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Remember This? The Sault's history of cross burnings and fear

The history of the Ku Klux Klan in our city
ku klux klan

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Remember This: The Klan

When one thinks of the Ku Klux Klan we may instinctively think of the history of the southern United States and that an organization like this could never exist here. 

However, many might be shocked to know that the Klan actually had its very own chapter here in Sault Ste. Marie. 

Information is sparse since their membership was sworn to secrecy, however many of their activities seems to have occurred during the 1920s. 

In an interview with the Sault Star in March 1976, a former secretary of the Ku Klux Klan discusses the organization but refused to divulge her or any other member’s name. 

There is no specific date given for the formation of the Klan in Sault Ste. Marie but the secretary stated that it was founded by a man from the United States and she recalled a great deal of correspondence with offices in the U.S.  

The secretary described the Klan as a “social group” although no Catholics or blacks were permitted to join.

The secretary didn’t believe that the Klan discriminated against Italians specifically and “only a few crosses were burned.” 

It appears that a favourite spot that the Klan liked to use to burn crosses was across from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church located on Cathcart Street. 

This Catholic Church had a large Italian congregation. 

The Klan used other locations to burn crosses including the rear of Holy Angels School rink and across from the Hussey Block on Queen Street East. 

Some residential homes were targeted as well, one of whom belonged to L. Doggett, who lived on North Street at the time.

He described an 8-foot cross set on fire with the flames reaching 20 feet into the air. 

Another resident that fell victim to the Klan was J. Bell who witnessed a cross being burned outside their Huron Street home, although Mrs. Bell was not concerned about the incident, she regretted giving the Klan the publicity. 

George Devlin on Base Line reported to the newspaper that a cross was burned outside his home and shots were fired through the front of his house, one narrowly missing his mother-in-law. 

Devlin was a Catholic but he didn’t think that the Klan was involved. 

Many of these cross burnings took place in January and February of 1926, the same year that a mass initiation took place here. 

According to the interview with the Klan’s secretary, cross burnings were just for “laughs.” 

They were also burned in front of homes of “wrongdoers”. 

If a man was having an affair with another man’s wife they would burn a cross at his home. 

In one instance the Klan had tarred and feathered a man for fooling around with someone else’s wife.  The secretary would not divulge the man’s name but only said “he was a prominent citizen”. 

According to Dorothy Bonell’s oral history, (located on the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library catalogue) the local Italian population was more afraid of the Ku Klux Klan than of the Italian Mafia (the Black Hand). 

She remembers an incident as a child when her family was having a party and a friend of the family came to warn them that the Klan was coming. 

The lights were turned off and everyone was told to be silent.  Dorothy remembers seeing men in white sheets and hoods with coke wagons marching down James Street, home to many of the Italian population at the time.  

On July 3, 1926 an article in the Sault Star reported that Italians in the west end had issued a challenge to the Klan in response to statements they had made regarding the employment of Italians at Algoma Steel. 

The Klan wanted to embark on a movement that would see the jobs currently filled by Italians at the steel plant be replaced with Canadian and British born employees. 

At this time approximately 500 Italians were employed at Algoma Steel, mostly as common labourers. 

The Italians claimed that Algoma Steel would not be able to operate without them or other foreign born workers since their jobs were the least secure and least paid and Canadian and British born people would not accept these jobs.        

When the Ku Klux Klan first began to operate in the Sault their first headquarters was located at a home on top of Moffley Hill in the area where Cody School was located. 

In 1926 the Klan moved its headquarters to the Orange Hall on King Street and at that time the membership exceeded 600, according to the Klan’s secretary. 

The headquarters was moved again some years later to the second floor above the telegraph office on Queen Street, which would later house Dolomity Shoes. 

In an interview with the Sault Star on July 20, 1926, M.L. Dalley who was the Klan leader for the Sault Ste. Marie District said that the organization’s membership had approximately 1,500 people. 

Dalley also claimed that the Klan had an earning capacity of $1 million a year and was in a position to control the Sault’s political landscape.  

The Klan disbanded in late 1929 although there is no definitive explanation, it is likely that the start of the Great Depression was a major factor. 

The Klan secretary states “Other older people in town agree: running around in hooded costumes had to take a second place to trying to feed, clothe and shelter families in the depression." 

Citizens of the Sault may feel that this has always been a tight knit community where everyone looks out for everyone else and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan could never have existed here but the fact is, at one point in our history, it did.          

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here     

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