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BLACKS AND MEXICANS BANISHED FROM JOHNSTOWN

 

Following the shooting of 4 police officers, “Fear and uncertainty gripped most of Rosedale on the morning of September 7, 1923.  …Mayor Joseph Cauffiel told the Johnstown Democrat he’d ordered all black and Mexican people who lived in town for less than seven years to leave the city, threatening to use the force of law to make sure his dictate was followed…” (Cody McDevitt, 2020)

 

Cody McDevitt’s Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania (pictured) focuses on the shameful racial history of a small western Pennsylvania town, but the book deserves to be read widely during Black History Month.  As retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Len Barcousky wrote, the book is “A reminder that the unthinkable can and has happened.” On a personal note, the book reminded me of [1] the fact that my hometown’s history mirrors America’s White supremacist history; and [2] Johnstown, as with the rest of America, has so much to do in order to achieve “truth and reconciliation” regarding its ignominious racial history.

In Banished from Johnstown, McDevitt documents Johnstown’s long-rooted, White supremacist-driven social stratification that ranked the Welsh, Irish, German, English, Scottish and Swedish immigrants over the Poles, Slovenians, Croatians, Serbians, Slovaks, and Italians (pp. 15-16).  Of course, all Whites reigned supreme over Blacks and Mexicans.  During the early decades of the 1900s, from the movie theaters to public housing to churches, racial segregation was normative in Johnstown.  During the same time, McDevitt indicated that the Ku Klux Klan “organized faster in the Johnstown area than anywhere else in the state.”  Things reached a low point when, in 1923, four police officers were fatally shot and thousands of Blacks and Mexicans were ordered to leave Johnstown in two days.

As noted above, for me, the importance of McDevitt’s book includes the fact that it not only documents how Johnstown mirror’s America’s White supremacist history but also the fact that so much more needs to be done for all of its citizens to have Johnstown shift from a shrinking city to a progressive city for all.  To do so, we must be truthful regarding how Johnstown got to its present status.  As noted by Tony Norman in his Foreword to McDevitt’s book, “The expulsion of Johnstown’s black and Mexican population was arguably the most important thing that happened in that city in the twentieth century, yet it is an event that has fallen into the region’s memory hole.  Most people had never heard of it.”  Like so much of Black history, Norman continued, “It isn’t taught in the regional schools.”  

Reading McDevitt’s book also reminded me, as in the case of the larger society, how long racism’s impact has persisted.  I was born in Johnstown in 1942 and, in my book, Negotiating a Historically White University While Black, I noted the persistence of Johnstown’s stifling impact on Blacks.  Specifically, “The 1983 film, ‘All the Right Moves,’ featured a Polish high school football player, his peers, and others desperately trying to escape a small, failing, steel town. Because it was a small, depressed, coal mining and steel producing town, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was selected as an ideal place for filming. Long before the filming of “All the Right Moves,” I had personally experienced the severe limitations of Johnstown’s nurturing.  … With the exception of one Black dentist and a female mortician, those holding professional status in the community were primarily White males.”  From 1st through 12th grade, there was no Black school teacher.  In my public housing unit, Blacks lived on one side of the street and Whites on the other side.  In the steel mill, only Whites were managers.  In the local department stores, the only Black employees I saw were janitors. 

As McDevitt noted, “Most of the injustices we see carried out today have historical precedent.  By studying them, we see how people dealt with it in previous instances.  And we see the things that were effective in combating them.”  If one studies the history of Johnstown, then one will note patterns of White male privilege; the suppression of women and people of color to maintain that privilege; how that privilege was eroded when the steel and coal mining industry declined significantly; the advent of opioid, alcohol and other addictions by White males in response to unemployment and other aspects of a depressed city; the misuse of the police by the government; the scapegoating of contemporary immigrants; and, more recently, how many are drawn magnetically and misguidedly to “MAGA” appeals as was the case across Pennsylvania in the last Presidential election. (See, “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway,” by Michael Kruse, Politico)

A close study of Johnstown’s Black history will also underscore the undying will of Blacks to not only survive but also thrive in Johnstown.  Innumerable Blacks have come “up from nowhere,” up from Johnstown’s segregated public housing; up from extended families living under one roof; up from down south and living with relatives until they got on their feet;  up from sleeping on hand-made pallets stuffed with straw and/or rags; up from thriving off vitamin enriched collards, beets, and other home garden vegetables for the body and that old Mt. Sinai Baptist Church spirit for the soul; and up from a daily world without Black professional role models but surrounded by Black folks who might not have read or heard “Invictus” but lived their lives as follows:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

Indeed, we shall never be banished permanently from Johnstown or elsewhere in America but rather our children, our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children will assume their rightful places in Johnstown and throughout America.  As such, this article is a small tribute to a few of my Johnstown buddies who made magnificent contributions before departing this earth, i.e., Harrison M. Coleman; Charles Davis; Oliver Haselrig; George L. Joy; Glenn Morris; and Emery Whitlow.

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Contributor, Pittsburgh Urban Media

Author, Negotiating a Historically White University While Black

February 5, 2020

 

 

 

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