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Explaining the truth to some Catholic school students in Wisconsin why the KKK invaded Lilly in 1924

“The Klan hated Catholics and Jews as well as Blacks”

Fifth grader, St. Francis de Sales School

When I asked a young fifth grader last week why she thought my uncle was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1924, the young lady revealed that she knew more about why it occurred than many people in Lilly, Pa. do today — in the town where it happened.

“The Klan hated Catholics and Jews as well as Blacks,” she said about why they might have invaded Lilly on April 5, 1924.

She was absolutely right, but many people do not know about the hatred of Catholics by the KKK. They are cognizant of the fact that the terroristic organization started in the post-Civil War era to frighten Blacks and essentially became social exponents of fear who existed only to intimidate others whom they oppose.

Phil Conrad and the message of that night

My uncle, Phil Conrad, was one of three people killed on that night, and I told that sad story to a class at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School in Spooner, Wisconsin. The class is being taught by my niece, Tamara Kay Strauss Reedy, and she asked me to convey the message about what that night meant to her fifth-grade class.

My message was not about terror, but was more focused on the words of Jesus Christ about love and how these people distorted them.

They were very attentive and asked some very good questions about it. I told them that the reason that the KKK came to that little town of about 2,500 was because the Irish and Italian Catholics fought back against their discrimination. They tore down the crosses that the Klan put up on the hills in Lilly and Cambria County that were intended to demean Catholics and others with whom they had disagreements.

Heroes: The Irish and Italian Catholics in Lilly, Pa.

The man who initially told me a first-hand story of that night and was one of 15 Irish and Italian-Americans who spent time in jail for a crime he did not commit. He related to me a story about what happened on St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, 1924, just weeks before the KKK invasion. “They [the KKK members and supporters] from South Fork put up two crosses on the top of the hill that night and we found out about it,” he told me in 1993. “We found out about it, and before they could set them on fire, we tore them down.” This man was a child of Irish immigrants and said that the Irish and Italians in Lilly despised the fact that the KKK in 1924 targeted primarily the Catholics.

In fact, historian Dr. John Craig, a retired Slippery Rock University professor,  wrote this in his exhaustive research of the Klan in the 1920s and how they were different from that of the post-Civil War organization, “The Klan in Western Pennsylvania emerged primarily as an anti-Catholic organization.”

His book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania, 1921-28,” spent two chapters talking exclusively about the Lilly riot and illustrated that the initial battle started in 1923 with some shooting into the St. Luke’s Lutheran Church parsonage in November.

This is what Professor Craig wrote about his findings about the KKK in the western portion of Pa.,

The Klan in Western Pennsylvania emerged primarily as an anti-Catholic organization.

John Craig, “The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania, 1921-28.”

Background: What I learned

I did not address all of the minute details like this to the fifth-grade class, but they understood the basic idea that I was presenting: That the KKK was fervently anti-Catholic, and that is why they came to Lilly. The two groups who fought back against them were the Irish-Catholic immigrants and the Italian-Catholics. Of the 15 Catholics who were put on trial two months later for the KKK riot, 14 were Irish and one was Italian. All were Catholics and were members of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church.

Since my father died in 1989 after telling us little about that night, I yearned to discover what truly happened on that dreadful night. The man I interviewed first was a member of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church and he served a year in jail because he was wrongly convicted of shooting a gun that night on the word of a Protestant chief of police, and he gave me the transcript of the trial to read to substantiate that.

Sadly, he passed away before I could talk with him a second time, but I read that trial transcript at least three times and portions more times than that.

His goal was to prove that he was innocent — and after interviewing more people who were there that night — including my own family members and a man who was wounded by a bullet that night — I know the story and believe in his innocence.

The Historical Record

However, what made the most impact on me was researching the historical record about the KKK in the 1920s. One of them wrote extensively about that night. Unfortunately, some people in Lilly have presented the rationale for why the KKK came to the community in a different vein. I shall spend the remainder of my life showing why that idea — expressed on a monument in the town — is an historically aberration — simply incorrect. The people have argued that the decision to come to Lilly occurred in 1924 after the United Mine Workers expelled a few miners because of their memberships in the KKK.

No where did I see any historical data to support that thesis. Instead, if you look at the philosophy of the KKK in the 20s, the focus of their animus is on Catholics and immigrants.

Professor Craig’s book explains in detail about a 1923 shooting that resulted in the trial of two Italian-Americans from Lilly who were eventually found innocent of shooting guns into the St. Luke’s parsonage in November. They were framed by some Protestants in order to set up the confrontation that took place about six months later.

I have written about the trial of these two men, and I will repost that.

In short, what these young people learned is that hatred is something that happens everywhere throughout human history, but it is not Christian-like. It does not follow the commandment that says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

That was the message that I brought to the young people: that we have to love one another even if we do not like what they stand for or what religion they practice.

I think that they heard that message.

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