From Redlining to Klan Rallies: Systemic Racism and White Supremacy in the Glass City

On Saturday April 2015, the Toledo Police Department was on high alert. An organized protest was set to take place that afternoon. About 30 Neo-Nazis, with proper paperwork in hand, were set to demonstrate near Downtown. A further 200 or so counterprotesters were expected to attend, many with signs and chants, hoping to drown out the hate.

The scene played out like so many others: a group of mostly white men dressed in paramilitary gear, adorned with the many symbols of fascism, facing off against a diverse array of people offering a not insignificant resistance. Somewhere in the middle stood the police. Riot cops, SWAT teams, beat cops, and plainclothes detectives. There were barricades erected (protection for and from whom?) ensuring a reasonable distance between groups.

The day ended without much fanfare. Only one arrest was made – a counterprotester was arrested for “disorderly conduct,” an act which angered the crowd, leading to confrontation between police and “the public” – and much of the afternoon was spent in a predictable back and forth: Nazi leaders would speak, counterprotesters would boo at them (and the police) and the entire thing ended up being a rather unspectacular affairs, likely to the chagrin of the organizers. [1]

The police were relieved. Whether by choice or by or by luck, the protests never got out of hand. This was not the first such event in Toledo’s recent past. History told them that it could have been much worse.

A decade earlier, in 2005, that’s what the situation was. On two different occasions – one in October and another in December – members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) staged protests at or near City Hall. Espousing messages like “White race, stand up and take back your neighborhood” the NSM hammered the racist, violent, and inflammatory rhetoric of white nationalists across the world. The scene quickly escalated. Bottles, bricks, rocks, and other urban detritus were used as missiles, as counterprotesters battered NSM members and police alike.

From there, things got well and truly out of control. By the end of the day, cars parked near the scene were vandalized, a building was set ablaze, and over 100 people – largely counterprotesters – had been arrested. The Mayor declared a state of emergency and a curfew.

The December rally, a response to the events of October, ended up being rather tame by comparison, with only 63 NSM members in attendance and less than 200 observers or counterprotesters. Fears of a global “white replacement” or “white genocide” wound their way into the speeches and the signs, a fear which could only be cured, they claimed, by violent action (but not so violent that they police force them to disperse, though). The only people arrested were counterprotesters, and the NSM caravan was escorted out by police. [2]

These events speak to a larger, and longer, history of white nationalism in the Glass City, one which stretches back well before the rise of Trumpism, the new alt-right, and the cascading series of events which grew out of Charlottesville in 2017. Commenting on Charlottesville, Toledo Chief of Police George Kral remarked “I’ve had my fill [of white supremacy riots]…It’s just crazy that we’re having these discussions in 2017. It’s depressing. [3]

He was talking about 2017 and the rise of Trumpism. He could have easily been talking about Toledo’s history.

Toledo in the Postwar World
Toledo, a most Midwestern city, has a long history of urbanization, industrialization, and deindustrialization. It also has the all-too-familiar corresponding race and class tensions that are so often associated with and present in, such historical moments. It seems odd that a city which only sprang onto the national scene in the early twentieth century would get so hot. While Toledo never got as hot as fellow Ohioan Cleveland or upstairs neighbor Detroit, Toledo has a history of white supremacy, systemic racism, and racial violence stretching back decades. In order to understand the simmering anger that emboldened Nazis and Klan members to flock to Toledo, and the anger of the population which showed up and showed out to resist them, we need to understand that history.

Toledo was an industrial city. Industry, irrevocably tied to its identity, framed the way that Toledoans saw themselves and their city, and the way it was perceived by the American public. Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Willys-Overland, Dana-Spicer, Toledo Scale, Electric Auto-Lite; corporations were synonymous with the city, their products, and slogans part of the modern American lexicon. How many people recall the Pink Panther as the mascot for Owens-Corning insulation? Probably the most kid-friendly mascot on a carcinogen not named Joe Camel. (It was found out later that their famous pink Fiberglas insulation was actually giving people cancer, especially those who installed it. Breathing in glass fibers, it seems, is not as safe as they assumed it was. Lawsuits, payments, bad PR, and a declining demand for the product forced Owens-Corning to file for bankruptcy.) [4]

The corporatization of Toledo’s public image came with baggage. It came into prominence as a union town, due in no small part to its well-known history for radicalism, a reputation earned by major strike incidents such as the Willys-Overland Strike of 1919 and the Electric Auto-Lite Strike of 1934. An active and aware labor force defined Toledo well into the 1960s. Workers struck with increasing frequency, but perhaps less vigor, during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War.

This isn’t to say that all was harmonious in the Glass City. Far from it. Various voices within the city combated these fanciful notions, whether it was the growing discontent of African Americans over access to jobs and federal housing for defense workers, the rising militancy of workers and the corresponding resistance to racial equality, or the increasing cleavages of the city’s working-class between the AFL and the CIO, Toledo’s working classes actively toed the line between cooperation and disengagement. Black workers, major contributors to the war effort, faced constant resistance. Every time they tried to enter into better-paying union jobs, they encountered new resistance, relegated to jobs that were frequently dangerous, low-paying, or part-time. Sometimes it was all three. [5]

The alliance of government policy, corporate interests, and managerial unionism eventually merged, forming the Toledo Labor Management Citizens Committee (TLMCC), a first-of-its-kind organization designed to merge the public, the private, and the populace into a bureaucracy aimed at “labor peace.” Neoliberalism personified, the TLMCC ushered in a distrust of unions, more specifically union leadership, that persisted for decades, chipping away at the often painfully won gains of a generation before. A further slap in the face? The TLMCC was passed as an “emergency measure.” Suggesting that organized labor represented a threat similar to the one which labor just helped defeat – that being fascism – would never sit well with the city’s workers. [6]

Toledo’s highly public campaign for labor peace inspired others across the country to push for the same goal. The failure of this idea and the simultaneous failure of Toledo’s reform class to create substantive change left the city in a perilous position, struggling to find itself. Identity is tied to image and image is a commodity. Like any commodity, image can be bought and sold on the market and was highly mercurial; Toledo was both buyer and seller.

The lofty goals of the TLMCC and its patrons failed to jive with the realities of the moment. You cannot force peace. The deep divisions which separated the city were not going to be overcome by the stroke of a pen and a lot of wishful thinking. Fractured communities, racial tension, industrial strife, and an economy held together by tape made it impossible for any lasting social evolution without wholesale structural change. In looking too much towards tomorrow, Toledo’s elites neglected the present.

It was not long until even the most obtuse city planner could see the obvious truth; the façade of labor peace  was shattered. The various ways this came to pass created an animosity which ran both cold and hot. The failure represents one of the critical themes of Toledo’s story in the twentieth century: in whose image would the city be (re)made?

As it turned out, the answer to that question was whoever had both the anger to act and the power behind their anger to make it acceptable. Toledo was never an anti-racist utopia, in practice or in the imagination of immigrants and migrants; no land of hope. Neither was it a national hotbed for racial tensions. Like much of the industrial Midwest, Toledo’s race relations simmered in a constant state of uneasiness. Redlines were more common than fistfights, although no these were no less physically and emotionally damaging.

That would soon change. Racist reactionary forces looking for someone to blame began to thrust themselves into the public conversation. Many of these forces looked to blame those actually responsible, such as politicians, wealthy capitalists, grifters elites of of all types. Others, though, used it as a moment to act on pre-existing animosity, masking it with “concern” over the future. They quickly settled on their targets; Black homeowners in historically white spaces.

Jessie Lott and the Push for Homeownership
No case demonstrates the struggle and the danger quite like Jessie Lott’s. In a quiet community between the Maumee River and the Toledo Zoo, about a dozen blocks west of East Toledo and equally far south from Dorr Street – the epicenter of Black Toledo – 1038 Harding Drive was a modest lot in a modest community. In the summer of 1957, Lott purchased the property and almost immediately, the overwhelmingly white neighborhood reacted. A petition was circulated by the other residents on the street, demanding that Lott leave immediately. Lott refused. Soon after, crowds began to form around his property, issuing threats to Lott and some even breaking in.

The escalation brought increased attention. Quickly, the NAACP came in to support Lott. On June 9, the local chapter submitted a resolution to City Hall, including the mayor, chief of police, safety inspector, and city manager. The resolution noted that “Whereas, the City of Toledo is confronted with an emergency measure in the nature of a resident of this city being threatened with great bodily harm and extensive damage to his recently purchased property… wholly and solely by virtue that Jessie Lott is a member of a minority group.” [7]

In clear and scathingly honest language, they outlined the duties and responsibilities the addressees had to all Toledoans, excoriating any continued inaction as actively supporting those who sought to harm and intimidate. In an attached personal note, local NAACP President Anderson Cheeves noted to Mayor Ollie Czelusta that “I feel that it is not an overstatement to point out the seriousness of this incident and the effect it will have on our good relationship.” [8]

Forces across the city converged on the Lott case. The Toledo Board of Community Relations, with the assistance of City Council, formally requested a meeting of homeowners on Harding Drive. The committee stated the goal of the committee quite clearly in the proposal, stating its hope “to persuade the neighborhood leadership to give up the idea of buying out Mr. Lott start thinking in terms of accommodating itself to the new situation.” Appearing to side with Lott and the NAACP, this stance reflected an uncommon approach to similar issues. [9]

Rather quickly though, the committee attempted to cover all bases, asking that Lott “state authoritatively and finally what his plans are for the property (to) alleviate some of the indecisiveness and hesitancy which has encouraged the crowd to threaten Mr. Lott.” Mail carrier Robert J. Thompson, member of the neighborhood coalition against Lott delivered the petition to have Lott removed. According to Thompson, the demand was that Lott sell the property to the community so that they can build a playground for local children. While it is unclear if such plans were in place before Lott purchased the property, the implication, along with the violence, suggest that this altruism was a smokescreen for less charitable motivations. Lott, unmoved, refused to sell. [10]

Calls for peaceful solutions persisted. Lott eventually was able to keep this property, although it is unknown how long he continued to live there. The result of his case exceeded his residency. As residents noted, the late 1950s was when the local NAACP came to life. Lawyers became activists and the cause of promoting equality began to filter into all walks of life. After being primarily focused on issues with the Black elite, the postwar NAACP began to expand into working-class Black communities.

The Lott case represented a symptom of a great problem, not the problem itself. Housing equality was the barrier. Access to the homes in a given community meant access to the community itself, along with all of the resources therein. A few years later, as a direct continuation of the momentum of the Lott case, the City of Toledo became only the third city in the United States to adopt a Fair Housing Ordinance, a monumental document which guaranteed the right to housing for all, without qualification or exception. Hailed by organizations like the NAACP, AFL-CIO, fraternal organizations, and business leagues, the ordinance represented perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the local NAACP. [11]

The push for equality was a constant reality in Toledo, a series of ebbs and flows. Victories were often short-lived and often were met with a later defeat. That defeat was quickly confronted and overcome, only for the cycle to continue. As more and more African Americans settled in historically white communities, many white residents, either moved by the moral realization that racism was evil or by resignation to and acceptance of change, soon found themselves with Black neighbors.

The American White National Party
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with whites who maintained their prejudice. White resistance in Toledo remained somewhat disorganized for several years, with incidents like the Jessie Lott case being less frequent. That changed in the 1970s. As physical violence became a harder and less practical route to take, political violence seemed the better alternative. Racism would soon run for office.

No group exemplifies this more than the American White Nationalist Party and its brief but notable entry into Toledo’s politics. Founded by Toledoan Russel R. Veh in 1970, originally as the Ohio White National Party but renamed shortly thereafter, AWNP was headquartered in Toledo. With a slogan of “Free Men Are Not Equal, Equal Men Are Not Free,” the part’s ideology was a sloppy hodgepodge of Klanism, Lost Cause ideology, Neo Nazism, and militant authoritarianism. [12]

Spearheaded by Veh – who ran a write-in campaign in the 1971 city council elections – AWNP ran on a ticket of open racism. Pushing for lower taxes and “more and better trained police,” Veh asked whether Toledoans had “had enough” of “integration, cop killers, underworld paid politicians, special rights to ‘minority’ groups, and Negro crime.” [13]

Integration, “Negro crime,” bussing, “more and better trained police”: all of these spoke openly and clearly to an anti-Black racism. As African American communities were being demolishing or scheduled for demolition for Urban Renewal, displaced residents were being forced into other communities. Pressing Black and white residents closer together and into schools and other socio-cultural institutions stoked fears among white workers, a fear Veh and the AWNP looked to exploit.

An undated campaign flyer pushed a language of violence. Sarcastically lamenting the “poor”, underprivileged Black man,” it sharply criticized the Nixon White House and labor unions for opening the door to more Black workers. “Every year they put more Blacks into unions and spend your union dues” it argued, “and it’s going to keep getting worse.” [14]

In a tone more threat than wishful thinking or conjecture, the campaign asserted that “As White workers get fed up with Black attempts to take their jobs away, more than one arrogant Black is likely to ‘fall’ off a scaffold or get caught in some machinery or have something heavy dropped on his thick skull” a sentiment the AWNP clearly looked for, opening that it was not “such a bad idea.” These thinly-veiled appeals to and threats of violence represented a fringe sentiment within the city to be sure. However, the underlying frustrations and racism were by no means unique, and there were enough talking points, however vague, in his platform to attract some supporters. [15]

Veh’s campaign was unsuccessful. Having failed to file his campaign, and the late start to it once he tried to get write-in votes, gave him little chance. It is unclear if these organizational and personal failings of Veh – a high school dropout and, by all accounts, failure in most aspects of his personal and professional life – were the sole reason for his failed campaign. Was there a place for an openly white nationalist party in Toledo? Did the message resonate, with its only shortcoming being the lack of structure and planning? The answer is unclear but appears to be no.

Veh made several attempts to spread his message including passing out literature on corners and even giving a speech to 400 students at nearby Bowling Green State University. By 1974, though, Veh and his party were gone. Moving to San Francisco and adopting his party into the existing National Socialist League – a full-bodied embrace of its association and admiration for Nazism – Veh changed the party into one of the nation’s most prominent, if not only, gay fascist organizations.

For much of the next decade, Veh and the league went back and forth between explicitly Nazi behavior (he primarily made money off of his printing business and airing movies like Triumph of the Will) and participating in an emerging gay BDSM subculture. A 1990 article by the Blade revealed a man obsessed with conspiracy theories, specifically Holocaust denial, demonstrating all of the hallmarks of the emerging right-wing terrorism which defined the 90s. [16]

Understanding a Racist Past, Today
It’s hard to tell if there is a direct connection between the AWNP and the NSM. The former is essentially defunct, the latter born out of a resurging white nationalist movement. The rhetoric has remained largely unchanged. What has changed is the means. The digital age has allowed white supremacy to be both mainstream and underground. The Southern poverty Law Center notes the increased number of white supremacy groups across the country – today, these tend to be referred to collectively as “the alt-right” – and their growth within the darker corners of the internet. Racism never went away; it merely swapped Klan halls for chat groups, mailing lists for social media pages. [17]

What we do know is that the uptick in white nationalism, indeed in fascism (let’s call it what it is) is both a product of this specific moment and a legacy of the past. It’s a tradition, carried from parent to child. White supremacy in the Age of Trump is part-in-parcel to the Age of Trump itself. However, it is not a new phenomenon but a growth on a much older parasite. While it is essential that we understand our current moment on its own terms, it is critical that we don’t forget the connection between our moment and the ones which came before us.

References
[1] https://www.toledoblade.com/Police-Fire/2015/04/19/No-violence-at-neo-Nazi-rally.html
[2] https://www.adl.org/news/article/neo-nazis-rally-in-toledo-again
[3] https://www.toledoblade.com/local/2017/08/14/Toledo-area-no-stranger-to-KKK-Nazi-rallies/stories/20170813248
[4] “Historical timeline of Fiberglas and Owens-Corning,” Owens-Corning, n.d. Box 28 Folder 18. Owens-Corning, MSS-222. University of Toledo Libraries, Ward M. Canaday Center, Manuscript Collection.
[5] Merle Abbott. Interview. Conducted by Dr. Willie L. McKether, May 14, 2000. Edrene Cole African American Oral History Collection. (“Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, The Edrene Cole African American Oral History Collection”), Local History & Genealogy Department, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
[6] Report of Toledo Central Labor Union, April 29 to May 3, 1945. The Central Labor Union, Toledo, Ohio MS-28. University Box 4 Folder 4. Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University.
[7] “Resolution of the Toledo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” June 9 1957; Letter June 9, 1957, Anderson Cheeves to Ollie Czelusta. Papers of the NAACP, Part 11-B-75: Housing, General, 1957-1961, accessed September 5, 2016, http://congressional.proquest.com/histvault?q=001418-017-0377.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Meeting Of Neighborhood Leaders Asked In Lott Case,” Toledo Blade, June 11, 1957. Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ordinance No. 682-61 of the City of Toledo, “Amending And Supplementing Chapter 3 Article XLI, Of The Toledo Municipal Code By The Addition Thereto Of New Sections 3-41-15 To Section 3-41-18, Both Inclusive And Prohibiting Discrimination In The Sale, Rental And Financing Of Real Property Because Of Race, Color, Religion, Or National Origin.” ibid.
[12] In all of its published materials, it notes that the national headquarters is in Toledo but not address is given, just a P.O. Box
[13] “Lincoln Favored Segregation” pamphlet, n.d. 1971. American White Nationalist Party, Box 1, Folder 21A. Lucas County Politics Collection, Mss, Coll. 40. Local History & Genealogy Department, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
[14] “Who’s for the WHITE working man?” campaign ad, n.d, ibid.
[15] Ibid
[16] “Former Toledoan finds niche peddling hate,” April 1, 1990, Toledo Blade. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=8_tS2Vw13FcC&dat=19900401&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
[17] https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist




Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s