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Nyack People & Places

The Surprising Story of the Ku Klux Klan in Rockland County

The Proud Boys of 1925

It was the event of a decade. KKK leaflets were dropped by plane over Nyack.  10,000 came to see 1,000 Klan marchers, 15 babies in full Klan regalia baptized, and two 75-foot crosses burn in an open field. This Klonvocation, as it was called, wasn’t down south somewhere, but, remarkably, in Suffern, NY in the middle of the Roaring 20s.

A Klan march in Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

America in the 1920s

1925 was the heart of the Roaring 20s. It was the year that The Great Gatsby published, defining an era of extreme wealth. Stock prices tripled in one year. New York City became the largest city in the world. The first motel opened in San Luis Obispo, CA. American flappers danced as fast as possible.

Kamelias marching. Location unknown.

Yet, underneath the glitter and wealth was a darker world. Culture wars developed. The Scopes Monkey Trial concluded its fight over the teaching of evolution in schools. Even more alarming was the dramatic rise of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK of the 1920s widened its scope beyond racial hatred to include all kinds of extreme nativism, hatred of Catholics, Jews, southern and eastern European immigrants, big city elitists, and, of course, people of color. White supremacy, 100% American, went public across the entire country.

A Cross Burning in Nyack

On August 9, 1925, a huge fiery cross was set afire as a warning to Mr. A. Marsilio on the train tracks opposite his “saloon” at the corner of Cedar Hill Ave. and Franklin St.. What the warning was about was unsaid. Nyack police officer Taylor saw the flames and thought the nearby White lumber yard across from the terminus of the Erie Railroad in Nyack was on fire. As he ran down the street, he saw the red light, so familiarly used by the KKK, then a burning cross. The cross was 15-feet high, and 10-feet wide built of narrow lumber saturated in oil. The police promised to investigate as Officer Taylor had a “tip”. No follow up was reported.

There Is No Such Thing in Rockland County

Mr. Marsilio was one of the first on the scene of the cross burning. He said he had not received any threats by letter or in person. It’s unclear what he might have done, and what his “saloon” was since prohibition was in force at the time.

“It was not the work of the Ku Klux Klan for there is no such thing in Rockland County it is said. (italics mine) However, there is said to be members of the hooded organization living here.”Nyack Evening Journal

Another Cross Burning in Nyack

In 1925, the KKK was at its heights in America.  Another cross was lit in Nyack, this time on South Mountain near the Alliance Missionary Institute, later Nyack College. The cross burning was announced by a gigantic explosion that was heard cross town during the annual St. Patrick’s Ball at St. Ann’s church. The cross was visible from almost anywhere in the villages. It was made of heavy beams wrapped in rags and then soaked in oil. It burned about ten minutes.

Not Us Says the Grand Kleagle

For the first time in Rockland County, a high official of the Imperial Palace of the invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Suffern, NY identified himself. C. G. Jay, Grand Kleagle published a denial of the cross burning on page one of the newspapers a few days after the Nyack cross burning. The Klan was no longer a secret. They didn’t bother to hide. C. G. Jay gladly signed the letter stating that the Klan had nothing to do with the cross burning.

“The fiery cross of the Klan is not the same as the one burned at Nyack. Also, it is not permissible to use bombs at the burning of the cross as the fiery cross is sacred to a true Klansman.” C.G. Jay, Nyack Evening Journal, March 21, 1925

The Klan in Rockland County was no longer a secret, it was an open, in-your-face, robed organization.

Klan Meetings at Churches & Fire Houses

Kllan “mas” initiation, LOs Angeles, 1925. AP Photo.

Around the same time as the South Mountain cross burning, a mailing was sent out about a meeting of the KKK to be held at the West Nyack fire house. The same month a pastor of the Blauvelt Presbyterian Church announced that the KKK would attend evening services. The week before Klan Knights and Kamelias in full regalia packed the Central Nyack Congregation Church on a Sunday evening. 

In January, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church evening services in Nanuet, 100 KKK members, 50 in costume arrived in cars, and took seats in the rear pews. The pastor chose as his sermon “the Invisible Church”. Following the regular service, the leader of the KKK group went to the pulpit and delivered his own sermon on “100% Americanism”. He went on to put strong emphasis on the importance of the public school system and denouncing parochial schools. 

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Cars on their way to a Klan picnic in Montana. From Western Heritage Center, Billings, MT.

KKK Leaflets Dropped from Airplane over Nyack

At 8:00 on the evening of July 23, 1925, an airplane flying at 1,000 feet dropped leaflets over Nyack announcing the upcoming KKK Klavern with a parade and carnival in Suffern on Saturday.  The leaflets formed a cloud, some of which scattered in the village, some in the Hudson River. People scrambled to grab them.

Later in the evening, a group of men and women arrived by car in Nyack and began selling small buttons depicting the American flag with a small ribbon attached with the words, “100% American”. Of course, the Knights of the Invisible Empire stated that these people had nothing to do with the KKK. Hmm. 

First Klavern Held in Rockland County

In a field about 2 miles outside Suffern the Klan set up their Klavern. A huge red electric KKK sign was set on the roadside, another was in the center of the field. Several tents were set up. One tent with the sign, “God Give Us Men” was for registration. Another tent was set up for the Kavaliers who oversaw security for the Klavern. The Kan set up two 75-foot crosses for the evening festivities.

10,000 in Attendance, 15 Babies Christened, 1,000 Parade

About 7pm 1,000 Knights and some Kamelias, the women’s auxiliary, all dressed in full regalia marched from the field to downtown and along Lafayette Street in Suffern.  Cars and people lined the entire route. Houses along the route were decorated with American flags. Five bands played including Nyack’s own Fife and Drum Corps of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics.  10 floats accompanied the marchers.

The Klonvocation

Klan baptism. Library of Congress

Marchers headed back to the field arriving at 9p. Automobiles lined the area bringing even more people A giant circle was formed in the center of the parade grounds. Grand Kleagle C. G. Jay mounted a platform festooned with a red lit KKK and American flags. He had the Kavaliers form a line on the outside of the circle. Then he separated the men and women inside the circle.

The first event was the baptism of children. Reverend. H. D. Wood of Newburgh officiated. The children were all under 6 months of age and fully dressed in miniature Klan outfits complete with hoods. Kleagle Jay introduced Judge Griffin who spoke. Then J. R. Bacon from the national headquarters spoke at length about the Klan creed.

Firing of the Crosses

As the evening had grown dark, the two immense crosses were fired. 21 giant bombs exploded. Colored flares lit the edge of the crowd casting an eerie glow over the robed initiates. Rain began at 10:30p at the end of the Klavern but most people stayed on. Booths around the edge of the field sold Klan novelties and souvenirs. Many people took advantage of the dance platform.

Klonvocation, Anderson, IN. Gall State Archives.

You are here because you realize that this time the enemies of America realize that the Ku Klux Klan is not a group of fanatics waving the tar brush and brandishing the hangman’s noose, but a movement in which every red-blooded American is participating. The creed of the Ku Klux Klan cannot be honestly attacked. The oath taken by a Klansman or Kameilia cannot be honestly attacked. Those who attack either, attack the Constitution of the Unites States.J. R. Bacon July 27, 1925, Nyack Evening Journal

It is amazing to think that if we substituted “Proud Boys” “Oath Keepers’ or any other such organization today for the Ku Klux Klan in this speech, adherents would easily agree with what was said.

Irony Upon Irony

The very same weekend as the Klavern, 50 African Americans met in Nyack to discuss the problems of education. On Saturday regional minority leaders met at the home of Mrs.  George Avery and at the Odd Fellows Hall to discuss the causes of student unrest.  On Sunday the group met on the lawn of E. F. Perry overlooking the Hudson River. Lively discussions about religion, interracial cooperation, international relations, and politics took place.

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It is hard to reconcile two such disparate meetings occurring only 15 miles apart on that dramatic weekend in the summer of 1925. 

The Klan went away as a political force quickly in the North, but very slowly in the South where it remained an extremely violent organization.  Yet did the Klan really disappear? The rhetoric seems much the same today, the cultural divisions similar, but the names are different.

History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we can never detect the resemblance until the damage is done. Sidney J Harris

Note

None of the photos are of events in Rockland County, but they do represent events that allegedly happened here. Photos are courtesy of the Library of Congress unless otherwise noted. For an excellent study of the KKK in the 1920’s see The Second Coming of the KKK-The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Trading, Linda Gordon, 2017.

Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health and Weld Realty

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.


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