By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
In September 1923, about 2,000 African American and Mexican residents fled Johnstown, Pennsylvania. They left in a hurry, fearing they would be jailed. Or worse. Cody McDevitt’s new book about the forced exile just released from History Press, Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania, is built upon research he did for the Somerset Daily American. Back in 2016 when he went digging around for stories to report for the paper, he never expected to find this one.
“I’m a fourth generation Johnstown guy and I never heard the story. The story was never told to us,” McDevitt said when he sat down to speak with the Current. “You know about all three of the Johnstown floods. You know about Slapshot. But you don’t know about this.”
With stunning cover art by Alisha B. Wormsley and a forward by the outstanding Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman, McDevitt’s book reveals this vital, but hidden history.
During World War I and immediately thereafter, many southern African Americans and Mexicans were recruited to work in Johnstown’s mills. As the new workers settled in, the city was segregated, as most industrial towns in the north were. It certainly reflected entrenched racism, but it also served the interests of capitalist robber barons and coal operators who felt it would be harder for workers to organize collectively if they were kept apart by racial and ethnic groups. It happened all through the Appalachian coal vein and what we now think of as the rust belt.
There were a few black neighborhoods in Johnstown, but one of the poorest neighborhoods with few municipal services was Rosedale. As often happens, it was one of the roughest, too.
On August 30, 1923, there was a deadly shootout in Rosedale. Robert Young was killed by police, but not until after he had shot and killed two officers and critically wounded several others. Young was known to be a dangerous guy, who drank to excess and had a sketchy criminal past.
In the days following, many white residents of Johnstown were in an uproar. Some threatened to burn the entire Rosedale neighborhood to the ground as tensions ratcheted up. The KKK, already a considerable presence in the area, burned crosses on the hills surrounding the town. It was all exacerbated by the fact that the two local papers, the Johnstown Democrat and the Johnstown Tribune, had ginned up the flames of racism for years by demonizing both black and latino residents.
Mayor Joseph Cauffiel seized this chance to wield the power he had as both Mayor and Magistrate. [This appalling lack of separation of powers was something McDevitt says he didn’t see coming before he started researching, but wearing both of these hats allowed Cauffiel to function as a petty tyrant with few or any checks on his authority.] Sensing a political opportunity and getting to flex his own noxious racist beliefs, Cauffiel issued an order that all African-Americans and Mexicans who hadn’t resided in the town for at least seven years should leave immediately.
“I’m doing it for their own good because the Klan might kill them,” is how McDevitt described Cauffiel’s public stance. The notion is absurd on too many levels.
“The idea that you’ve got de-robed Klansmen walking down the street and they’re going to know the African-American and Mexican residents? If it weren’t so terrible, if it weren’t so inhumane, you would sit there and laugh at the absurdity of it,” McDevitt says.
Welcome to a Western Pennsylvania sundown town. Found all through the United States, from Pennsylvania to Texas and from Virginia to Oregon, Sundown Towns were places where it was known that any African Americans in the town after dark were in grave danger.
“This isn’t unique to Johnstown. It has a reputation and it’s earned, but Pittsburgh had a racial edict like this in Stowe Township,” McDevitt said. “There was one that happened in Beaver County in 1933, where they took a truckload of African Americans and just drove them to the West Virginia border. I hope an enterprising Pittsburgh journalist will research and do more document-driven journalism about these events.”
Which stories get told and which stories are swept away matter. The histories that newspapers and books and magazines cover help us to understand the times in which we live by understanding that which came before.
“Some people are still like, ‘let’s not talk about it.’ And I feel like we’ve never talked about it before. When are we ever going to talk about it?,” McDevitt says.