Preserving history: Reflections on a century-old riot in Carnegie
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HistoryCarnegie and the Klan

Preserving history: Reflections on a century-old riot in Carnegie

One hundred years after white supremacists targeted their town, residents revisit the aftermath and silence

Panelists recount the events of Aug. 25, 1923. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Panelists recount the events of Aug. 25, 1923. Photo by Adam Reinherz

If the Klan storms Carnegie and no one remembers, did it happen?

The question of historical record, and the responsibility of preserving unsavory events, was raised by local residents and panelists on Aug. 23 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.

Daniel J. McGrogan and Jeffrey R. Keenan of the Historical Society of Carnegie recounted how, a century earlier, thousands of Ku Klux Klan members targeted the area.

On Aug. 25, 1923, between 10,000-20,000 Klansmen traveled to Carnegie.

Trains, horses, carts and even boats made it “an easy place to get to,” Keenan said. Once the torch-carrying hatemongers arrived, they found a site with people who were “sympathetic to their cause” and individuals to attack.

At the time, Carnegie — whose population was approximately 8,000 — was “a mill town and railroad center with a number of coal mines both in town and near its outskirts,” McGrogan said.

When three specialty steel mills expanded, and the need for skilled and unskilled labor grew, “the call was heard by newer immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.”

Carnegie Allegheny County Pennsylvania 1897. Photo via Library of Congress

In the early 20th century, Carnegie transformed into a “moderate-sized trading center,” wrote Ruggero J. Aldisert, a Carnegie-born U.S. Circuit Judge in his memoir “Road to the Robes.” Citing Aldisert’s work, McGrogran noted that the commercial hub for nearby farms and coal mines evolved and “what was once an ethnically homogeneous Protestant community became a babel of foreigners.”

The Klan, which formed during the Reconstruction, experienced a resurgence in 1915.

Driven by opposition to “Catholic and Jewish immigrants,” the group attracted national support, and over 10 months, membership surged from “a few thousand to 100,000,” McGrogan said. By 1925, the group had 4 million members.

Initially, the majority of the Klan’s “savagery” targeted Black people. Over time, however, Catholics, Jews, liberals and progressives faced an entity whose hatred stemmed from the results of industrialization, urbanization and immigration, McGrogan said. Members of the Klan were “mostly white Protestant middle-class men,” who thought their actions were both moral and religious.

“They saw themselves as vigilantes restoring justice when they used intimidation, threats of violence and actual violence to prevent Blacks, immigrants, Catholics, liberals and progressives from attaining wealth and social status,” he said.

Battle on the bridge

The 10,000-20,000 Klansmen, who began their trek after nightfall on Aug. 25, followed a route from Carnegie Park, which is about 1,000 feet above sea level, to an area 300 feet below. The topography matters, Keenan said, because the descent facilitated a “spectacular recruiting drive that can be seen all through the valley.”

This wasn’t just people strolling, he continued. There were bands, souvenir stands, food trucks and “burning 30-foot crosses.”

For nearly 45 minutes, Klan members marched “six abreast with military precision” down the two-mile path.

“They’re chanting, they’re singing, beating drums, and the people all around are not happy about this,” Keenan said. “They’re not happy with what’s going on.”

When the hooded xenophobes attempted to cross a narrow bridge over Chartiers Creek, several hundred Carnegie residents began “throwing sticks and rocks and coal at them,”

Keenan said. A riot ensued and “it took over the town.”

A Klansman was fatally shot. The cloaked group fled.

“It was a tactical failure for the Ku Klux Klan,” Keenan said.

The Birmingham Age-Herald (Birmingham, Ala.), addressed the Carnegie riot in its Aug. 27, 1923 edition. Image via Library of Congress

Author Bill Campbell and artist Bizhan Khodabandeh, who were on Wednesday’s panel, depicted the event in the graphic novel “The Day the Klan Came to Town.”

Campbell, a former Carnegie resident, said researching the episode made it clear that “Carnegie was more diverse in the 1920s than when I lived there in the 1970s.”

Only after leaving the area, and moving to Washington D.C., did he learn of the riot.

Campbell visited the Historical Society of Carnegie hoping for insights but was apprehensive to ask for details “because nobody talked about it,” he said. “I used to think, ‘Oh, this is a town secret and people want this to stay a town secret.’”

Historical Society members rebuffed that theory and gladly shared records from the event, including the names of Carnegie’s Klan members, he said.

Four years later, there’s nothing but gratitude for Campbell and Khodabandeh’s graphic novel, Keenan said. They took the “events of this battle here in Carnegie and incorporated the imagery into the immigrant experience.”

A statement from Melissa E. Marinaro, curator of the Heinz History Center’s Italian American Program, said Wednesday’s discussion commemorated “the citizens of Carnegie, who 100 years ago stood up to the Klan in an act of resistance and drove them from the town. They were average people, many of whom labored in the industrial complex that came to define our region, seeking the promise of the American Dream.”

The names of Carnegie’s defenders, she continued, may not be preserved in books, but their actions deserve to be remembered.

Descendants of history

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told the Chronicle he attended the Aug. 23 event because his grandfather was present during the riot.

“He was 30 years old back in 1923 and had been in the United States for two years,” Peduto said. “He would tell me the story about how the KKK came to tell him to leave, and how the people of Carnegie told the KKK to go home. It was a very proud moment for him, and it’s had a direct effect on my life.”

Scott Township resident Lorraine Shadle’s father was on the bridge when the clash began. He was 22 years old, she said, and “he took some kind of weapon — I don’t know if it was a bat, but something wooden — to fight the Klan.”

Shadle said her father told her about the incident decades after its occurrence.

“I was surprised to hear because it wasn’t anything that was talked about,” she said. “My father died in 1979, so I can’t go back and get clarification, but one of the most meaningful things that I do remember was his surprise to see who’s under the hoods.”

During the battle on the bridge, the resisters seized the veils and discovered their enemies’ identities.

Beneath the white hoods were “local established business people,” Shadle said.

“My father was quite surprised, and he named names when he shared this with me.”

Susan Bryan of Kennedy Township said her grandfather was on the bridge a century ago.

“I’m very proud that he was there to help stop the Klan, but on the other hand, there are still many people that live in Carnegie whose relatives were on the other side,” she said. “Would you really want that out there, that your relatives were Klansmen? I mean it’s embarrassing, it’s painful, so I think that’s really why this wasn’t talked about a lot over the years.”

Still, history must be preserved, she said.

“If you don’t stand up against what is wrong — no matter what the issue is — it’s going to continue,” Bryan said. “And that applies to today.”

‘A critical moment’

“We find ourselves in a critical moment,” Marinaro said. “White supremacists are once again attempting to intimidate and terrorize citizens of this country.”

There are 102 white supremacist chapters in the U.S. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “they hope to convince white Americans that they are persecuted by ‘anti-white’ ideas and policies, including the adoption of inclusive education in schools.” As the 2024 presidential election nears, “this movement could cause further disruption and violence.”

Attendees of the Aug. 23 program listen to panelists. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Four days after the 1923 riot, the Klan published its weekly newsletter. Editors recounted the event and excerpted the work of Pittsburgh-based journalists “so that the merits of the matter may be judged on the testimony of newspaper writers who, if they are biased, are certainly not biased in favor of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Pages earlier, the Klan pointed to Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese and Finns, when calling immigration “one of the greatest perils confronting America.”

“Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil,” the Grand Dragon of the Realm of South Carolina wrote. “Any alien who is not willing to measure up to the standard of true Americanism should be deported. We have no room in this country for any individual or element opposed to America, and who are not willing to give their undivided allegiance to our country, its institutions, its language and its flag.”

When asked why it’s essential to document stories — even those that people wish to forget — Campbell said, “History is important because we never escape it. We are a product of it. We are constantly living it.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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