Most people think about a robe when coming out of the shower on a cold, winter morning. For scholars, robes are tangible symbols of their dedication to knowledge. Colors indicate institutions; chevrons indicate rank; position indicates seniority. A senior colleague once told a story about the man who held his leadership position before him. It was the story of a judge who called a young African American clerk into his chambers at the end of the day. The judge advised the clerk on the honor and humility of the young man’s new position. He took off his black judicial robe as he spoke. When he hung the robe in the closet, a white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan hung behind the black robe.
In much the same way, institutional authority has come to mask the relationship between Christianity and slavery in American society. Most Americans have forgotten the long and deep roots that show how the enslavement of Africans in the Americas could not exist without the written authority of the Christian churches of Europe. Still, there is no need to go back centuries to see this relationship. It shaped recent history in southeastern Pennsylvania.
John Morrison McLarnon’s valuable work, “Ruling Suburbia”, reveals some of the threads of this relationship in Delaware County. John McClure established dominance for the county’s Republican Party that persists to the present day. The early twentieth century Republican Party in Delaware County created its machine in Chester, then consolidated its influence by guiding immigrants into ethnic suburbs before the Second World War. When John McClure succeeded his father as the party boss in 1907, he reigned nearly unchallenged for almost six decades that followed. At the heart of the political order was a racial hierarchy that kept African Americans marginalized, Catholic immigrants as organized subjects, and a few key families in charge of all local politics.
Although there is no comparable historical study of Montgomery County’s early twentieth century politics, there are a few important influences that indicate important similarities to the patterns McLarnon found. One of the region’s most important voices, Samuel Stouch, built a home for the Ku Klux Klan between Germantown and Reading from 1924 to 1940. Stouch was the leading voice for ‘true Americanism’ in southeastern Pennsylvania, influencing hundreds of elections and shaping local government throughout the region. Stouch was the Grand Dragon for the Klan state chapters in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. He used the tactics his predecessor, Arthur Bell (of New Jersey), established between 1915 and 1928. Most notably, Stouch and Bell recruited Methodist ministers aggressively to attract hundreds of members to the Klan in all three states. By 1940, Stouch had created a home for Klan policy in local law enforcement and criminal justice. His ideas created the coalition that would become the foundation for Frank Rizzo’s popular approach to law and order during the era of civil rights activism in Philadelphia between 1956 and 1980.
As Black History Month 2015 draws to a close, many people will return to the casual neglect of African Americans as part of the nation’s history. The opening of Women’s History Month gives another opportunity to engage in more careful scrutiny of the local organizations and government offices that carried out the vision of John McClure, Samuel Stouch, Arthur Bell, and Frank Rizzo. The dominance of the Klan, its influence on the region’s Republican Party, its nativist Christian Protestantism, and its inherent white supremacy defined local patriotism in ways that pressured many of Norristown’s immigrant families to assimilate in both public and private life. These forgotten chapters of Pennsylvania’s past deserve a sustained oral history project that can heal persistent wounds and foster greater community understanding in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (ICMG_International Center for Metropolitan Growth) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com). For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (firstname.lastname@example.org).