Editor's note: The following is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will appear in Neighbors on March 29.
On a late August evening in 1928 the sound of a large bomb exploding above Starr Hill rumbled through downtown Juneau. People who opened their doors to see what had happened were alarmed to see a fiery cross burning on a knob above the neighborhood, according to the Daily Alaska Empire.
My interest in the Ku Klux Klan started when a friend mentioned that years ago he had seen the Juneau Klan's charter and a group photograph. Knowing that few blacks lived in Alaska prior to World War II, I was confused by the Klan's presence here and wanted to learn more.
A good place to mine for Juneau's past is the Lloyd H. "Kinky" Bayers' collection at the Alaska State Library in Juneau. Bayers, who died in 1968, was a well known and respected member of the community. There's a certain eccentricity to Bayers' collection and a hint of the dark side in Juneau's past.
Bayers had three references to newspaper articles on Klan activities in Juneau, which led me to Juneau's two newspapers of the day, the Empire and The Stroller's Weekly. What soon became apparent was the cross burning was aimed primarily at Juneau's Catholic community.
This hit home. Like many kids living on Chicken Ridge and Starr Hill during the 1950s, I was raised a Catholic and attended St. Ann's parochial school located next to St. Ann's Hospital and the Catholic Church.
The Klan found the Catholic school system particularly sinister. The Klan's Seattle newspaper stated in 1923 that Catholic schools were rearing a generation in illiteracy, ignorance and a lack of patriotism. Catholic children, the paper stated "were being duped in Romanism," a reference to the pope, a foreigner, ruling the Catholic Church from Rome. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1928 was Al Smith, a Roman Catholic.
It was beginning to look like the choice of Mount Maria, the knob, for the cross burning was no accident considering its proximity to the cluster of Catholic institutions at the foot of Starr Hill.
Anti-Catholicism was part of an important political transition the Klan made in the 1920s. After years of unrestricted immigration, the country's identity, which had been solidly white and Protestant, seemed in question. The Klan exploited this unease by reconstituting itself as the guardian of American's "true" identity. According to a 1922 Empire editorial, Catholics were at the top of the Klan's list of enemies followed by Jews, the foreign born, and colored races.
The emphasis on identity brought a huge surge in Klan membership across the nation including the northwest. By 1923 the Klan claimed mroe than 58,000 members in Oregon, 38,000 in Washington and four million nationally.
Mac Metcalfe is a Juneau resident.