Writing about Maine is fun. You never know what sorts of strange things you will find. Here’s a topic which is not spooky, exciting or glamorous, but downright embarrassing. Yes, bigotry and hatred made appearances in Maine as in other places, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge what happened or to sweep it under the rug. But isn’t it odd that the Klan would make an appearance in Maine since our African American population was and is so tiny? As it turns out, the growth of the Klan in Maine had little to do with skin color.
First of all, a little business. The main source for this story comes from the excellent website of the Maine Historical Society, the web address of which appears at the bottom of the Klan medallion. It’s a great one-stop for Maine history, so please visit.
Painting by John Hilling
So up here in Maine, since we lacked an easy-to-identify minority upon which to heap scorn whenever things were not going well, where did we turn? To the French, of course! In a past post I wrote about the history of the Acadians in Maine and how they still maintain their culture today. To the Anglo Mainer, the French minority, whether Acadian or Québecois, had two strikes against them. They spoke a foreign language, and they were Catholic.
Right here in Ellsworth, in 1851, Jesuit priest John Bapst was tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail by members of the aptly named Know-Nothing Party. Today there is a high school named in his honor. In 1854, the same group burned the Old South Church in Bath, Maine, a Catholic place of worship. This tradition of persecution continued and flourished whenever nativism, the hatred of immigrants, rose. The anti-Catholic part of this philosophy posited that if these immigrants obtained political power, they would answer to the Pope, and our Protestant, republican values would be compromised. The temperance movement was also an undercover slam against the wine-drinking Catholics. Maine went dry in 1851.
From the Portsmouth Herald, January 17, 1923
When the challenges of the 1920s: the rise of communism, anarchy and post war economic troubles, threatened Mainers’ sense of security, many of our citizens joined the Ku Klux Klan. Once again the target was mostly the francophone Catholic community. The Klan phenomenon was here in most of its usual parts. The wearing of white robes and pointy hoods, the secret meetings and the rallies and marches all took place in the 1920s throughout Maine. But the parts missing from the Invisible Empire in Maine was, for the most part, violence and terror. In fact, violence was direct against the Klan. The Franco-Mainers fought back! In 1924 Franco-Mainers attacked a Klan rally in Fairfield with rocks and clubs and tore down a burning cross.
The goal of the Klan in Maine was primarily political. They wanted to make sure their nativist ideals were preserved in government, that no Catholics were elected or appointed. But all evidence suggests their effects were mostly short-lived. By the late 1920s, newspapers railed against them, citizens challenged them and politicians spoke out against them. Governor Baxter condemned them and although the Klan claimed next governor, Ralph Owen Brewster, was elected with their help, the election split the Republican party in Maine. Perhaps their greatest political victory was in Portland in 1923, where they influenced a referendum reorganizing city government to exclude neighborhood representation. This removed aldermen from Irish, Jewish and French parts of the city in favor of at-large councilors. But in 1926 Klan-backed candidates were losing elections, and the Klan headquarters in Portland was seized for back taxes. By 1930 the Klan in Maine was only a memory.
It is thought that because of the appearance of the Klan in Maine, that the Bangor branch of the N.A.A.C.P. was established in 1921. Maine continued to value its anti-bigotry reputation by the passage of the 1989 Maine Civil Rights Act and the 2012 voter approval of gay marriage. Our governor is a Franco Mainer, I don’t think French, Irish Italians or any other Catholic minorities have anything to fear in Maine.
Klan rally in Portland, 1926. From mainehistory.org.