By Cynthia Van Ness
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 that experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
One of the most inspiring books 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 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. The office was in the Calumet building on Chippewa and their base was the Delaware District.
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.
The 18th Amendment, banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, was heavily supported by Protestants, who associated alcohol abuse with Roman Catholics and immigrants.
Buffalo’s first Catholic mayor, Francis X. Schwab, had just been elected. Schwab, who was German-American, owned a brewery that was caught selling alcohol. 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. Someone, probably recruited by Schwab, burgled the Buffalo Klan office and stole the membership list. It ended up on display at police headquarters. Buffalonians flocked downtown by the thousands to look for names of friends and associates. It was then published as a pamphlet, a copy of which 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 Aug. 31, 1924, in front of 128 Durham St., 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. 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 a column in the daily newspaper.
Cynthia Van Ness is a librarian, author and historian.