This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 is here, and a follow-up can be found here. Part 3 can be read here. Read Part 4 here, and its follow-up here.
On the night of February 28th, 1930, Ira Johnson and Isabel Jones were awoken by a cadre of about 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansmen told Jones to exit the house, whereupon she was taken to the Salvation Army house (her place of work) and reunited with her parents. Johson was taken outside, and warned that if he were ever found in the company of Ms. Jones or any other white woman, there would be consequences. As was their modus operandi, this ‘warning’ was conducted under the light of a burning cross on Johnson’s front lawn.
The chief of police, having been located and summoned, arrived in time to observe the throng of men gathered on Johnson’s lawn. To what I’m sure was Johnson’s great consternation, the chief, recognizing the men as members of high standing from the nearby city of Hamilton, declared that no crime had been committed, and that everyone was free to leave. The newspapers, reporting on this late-night accosting, remarked on the Klan’s orderly conduct, and opined that while their tactics may have been a bit dramatic, their intention to dissuade miscegeny was surely laudable and appropriate. Indeed, this line from the Globe on March 3rd, was particularly telling about the prevailing attitudes of white Canadians:
The work the nocturnal visitors did in Oakville in separating a white girl from a colored man may be commendable in itself and prove a benefit, but it is certain that the methods are wrong. (Backhouse, p. 179)
Such was life as a black person living in Oakville in the 1930s. For those of you who haven’t read the previous Black History Month series, Oakville has a black population that dates back to the mid- 19th century. Many of Oakville’s black residents were descended from men and women fleeing American slavery. Contemporary Oakville is about 90% white, and the possibility that such a town would have a black presence that goes that far back certainly surprised me when I first learned about it.
Understandably, black intellectuals and activists were outraged by the attack and the subsequent dereliction of duty by the police. E. Lionel Cross and B.J. Spencer Pitt, both Toronto lawyers, joined Reverend H. Lawrence McNeil, pastor of the Oakville First Baptist Church in convening a meeting of Oakville’s black community. Pressure from the organized black community prompted the provincial government to launch an investigation into the events of February 28th. Oddly (at least to me), the police chief who let everyone go was a member of the investigation.
In a bizarre twist that should thrill readers of this blog, Ira Johnson told newspapers that he wasn’t even black. His parents had Cherokee ancestry, but also Irish, English, and Scottish. As far as he knew, he didn’t have a single relative of recent African descent. His father, a pastor, had ministered in black churches because of his dark skin, but that owed more to his Aboriginal heritage than any connection to the black community.
The history of the Ku Klan Klan inn Canada is not quite as extensively documented as it is in the United States. Indeed, the Canadian Klan was a somewhat distinct organization, and not quite as brutally violent as their southern forebears. That being said, they boasted tens of thousands of members across Canada (and, in a response to the Globe‘s article, claimed members on Parliament Hill and in the Senate), and agitated for American-style anti-miscegenation laws. They were known across the country for their threats and intimidation tactics, usually unpunished by police (who often knew or sometimes even witnessed the intimidation but did not intervene).
Backhouse notes that among the Klan’s antipathy toward interracial relationships – rooted firmly in their feelings of entitlement to control the reproductive rights of both white and black women – the Canadian Klan also mobilized and acted as a pro-British Protestant organization. Their antipathy, as a result, turned toward a variety of forces including immigration, Communism, “Orientals”, Jews, Catholics, and even the French language. In their response to the Globe‘s article, a Klan spokesman said that they had been invited by Jones’ mother to ‘rescue’ the impressionable young white girl from the negro ogre who had ensorceled and imprisoned her.
Four of the men who were present at Johnson’s home that night were eventually charged with the crime of ‘being disguised by night’ – a British holdover designed to dissuade burglars. While some (including a white newspaper editor by the name of Templeton) argued for a broader range of possible charges, none were forthcoming. Backhouse contrasts the remarkably tentative way in which the Klan was treated with the way that Communists were treated in Canada around the same time – noting that while Communist organizations were all but criminalized, the Klan was handed with kid gloves. This, she suggests, owes quite a bit to the fact that while most Canadians were vehemently opposed to Communism (or, at least, the political establishment was opposed to it), there was broad public acceptance of the Klan’s aims of eradicating interracial relationships.
None of the witnesses who were called at the initial trial could demonstrate that two of the three accused (one man was charged, but fled the police) were wearing masks, and thus the charges against them were dismissed. This, despite the fact that all three men readily admitted their membership in the Klan, and their presence and actions at Johnson’s home that night. For the remaining accused, the defence challenged the applicability of the law to his particular case, making comparisons between the Klan hoods and the masks children wore at Hallowe’en – surely they weren’t going to start arresting children, were they? Besides, he argued, the Klansmen had been there to do the morally right thing of breaking up an interracial couple (this received applause from the assembled spectators).
Despite this bit of legal sophistry, the magistrate was not persuaded and found the third man guilty of the crime of being masked without a lawful excuse. Astoundingly, the Crown attorney argued that no jail time was necessary (the maximum penalty was 5 years in prison), and that a fine of $50 would suffice. Even this slap on the wrist was enough to incense the Klan to burn down Johnson’s home (no charges were laid), and to threaten Rev. McNeil and E. L. Cross, the latter of whom was the only one to actually argue in favour of interracial relationships as part of a larger anti-racist, pro-black campaign.
The Klan was not successful in their attempt to appeal the sentence to the Ontario Supreme Court. Indeed, the judge called the $50 fine a travesty of justice and replaced it with a 3-month sentence. The judge seemed to be more offended by the prospect of vigilante mob justice than he was by the idea of racist discrimination. In his ruling, however, the judge said that he found even the three-month sentence “lenient”, suggesting that further Klan activity of that type would not be looked upon kindly.
The Klan as a major political organization didn’t last much longer in Canada. Starting in Manitoba, provinces would begin to pass laws against hate speech in the coming decades, strictly curtailing the ability of the Klan to gather recruits and spread its message. Johnson and Jones went on to marry barely a month after the attack, evidently with the blessing of Jones’ parents – maybe they were mollified to learn that Johnson was’t black after all.
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