. Even if the fliers are protected under the First Amendment, she said, Mainers need to reject the sentiment of the fliers and the KKK. (Residents notify police after finding the messages in their yards, but the distribution is not considered a hate crime because it doesn’t include threats.)

Evidence about the Ku Klux Klan in Maine has appeared sporadically over the years. Always in a caustic way, the group erupts when we least expect to see it and stirs the memories of those who witnessed the 1920s activities, during the height of its influence.  People have contracted me over the years to discuss their experiences.

I remember the day when a carpenter called, to ask what I recommended he should do with a Ku Klux Klan white hood he happened to find hidden in an old colonial home’s attic, while he was doing renovations. Eventually, the hood was given to the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono, for their museum.

Spring House Bailey Island

Published in the “Bailey Island: Memories Pictures & Lore” by Nancy Orr and Johnson Jensen 2003.

A few years ago, I happened to find a local history about the Ku Klux Klan activities during the 1920s, reported  in the seemingly serene history of Bailey Island, Maine. I was shocked to find evidence of the group’s history  in “Bailey Island- Memories, Pictures and Lore“, purchased at a local library’s used book sale. It’s one of the best direct reports about Ku Klux Klan activity in Maine that I have ever seen and read, because it includes photographs, including a group picture taken at an annual family outing.

In the pictorial history, published in 2003, the authors Nancy Orr and Johnson Jensen quote a local, who described his experience with the KKK (on page 50):  “The Ku Klux Klan come to our town in 1924. It had the principle of brotherly love for feller members and they had a high moral tone to it….”  In fact, the author’s report, the Klan’s motto was “Service for humanity, home , country and God.”  Locals became divided about the Klan because the organization strongly favored the building of the Bailey Island Bridge and made their strong feelings known. After a stay of nearly two years, the Klan left. In the interviews, the islanders who remembered the KKK said they probably were forced out, because they became suspicious of their presence and didn’t like being told how they should vote in political matters. Harassment from the KKK was further confirmed and reported in other interviews by the authors.  A picture of a local establishment known as the “Spring House” was evidence of the KKK’s presence.

Scary memories about the hateful messages and activities spread by the KKK continue to be disturbing. It is our responsibility to remember how the group did not succeed in Maine, as Ms. Bellows reported. They must continue to be identified as a hate group, wherever they try to spread their ugly influence.  As the NAACP leader Mr. Jealous said in his interview with the Bowdoin Orient, “It’s ultimately those acts of solidarity with our fellow citizens, our fellow Americans—no matter where they live or what status they have—that defines us as great to ourselves.”

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.