When one hears of the Ku Klux Klan, most envision the terror organization that hid behind white sheets and hoods and attacked, lynched and threatened African-Americans in the South at the time of Reconstruction following the Civil War. But what is less recorded in history is the second Klan which came to life in the 1920’s.
As increasing numbers of immigrants came into the United States in the late nineteen teens and 1920s, they brought their own ethnic and religious traditions to the nation's cities and towns. Prejudice against the immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, began to increase. The Klan came back into existence spewing their hatred against not only the African-Americans but against newly arrived immigrants, Catholics and Jews.
At Klan rallies, speakers warned that "real" Americans were losing control of the country. Newcomers were taking over local government, the police, and the schools. The Klan claimed that foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, would soon outnumber white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Something, the Klan insisted, had to be done about it.
Many in New Englanders, including Massachusetts and Medfield were receptive to this message. Workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont resented the influx of French Canadians, who were not only Catholic but also willing to accept lower wages than native-born workers. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, anti-Irish prejudice reappeared as Irish-Americans began to gain political power. Anti-Italian prejudice also surfaced with the large numbers of Italian immigrants entering Massachusetts and to a lesser degree in Medfield during this time period. In the early 1920s, Klan meetings and cross-burnings began to occur with some regularity in small towns in eastern and central Massachusetts. Both secret and public Klan meetings were held.
Here in Medfield, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment had been prevalent since the late 1800’s. Signs posted on the North Street hat factory doors, said “No Irish need Apply.” Catholics were not buried in Vine Lake Cemetery, the town’s only cemetery, until 1896 when James Griffin was buried there. Before 1986, Medfield Catholics were buried in area Catholic cemeteries, especially St. Mary’s Cemetery in Canton.
As early as 1922 the Ku Klux Klan had been active throughout Massachusetts, especially in neighboring Middlesex County and in the Worcester area. In 1924, the largest gathering of the Ku Klux Klan ever held in New England took place at the Agricultural Fairgrounds in Worcester.
Klansmen in sheets and hoods, new Knights awaiting a mass induction ceremony and supporters swelled the crowd to 15,000. The KKK had hired more than 400 "husky guards," but when the rally ended around midnight, a riot broke out. Klansmen's cars were stoned, burned, and windows smashed. KKK members were pulled from their cars and beaten. Klansmen called for police protection, but the situation raged out of control for most of the night.
A large Klan rally in August 1925 on the Framingham-Sudbury town line resulted in a skirmish and gun shots being fired between the Klansmen and a large number of protesters. The Klan rallies and the reaction to it were part of a national struggle over who could be considered truly American. Many native-born people were fearful about what they viewed as a decline in traditional American values, rooted in the Protestant religion and Anglo-Saxon culture. They were largely ignorant and resentful of "foreign" institutions and ideas. The anti-Klan forces were determined to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
Anti-Catholic prejudice was obvious here in Medfield and building under the surface. Dances held in Town Hall and open to all in town were frequently changed to “invitation only” after many Italian immigrants began attending. There was an unwritten rule for many in Medfield that one did not sell property to Catholics. Reports of the time gave accounts of rock throwing incidents at Italians on Frairy Street who tried to come “this side” of the railroad tracks. The Italian immigrants had settled mainly on Frairy Street.
In fact, a list of voters in 1925 shows almost every voter on that street having an Italian name. A new feeling of “Us” and “Them” developed in the community. A long-time resident told of a Medfield High School graduate who was reportedly denied a college scholarship due to the fact that he was an Italian Catholic. Several individual Medfield residents changed their last names to bring about a less “foreign” sounding name, fearing they would be unable to get jobs.
A Klu Klux Klan rally took place over the Charles River in Millis in 1925. Here in Medfield, the Italian Catholic Vasaturo family moved into the newly built Miller Street. Klan sympathizers began a petition drive to try to get the family off the street. During the early morning hours, the Vasaturo family woke up to a burning cross on their lawn. It was a Protestant neighbor, Joe Roberts, who grabbed the petition when it came to his house and tour it up.
Said Roberts: “The Vasaturo’s like anyone else had the right to live anywhere they wanted in Medfield.” According to long-time residents, “the prejudice was here in Medfield until World War II, when the patriotism of the Irish and Italian Catholics was very evident and the war seemed to bring everyone together.”
Today almost 60 percent of Medfield residents list their religion as Catholic and the two largest ethnic groups in town are the Irish and the Italians. (Note: information concerning the KKK in Massachusetts and the Worcester area was obtained by “Once Told Tales of Worcester County, by Albert B. Southwick” (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, 1985).