The Ku Klux Klan raided an Oakville home in 1930 to prevent an interracial marriage.
They saw themselves as valiant white knights of an “invisible empire,” avenging wrongs against good, solid, upstanding white Protestants. Others would say they were a sad sack collection of bigots indulging in, as American historian Frederick Allen Lewis put it, “the infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places.” For an interracial Oakville couple in 1930, the Hamilton branch of the Ku Klux Klan tried, but ultimately failed, to drive a wedge into their relationship.
Annie Jones turned to the Klan when she felt like she was running out of options to break up the impending nuptials of her daughter Isabel to black labourer and First World War veteran Ira Junius Johnson. When Mrs. Jones asked Oakville police to intervene, they noted their hands were tied because Isabel was legally an adult. She wanted her peers in the Salvation Army to talk sense into the couple, but Ira and Isabel refused to acknowledge house calls. Mrs. Jones later told the press she was heartbroken over the situation.
The Klan’s suitability for solving Mrs. Jones’s anxieties was spelled out in the creed found in its Canadian membership manual:
We believe that our white race has a ministry of supreme service to mankind, and that the introduction of elements which cannot readily be assimilated or fused into our racial stock will lead to the corruption of racial health and seriously impair the service we might render to our fellow men. We therefore avow ourselves to be ever true to the maintenance of our racial integrity.
Not as many Canadians heeded the Klan’s call as American organizers hoped. While there were violent outbursts, cross burnings, and numerous threats issued to those opposing its philosophies, apart from playing a role in the 1929 Saskatchewan provincial election, the KKK never achieved the political sway it earned south of the border. Among the reasons it failed to take off, especially in Ontario:
1) Bad market research. The anti-Catholic Klan made its first move into Canada in predominantly Catholic Quebec in 1921. While the KKK fizzled there quickly, La Belle Province later proved far more receptive to fascist movements.
2) Respected competition for Ontario’s bigotry. We already had the ultra-Protestant Orange Order, which had long been established as pillars of the community and operated the levers of political power in strongholds like Toronto.
3) Internal warfare. Soon after a head office was established on the fifth floor of the Excelsior Life Building at Adelaide and Toronto streets in 1925, bickering led to splinter groups.
4) Failure to combat the impression they were just another vulgar American import. No matter how much Klan organizers in Canada wrapped themselves in maple leaves and Union Jacks (and suffered delusions of being saviours of the British Empire), the Klan, according to Martin Robin in his book Shades of Right, was seen as “foreign, American, and inimical to the British tradition of commitment to fair play, common sense, tolerance, give and take, and the rule of law,” even if we didn’t always honour those ideals.
To the Klan, Mrs.Jones’s tale of woe sounded like a case of a Negro holding an innocent white girl captive. The couple moved into Johnson’s home on Head Street for a few days in late February 1930, until friends told him their cohabitation was causing a stir. While he stayed at home, Isabel moved into his aunt Viola Sault’s home on Kerr Street, which also housed Johnson’s parents and uncle. Despite Ms. Jones’s objections, the couple planned to marry on March 2.
When Ira and Isabel drove to New Toronto the afternoon of February 28 to get a marriage license, the Klan decided it was time to act. Around 10 p.m. that night, a caravan of 75 robed men from Hamilton drove into Oakville. They marched into downtown and planted a cross on a main street. “Maintaining order throughout,” the Globe reported, “not a word was uttered by the gowned visitors, who stood around until the last bit of timber had been consumed by the flames.”
Then the raid began in earnest. Finding nobody at Johnson’s house, they went to Sault’s place, where the occupants were playing cards. The couple was placed into separate cars. “I asked what authority they had for taking her away, Johnson told the Star. “They didn’t make any reply and drove off.” He was forced to sit between two “guards” during his trip back to Head Street. The Klansmen then nailed a cross in front of Sault’s house and set it ablaze, drawing the attention of neighbours. When the fire died down, a representative knocked on the door, which was answered by Johnson’s mother. “The spokesman told me,” she later recalled, “that if Ira…was ever seen walking down the street with a white girl again the Klan would attend to him.” As for Isabel, after a consultation with her mother the Klan deposited her into the care of Salvation Army Captain W. Broome.
Duty fulfilled, the Klansmen drove back to Hamilton. On their way out of town, the caravan was stopped by Oakville police chief David Kerr. Recognizing some of the passengers as prominent Hamilton businessmen, he let them ride off without any penalties. According to Kerr, “there was no semblance of disorder and the visitors’ behaviour was all that could be desired.” The Klansmen assured Kerr that if a similar situation occurred again, they would place themselves entirely at his service.
Oakville mayor A.B. Moat praised the raiders for their chivalry. “Personally I think the Ku Klux Klan acted quite properly in the matter,” he told the Star. “The feeling in the town is generally against such a marriage. Everything was done in an orderly manner. It will be quite an object lesson.” While front page headlines from Hamilton to Toronto described the raid, no papers initially condemned the incident, stressing in some cases the supposed civility it was carried out with and the placid reaction of some Oakville residents.
Anger was left to leaders of Toronto’s black community. Lawyer E. Lionel Cross called the incident an outrage. “As a British citizen, I have believed the rule of law should always prevail,” he told the press, noting that any man was “free to choose what companions he cares to have. When anybody under the guise of patriotism or any other ‘ism’ trespasses on the right of any man, no matter who he may be or of what race, it should be the duty of all law-abiding citizens to denounce any such action.” Reverend H. Lawrence McNeil, minister of the First Baptist Church of Toronto, declared that “everyone recognizes that the Ku Klux Klan is inimical to more than one group, and it is detrimental to the great ideal of Canada’s being just and equal. Only at the penalty of the decay of Canada can we afford to allow the Ku Klux Klan to gain headway in this country.”
Cross, McNeil, and lawyer B.J. Spencer Pitt rallied the black community to speak out against the raid. The trio also applied pressure on provincial Attorney General W.H. Price to conduct a full investigation. Price, whose department was long wary of the Klan, ordered Kerr and crown attorney William Inglis Dick to produce a comprehensive report.
Meanwhile, the Klan pled their case to the public via letters sent to the Globe and the Star. Credited to “Scribe,” the letters claimed credit for suggesting Isabel stay with the Salvation Army, and assured the Joneses that “it would be a pleasure of the Klan to act in a brotherly manner to them, and to any one in similar circumstances, regardless of colour or creed.” They also praised Johnson’s parents for being “of sterling character and are highly spoken of in their community,” extending them “sincere wishes that their son would mend his ways and that this demonstration would be a warning to him.” The letters are gag-inducing, making a reader simultaneously amused and horrified by claims that separating an interracial couple wasn’t a case of taking the law into one’s hands, but merely a means of “endeavouring to maintain British justice.” The Klan also declared it was “essentially purely British, and is not in any manner affiliated with the KKK in the United States, nor are we opposed to the coloured people, provided they are true British subjects.”
As the investigation continued, it was becoming obvious Oakville residents were confused by the raid. The Telegram observed that the general feeling was irritation at the Klan’s high-handed action, and that police and the public were confused as to why Isabel “got into an automobile with five strange men late at night” (she told Kerr she believed they were police officers). Mayor Moat retracted his support of the action, claiming the Star misquoted him.
Back in Toronto, angry letters filled editorial pages, lambasting the Klan. In Earlscourt, a local labour organization demanded that legal action be taken against the perpetrators. Black community leaders echoed that call in a mass meeting at the First Baptist Church on March 4. A Star editorial the next day pointed out the hypocrisy of anyone who still claimed that there hadn’t been a disturbance. “The history of private justice and secret tribunals all over the world,” the paper concluded, “shows them capable of being prostituted to purposes of the greatest evil.”
The front page of the March 5 edition of the Star carried a bombshell headline: “HAS NO NEGRO BLOOD, KLAN VICTIM DECLARES.” Johnson now claimed that his family was of mixed white and Cherokee ancestry, which explained his darker complexion. There were long associations with the black community within his family—his white maternal grandfather had preached to black congregations stretching from Guelph to Oakville, while his mother had served as a midwife to black families. This admission led to a more positive portrayal of Johnson from both the press (which now played up his war record) and figures previously opposed to him. Captain Broome believed the claim, noting Johnson had attended some Salvation Army meetings and seemed to be “a decent sort of chap.” Mrs. Jones now claimed that she opposed the marriage not because of his skin colour, but because he was too lazy to “get a job and make a man out of himself” in order to support Isabel.
Whether Johnson’s new claims about his ancestry were true is subject to debate. The minister slated to perform the marriage, Reverend W.C. Perry, long believed the Johnsons were black, while older Oakville residents thought they were “black as the ace of spades.” Decades later, author Lawrence Hill interviewed local historian Alvin Duncan, who backed up the community’s belief about the Johnson family’s background. Hill wondered in his book Blood: The Stuff of Life if Johnson really had aboriginal ancestry or if it was an identity he adopted to avoid further arousing the Klan’s wrath. “The incident provides yet another example of the negotiation of racial identity and the lengths to which people will go to keep their blood ancestry secret because of persecution from the outside world,” Hill observed. “Tomorrow, perhaps, things will change. But today, race has nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with what people will believe.”
The province’s investigation led to the issuing of four summonses on March 7. While one man was never found, the other three were soon identified as chiropractor William E. Phillips, chiropractic assistant Harold Orme, and Hamilton Presbyterian Church pastor Ernest Taylor. The Crown charged them with an obscure section of the Criminal Code originally designed to handle burglaries, which outlawed being masked or having faces blackened at night without good legal reason.
While waiting for the court hearing, the Klan taunted its opponents and victims. Broome believed the couple was being tailed by brown sedan while the two remained separated. Kerr claimed that “lots of people would leave town if we were to tell everything we knew to the newspapers.” In Toronto, McNeil received a serious of threatening phone calls at his Edward Street home, though the his family increasingly regarded them as pranks. Not taking any chances, the police guarded his home.
The sidewalk outside the Oakville Police Court was crammed as the accused faced their trial on March 10. A man distributed Klan leaflets to the crowd, claiming its strength as the most powerful secret society in the British Empire. Inside, the crown’s case collapsed under the questioning of defence lawyer C.W. Reid Bowlby. Kerr admitted that he believed Johnson had an unsavoury reputation, refused to answer if he thought the raid was lawful, and noted the defendants were “fine types of men.” Isabel was badgered by Bowlby to say that the Klansman had treated her in a gentlemanly mayor, and admitted she didn’t recognize the defendants. Phillips testified that the hooded robe was traditional garb, not a costume. Evidence that Orme and Taylor wore hoods was insufficient. Bowlby pointed out the ridiculous law the Crown used as their chief weapon, especially regarding normal events like Halloween and masquerade balls. To cheers from Klan supporters, he declared that they were justified in splitting the couple, and that he was sure “that there are hundreds of parents throughout the Dominion of Canada who would be eternally thanked that such a step had been taken.” By this point Johnson had enough and quietly left the courtroom.
He missed Bowlby heaping further praise the Klan’s actions:
If they gone there and knocked the furniture about and assaulted people, there would have been an offence. But they did a humane, decent thing in taking her away from that man…There can be no doubt that [my client] was hooded, with a lawful excuse. It was no more wrong for him to do that than it is for other lodgemen to wear regalia…I ask for a dismissal, and I am sure that thousands of parents, with justice in mind, will back you in your course.
Even though the charges carried penalties up to five years in prison, the crown felt that given Phillips’s place of respect in the community, a fine would do. Police magistrate W.E. McIlveen agreed, dismissing charges against Orme and Taylor, and slapping Phillips with a $50 fine.
Outside the court, Phillips posed for photos with Annie and Isabel Jones. “You go home with your mother, or you’ll be seeing me again,” he warned Isabel. A Star reporter who overheard the conversation reported that her response was “All right.” Phillips reassured Mrs. Jones that “everything will be all right now. Just send for me if there is any further trouble and I’ll be right there.”
The slap on the wrist emboldened the Klan, enticing it to step up its solicitation efforts in Oakville, which extended to handing pamphlets to schoolchildren. Black leaders joined with Jewish leaders in Toronto to demand further legal action. Johnson’s home mysteriously burned down, though he told the press he didn’t think the Klan was involved (“I know I have enemies in this town, but I don’t think one of them would go so far as to burn my home”). The Canadian Forum pointed out the hypocrisy of the Klan getting off with a wrist slap while a recent Communist meeting in Toronto was brutally broken up by police. “If Ontario was true to its vaunted British traditions, Communists would be allowed to speak and meetings of masked Klansmen would be dispersed with night sticks,” the magazine opined. “If some of these ‘prominent business men’ parading in their Knight-shirts were cracked over the head, trampled in the mud, and then heaved into a lousy jail, they would be content perhaps to mind their own business for the future.”
The government got their chance to amend McIlveen’s decision when the attorney general’s office filed a counter-appeal against Bowlby’s appeal of Phillips’s fine. The case was heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal on April 16, 1930. Deputy Attorney General Edward J. Bayly made the case that Phillips deserved a harsher sentence to preserve the sanctity of the rule of law. Bowlby argued about the noble nature of the Klan’s motivation for the raid, “like clergymen doing a Christian act.” The five judges didn’t buy Bowlby’s hyperbole—David Inglis Grant grilled him on what right men had to take a woman to wherever they think she ought to be, while William Middleton rhetorically asked why if their mission was so lawful the raiders required masks.
After a lunch break, Chief Justice Sir William Mulock delivered the unanimous verdict—not only did Phillips’s conviction stand, but, as the meek fine was “a travesty of justice,” he was sentenced to a three-month jail sentence.
[T]hey committed not only an illegal offence as regards her, but also a crime against the majesty of the law. Every person in Canada is entitled to the protection of the law and is subject to the law. It is the supreme dominant authority controlling the conduct of everyone and no person, however exalted or high his power, is entitled to do with impunity what that lawless mob did. The attack of the accused and his companions upon the rights of this girl was an attempt to overthrow the law of the land, and in its place to set up mob law, lynch law, to substitute lawlessness for law enforcement which obtains in civilized countries.
Mulock compared mob law to “a venomous serpent.” He also warned that while the offence had been treated with leniency, the sentence was “not to be regarded as a precedent in the event of a repetition of such offense.”
Though the Klan pondered appealing the case all the way up to the Privy Council in England (at the time Canada’s highest legal authority), no further action was taken. An official statement noted that “Mr. Phillips is happy indeed to serve a term in prison for such a cause as this.” Soon after he began serving his sentence in Milton on April 23, he launched a 13-day hunger strike, though it was suspected he snuck in a few snacks. Though it failed to muster much public sympathy, Klansmen lined up after it ended to feed him oranges. Soon after Phillips’s release in July, the Hamilton Klan asked Oakville’s town council for permission to have a parade and open-air meeting. “Despite the persistence of the speakers,” the Globe reported, “the Council almost unanimously turned down the request, it being stated that the town had suffered too much adverse publicity on the Klan’s account already.”
Some observers saw the raid as one of symbolic death knells for the Klan in Canada, while others contended it was already dying, remaining moribund until another generation of white supremacists tried to revive it locally.
In between the trials, the couple at the heart of the raid had a happy ending. On March 22, 1930, Jones and Johnson were married at a ceremony presided over by Frank Burgess, the First Nations pastor of the New Credit United Church. Refusing to be intimidated, Burgess told the press “I was here before the Klan.” Asked about the promise she made to Phillips to stay away from Johnson, Isabel smiled and said “That’s just too bad. We’ll just have to forget about that.” Broome recommended the union go ahead—while he was still iffy about interracial marriages, he told the Star that Ira had many good points and always acted gentlemanly. Mrs. Jones provided a written statement giving her consent. Orme, speaking for the Klan, indicated that the Hamilton chapter had lost interest in the couple’s affairs, resigning them to the crazy thought that “we will not put asunder what God hath joined together.”
“I am indeed glad that it is all over,” Viola Sault told the Telegram. “I sincerely hope that they may settle down in peace.” The couple continued to reside in Oakville, and would raise three children.
Additional material from Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2013); Manual of the Order of Citizenship Invisible Empire Knights and Ladies of the Ku Klux Klan of Canada (Toronto: Ku Klux Klan of Canada, circa 1927); Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada 1920-1940 by Martin Robin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992); White Hoods: Canada’s Ku Klux Klan by Julian Sher (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983); the April 1930 edition of Canadian Forum; the March 1, 1930, March 3, 1930, March 6, 1930, March 8, 1930, March 19, 1930, and July 22, 1930 editions of the Globe; the March 4, 1930 edition of the Mail and Empire; the March 5, 2003 edition of the Oakville Beaver; the March 1, 1930, March 5, 1930, March 6, 1930, March 8, 1930, March 20, 1930, and March 24, 1930 editions of the Toronto Star; and the March 1, 1930, March 3, 1930, March 6, 1930, and March 24, 1930 editions of the Telegram.
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