In Smithfield, RI, Domin Avenue, a small cul-de-sac backing up onto Georgiaville Pond, sparked a historical bonfire this August when it was discovered the street’s namesake was once the leader of the Rhode Island Ku Klux Klan. The street, now host to eleven residences, was an open field in the 1920s, where the Klan would meet to don hoods, raise crosses, and initiate new members. John Algernon Domin, previously the Exalted Cyclops of the Rhode Island branch of the Klan, named the path leading to the former rally field after himself when he built his house there in 1935.
Roger Schenck, who now lives in Honolulu, grew up near Domin Avenue, and proposed the name change this August in light of the history of its namesake. Since he is no longer a resident, his request was not considered by the council, but after reading about it in the local paper, Smithfield resident and former town councilman John F. Emin submitted his own formal proposal. At the end of September, after push-back from Domin Avenue residents about the inconvenience of changing the name, Emin withdrew his proposal. Susan Doyle, who lives in one of the eleven on Domin Avenue, took up the cause and submitted another proposal, suggesting Harmony Road as an alternative.
John Algernon Domin served as the regional leader (Exalted Cyclops) of the Roger Williams Klavern for two years in the late 1920s, the main decade of Klan activity in the Northeast. The irony of the chosen name of the RI Klan is inescapable—in a state founded on the ideal of religious tolerance, America’s most infamous hate-group found rage to feed on mainly in religious, rather than racial, conflict. Domin’s branch of the Klan sought to band Protestants together against the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants moving into the Ocean State at the turn of the 20th-century. While the Southern Klan was linked with Democrats and the rural poor, New England Klaverns were often associated with the Republican Party and drew their membership mainly from business and professional classes. Historian Joseph Sullivan estimates that 63 percent of the state’s known Klansmen held skilled or professional jobs, in part due to the group’s high annual dues—$15.
New England Klan events incorporated the social trappings enjoyed by their middle class supporters; their rallies would sometimes include clambakes and chowder dinners. An 8,000 person rally hosted in Foster, RI, in 1924 started early in the afternoon, featuring baseball games, races and contests for children throughout the day. As night fell, the festive mood shifted as the bonfires were lit and the crosses raised to initiate 200 new Klansmen into the group.
Though Klan membership in New England primarily found its roots in growing anti-Catholic sentiment, racial prejudice still played into their agenda. Though no one was ever arrested, two fires (in 1924 and 26) at the all-black Watchmen boarding school in Scituate were suspected to have been perpetrated by Klan members.Estimates of Klan membership vary between sources—historian David Chalmers estimates that in the 1920s, the Rhode Island Klan had between twelve to fifteen thousand members, but by 1928, membership was down to around 900. Descriptions of rallies in Smithfield and Foster number the supporters in the thousands, with attendees coming from all over Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Rhode Island was not the only state in the Northeast where the Klan took hold. Worcester, Massachusetts was host to the largest Klan rally in the region, with 15,000 participants, in 1924, while Klan members looking to meet in Boston were regularly thrown out of meeting spaces on grounds of fire inspections ordered by Democratic Mayor James Curley. The Klan was particularly successful in the traditionally Republican states further north, especially in Maine. In Rhode Island, it was believed that two state senators were members of the Klan, along with various police chiefs and town councilmen, mainly in rural areas.
The Roger Williams Klavern attracted a fair number of political detractors, including Governor William Flynn, who labeled the group as “vicious” and denied them the right to continue to use the Providence Armory and other public buildings for their meetings. By 1923, a few years after the Klan started recruiting in the state, they were visible and unsettling enough to prompt a Pawtucket state representative to introduce an act that would make “the covering of the face with a mask to disguise identity” illegal in groups of two or more people (Halloween and New Years were excepted). The act, specifically targeted at the hooded Klan, did not pass.
The demise of the Klan in Rhode Island came during Domin’s presidency, when the Klan took control of three companies of the local militia. The First Light Infantry, one of the five Rhode Island militias, was being considered for disbandment due to its dismal numbers, when, in March of 1928, over two hundred members turned up for drills, sporting new rifles and a machine gun. After seeing Klan members organize a local military dance, many suspected their involvement in this sudden swell of recruits. On St. Patrick’s Day, a reporter for the Providence Journal broke the story that not only were the new militiamen Klansmen, but that the Klan was making all new militia recruits join the Klan first—giving the Klan control over the leadership of the militia. Chalmers suggests that the Klan saw in the dwindling membership of the militias a way to increase their own ranks as well as a chance to infiltrate the local military in preparations for the potential religious war to come.
Domin testified before the RI General Assembly during their investigation into the presence of the Klan in the RI militia, stating that he had joined the Light Infantry for “good fellowship and exercise.” In his testimony, he denied that the Klan was “antagonistic towards Catholics or towards any church,” though he did believe that “no man should be elected President who kisses the hand of another man.” It was ruled that no crime had been committed in the Klan’s attempted takeover of the militia, but the state had all known Klansmen in the militia give up their arms to prevent Klan control of the militia. The public trial and investigation shamed public Klan leaders and dissuaded potential new members. By 1930, the Roger Williams Klavern had dwindled to under 100 members.
In the 1930s, when Schenck was growing up on Stillwater Road, one street over from Domin Avenue, his father would tell the family stories of watching Klan members come from all over the state to burn crosses in Domin’s field. In an interview with the Smithfield Valley Breeze, he recounted his father’s experience: “Klan members from Esmond and Georgiaville usually drove by with headlights off and with drivers and passengers trying not to be seen, but they could not fool my father ... he was able to recognize most cars from both villages."
Most of people who now live in the houses on the field where the Klan once met in hooded semi-secrecy don’t feel as strongly as Schenck about the name change. Many even actively oppose the motion. Nine of the eleven households on the street are against the change, because it would cost them time and money in changing their addresses on their personal and financial records. They have submitted a petition to the town council asking for the discussion to be terminated, but the council decided to hold off their vote on the issue until after this past Tuesday’s election.
Rema Tomka recently moved into 11 Domin Avenue, the former house of the Klan leader himself, but she doesn’t think his name should be wiped from the signpost. In an interview with the Smithfield Valley Breeze, Tomka supported keeping the street named after the former Klan leader, as it "provides an opportunity for residents to teach their children about such hatred. The history is there, and if you take it away it's going to happen again."
Other residents agree with Tomka, recognizing that many other local streets' namesakes have similarly unsavory pasts. In another article on the controversy published in the Smithfield Valley Breeze, Robert Eposito points out that many members of the Brown family "were smugglers and slave traders—go after Brown University."
The past months of debate about the name change oscillate between arguments of convenience and condemnation. Most Smithfield residents interviewed agree that the state’s past doesn’t line up with our present values, but they disagree on whether Domin Avenue serves as continued commemoration or a warning against future discrimination. The value of this debate seems to lie primarily in the discussion and investigation that it has stirred up—before this summer, many Smithfield residents were unaware of the Klan’s history in their town; whether Domin’s name continues to grace a street sign or Harmony Way holds sway in the town council vote, the controversy has started to peel back the layer of forgetting that often divides the past from the present. The white-robed, hooded Klansmen that once convened and flattened the grass of Domin’s fields are no more than ghosts to the street’s current residents, but their presence is at least felt and remembered.
MEGAN HAUPTMAN B'14.5 talks to ghosts.