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Buffalo Ku Klux Klan

Remembering Buffalo’s Ku Klux Klan Martyr

By Cynthia Van Ness
December 5, 2017

As white supremacists and neo-Nazis explode across headlines and screens, I thought back to events in Buffalo from 1922-1925.  We were one of several otherwise progressive Northern cities who experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the most inspiring books that few people have ever read about Buffalo history is Shawn Lay’s Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995).  He recounts the full story of Buffalo’s successful battle with the Klan.  I am indebted to him for these highlights.

The Buffalo Klan experience does not conform to popular stereotype.  Their members were not rural, undereducated whites with poor economic prospects.  Here, the Klan’s 4,000 members were drawn mostly from the Protestant educated, professional, and merchant middle class, people you might today call Yuppies.  Their office was in the Calumet building on Chippewa and their base was the Delaware district.  They attracted people like me and my neighbors, a sickening thought. 

This demographic joined the Klan because it picked a very specific battle that resonated with them.  The Buffalo Klan apparently decided that it would not gain much ground by attacking African-Americans or Jews, though these communities did organize in opposition to it.  Instead, the Buffalo Klan focused on lax enforcement of Prohibition.

When the 18th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, it was heavily supported by Protestants, who associated alcohol abuse with Roman Catholics and immigrants.  You will recall that Buffalo’s large brewing industry was built almost entirely by German immigrants.

When the Klan came to town, Buffalo’s first Roman Catholic mayor, Francis X. Schwab, had just been elected.  Schwab, who was German-American, owned a brewery which was caught selling alcohol.  Schwab was charged and pleaded Nolo Contendere, meaning that he did not contest the charges.  During Prohibition, the booze flowed freely in Buffalo.  This incensed the city’s Protestant elites.  They flocked to this new organization which promised civic improvement and fraternal fellowship.

The battle lines were drawn: Protestant vs. Catholic.  Recognizing the Klan as a mortal enemy, Schwab recruited an undercover officer to infiltrate the Buffalo chapter.  When someone, probably recruited by Schwab, burgled the Buffalo Klan office and stole the membership list, it ended up on display in the Buffalo police headquarters lobby. Buffalonians flocked downtown by the thousands to look for names of friends and associates.  It was then published as a newsprint pamphlet and sold on the street. A copy of the pamphlet survives in The Buffalo History Museum and is now online at NYHeritage.org.

Embarrassed by the exposure, the Klan sent its own investigator, Thomas Austin, to Buffalo. Austin soon figured out who Mayor Schwab’s spy was: Officer Edward Obertean.  On August 31, 1924, in front of 128 Durham Street, Austin confronted Obertean.  Both men drew weapons, exchanged gunfire, and died.  Edward Obertean was 35 years old. He was Catholic.

Buffalo has never properly recognized our martyr in the fight against the Klan and the bigotry and hatred for which it stands.  As plans proceed to convert the Dillon Federal Courthouse on Court Street into Buffalo Police Department headquarters, I propose renaming it the Edward Obertean Building in his honor.  It would be a powerful statement that we embrace the highest and best American values in the City of Good Neighbors.  Let’s give our hero something more lasting than an editorial in the daily newspaper.

Cynthia Van Ness is a librarian, author, and historian.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2017
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