Originally published on genealogyatheart.blogspot.com on 18 Jul 2015.
One of my mother’s most frightening memories occurred when she was 6 years old. It was late autumn and the family had just finished dinner. Hearing the sounds of cars and voices my grandfather, Gramps, went out to investigate as typically, there was not much traffic at that time of night. Peaking out the window, my mother saw men in white and many cars lining the street. Gramps soon reappeared and ordered everyone to turn off the lights and to quickly go down into the basement. My grandmother, Non, asked him what was happening but he just shook his head and grabbed his young son, my Uncle George. The outside noises grew louder – car doors slammed, men spoke loudly and then it became quiet. The children were told to remain still. My mother recalled how cold and damp it was in the fruit cellar as the family had not had time to grab a sweater and this part of the house was unheated. My mother didn’t understand what was going on but she knew her parents and grandmother were frightened. Then the sounds of cheering and what sounded like singing, though muffled, was heard. In the dark, mom’s siblings fell asleep but she felt, as the oldest, she needed to remain alert so she pinched herself to stay awake. After several hours of quiet my grandfather decided to investigate. He soon returned and said the Klan had left, the charred cross was not glowing so the fire must be cold. The family could return to their beds for the night. My mother had a fitful sleep for many nights after as she was sure those bad men were going to return and cause harm.
Why did the Ku Klux Klan choose to burn a cross in front of her home? Why did they hate her when they didn’t even know her? Why did they wear hoods and capes? Where were the police?
My mother went to her grave never knowing for sure why her family was targeted.
I thought I knew the reasons but in researching this family story I discovered I was very, very wrong.
Some background information is necessary to see how my initial reasoning was flawed. I’ll highlight some of the key parts of the saga:
After my grandmother, Non, emigrated to the US in July 1913 with her mother, Granny, and brother, my Great Uncle Joe, the family resided in Glen Park, a suburb of Gary, Indiana, while her father lived in nearby Chicago, Illinois working for the Pullman Company as a laborer. My great grandfather thought it best if the family lived in a more bucolic setting than the nitty gritty urban environment they weren’t used to. Non’s first residence was an upstairs apartment on West Ridge Road between Adams and Jefferson Streets. The building below the apartments held a church and a paint store. Non and her brother briefly attended school in the neighborhood to perfect their English and she fell in love with the community. Looking for ways to increase the family income, however, my great grandmother, Granny, decided to apartment hunt in Chicago, locate a larger apartment and then sublease to other immigrants, providing them with room and board. So off to Chicago the family moved.
In January 1917, my grandparents wed at St. Salomea’s Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and they remained there until after my mom’s birth in April 1918. The family seriously discussed moving to Bethlehem or Alquippa, Pennsylvania as there was rumors of steady income with the steel mills but they decided to remain in the Chicago area.
|Family outside Granny’s Pullman area apartment Left-Right, A neighbor, Great Uncle Joseph Koss, Non, my Mother Dorothy and her Godmother, a friend of Non’s.|
My great grandpa did not live long, dying as a result of the Great Flu Epidemic in January 1919. The family unit consisted of widowed Granny, her 3 children – Joseph (who is missing from the 1920 census), Barbara (born in the U.S.) and my Non, Non’s husband, Gramps, and their 2 children, Dorothy, my mom, and Anne Marie with a third, George, on the way. The only breadwinner became Gramps. By late 1918, Gramps and my great grandfather were hired as laborers in the steel mill in Gary. The family rented a house at 2626 Harrison Street, not quite in Glen Park but close. My mother recalled that the house often flooded from the nearby Calumet River, there was a grape arbor in the back but lots of snakes so the children played on a hill across the street.
Times were tough so Non learned a lot from her neighbors who had moved to Gary from Mexico and Louisiana. Being a young mother with 3 small children, her Black neighbors, the Gilkeys, taught her the value of Vicks Vaporub and shared a secret family recipe to help the children recover from scarlet fever, sore throats and earaches. Even though the city had placed the family under quarantine for the scarlet fever, the neighbor woman would sneak in the back door to bring food and the homemade medicine. Non learned to cook in new ways and corn meal mush, fried chicken, hot sauce and greens became commonplace. The family had a garden with chickens and rabbits. In the fall, the children would stomp the grapes to a pulp so the family could make vino, a family tradition, which they began to sell locally.
The only problem was that the home was considered so far out from the city limits of Gary that there was no streetcar so my one legged Gramps re-learned how to ride a bike to get to the last stop of the streetcar line on Broadway, about a mile away, to get to work in the mill.Around 1923 another tragedy struck the family. Breadwinner Gramps had to have his right leg amputated due to a steel mill accident. With the settlement money they received the family decided to buy a home in Glen Park, 1 block west of the apartment that the family first lived in when they emigrated. Non wanted her children to attend Glen Park Elementary School that was known for providing a good education and St. Marks, the brand new Roman Catholic Church, was only 1 block away.
The farmhouse was large enough to once again take in boarders for extra cash. The family continued to raise chickens and rabbits, a vegetable garden and of course, grapes so that they could produce more vino to sell. My mother recalled that in the fall, her feet were often purple due to the stomping of the grapes. The fruit cellar where the wine was stored was in the basement, directly under where my mom (Dorothy) was standing:
Shortly before the cross burning, my mother experienced another frightening event. On Saturday nights, Gramps would play cards with his friends while Non went to the movies with her girlfriends. Granny remained at home watching the children. One Saturday night the Gary police arrived at the door inquiring about sales of alcohol. Granny, with her limited English, had my mother translate. The officers searched the house, found the vats in the fruit cellar and with backup, removed the wine. When my grandparents returned home they were questioned and then arrested. The next morning they appeared before a judge who told them they would be contacted about an upcoming court date.
My grandparents were arrested because of the laws of Prohibition. “While the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal in the United States, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed wine and cider to be made from fruit at home, but not beer. Up to 200 gallons of wine and cider per year could be made, and some vineyards grew grapes for home use.”1 The problem was my grandparents had sold wine.
The court date never occurred as the evidence seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps the officers lost it, sold it or drank it. According to the Gary Police Department, there are no records of arrests from that far back. Searching court records, none could be found since there never was a court date.
Who turned the family in to police? My mother always thought it was a teacher who had repeatedly questioned her about the purple stains on her hands and feet. Perhaps it was a card player associate of my Gramps who was disgruntled after a losing game. Maybe it was a neighbor who witnessed cars coming and going. Most likely I will never know how the police were tipped off.
In researching this story I also contacted the Gary Health Department for records on the quarantine. I was informed that there were no records from that time period, however, I did find online that there was a smallpox epidemic in Gary in 1920 but no record of a scarlet fever outbreak.
I also investigated newspapers for records of quarantine, my grandparents’ arrest and cross burning in Glen Park. Nothing appeared.
For years, I thought the cross burning was because my relatives were the perfect poster family for Klan hatred – as immigrants, these Roman Catholic foreigners who had friends of people of all colors had taken jobs away from the good ole boys and now were living the American Dream by owning a house in the country. I now believe it is most likely that the cross burning occurred because of the wine arrests.
Recently I learned that “After Prohibition took effect in 1920 until its demise in 1933, it opened up a financial bonanza for criminal activity, especially underground bootlegging and the smuggling of liquor into Chicago, Gary, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Evansville and other thirsty cities. Enforcement was haphazard; the Anti-Saloon League was more of a lobbying agency and never rallied community support for enforcement.”2 “The KKK called for punishment of bootleggers and set up the ‘Horse Thief Detective Association’ (HTDA) to make extra-legal raids on speakeasies and gambling joints. It seldom cooperated with law enforcement or the state or federal courts. Instead (it) gave enforcement a bad name. Arthur Gillom, a Republican elected state attorney general over Klan opposition in 1924, did not tolerate its extra-legal operations. Instead, ‘He stressed the dangers of citizens relinquishing their constitutional rights and personal freedoms, and emphasized the importance of representative government (at all levels), states’ rights, and the concept of separation of church and state.’ When Rev. Shumaker proposed that ‘personal liberty had to be sacrificed in order to save people,’ Gilliom replied that surrendering power and individual freedoms was a slippery slope to centralized government and tyranny.”3
The arrest may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Klan – we put up with you and now you’re making wine. Enough already! Perhaps because the police didn’t press charges, the Klan used the event to make a point to law enforcement – we know you didn’t pursue the case because you “lost” the evidence. Who knows what the real reason was. Unless a diary of an officer or Klansman involved miraculously appears mentioning these occurrences I probably will never know for sure.
This is one reason that I love genealogy, the unexpected discoveries! I attended 12 years of schooling in Gary and never once did I hear about the Klan going after bootleggers and gamblers in the area. Although as vigilantes they were wrong to take the law into their hands, ironically, they were right in making a point that a crime had been committed and the enforcers of the law ignored it.
I realize my grandparents were the guilty ones in this story – they broke the law by selling wine and should have paid the price for their actions. They got lucky in getting off – no evidence, no proof of sales, no case.
Unfortunately, it was an innocent victim, my mother, that was most affected. I do know that the cross burning left an indelible mark on her
- Prohibition in the United States Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 July 2015.
- Thomas R. Pegram, “Hoodwinked: The Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Prohibition Enforcement,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era(2008) 7#1 pp 89-119
- Ann Gilliom Verbeek, “The League and the Law: Arthur L. Gillom and the Problem of Due Process in Prohibition-Era Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History(2011) 107#4 pp 289-326, quotes at p 297 online