Johnstown injustice resurfaces in new book
Local author explores one of worst acts of racism in North
Ninety-seven years ago, an ethnic cleansing occurred in Johnstown.
The tale of two-thousand Black and Mexican community members ordered to leave the city resounds in Cody McDevitt’s recent book, “Banished from Johnstown.”
McDevitt, an investigative reporter based in western Pennsylvania, said that in the years following the Great War, Black southerners looked to escape racial hostility in the South for better opportunity in the North. While Black Americans had more equality and could have a voice in northern states – evident by papers like the Pittsburgh Courier – poor conditions and Jim Crow customs seethed. Black southerners found the reality to be worse than they had expected.
“There was always persecution against people of color,” McDevitt said. “And a threat of assault that was institutionalized or implied.”
He said members of what would have been considered the established black community of Johnstown faced incidences of attempted lynchings and police brutality. “White’s Only” businesses existed by custom, McDevitt said. School segregation also existed: Black families decided to send their children to black schools because of poor treatment in majority-white schools.
In summary, he said the narrative of the white community acting humanely toward the black community in Johnstown is a myth, based on his research.
The book investigates various threads of the banishment of Black and Mexican community members: first-hand accounts of the event, the mayor who ordered the banishment, the political power of the Ku Klux Klan in western Pennsylvania, media reaction both locally and nationally, responses from (at the time) fledgling civil rights organizations like the ACLU and NAACP, and the legal challenges that ensued.
McDevitt said his goal in writing this story was to raise awareness on the banishment, which he felt hasn’t gotten enough historical treatment. He felt the incident isn’t as widely known as it should be, particularly among white people — citing his own family, whose members have roots in the region predating the great Johnstown Flood, yet having never shared the story.
McDevitt first learned of the banishment in 2015 as a reporter for the Somerset Daily American after asking Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, for a good Black history story to share with readers.
McDevitt then began his research, launching the Rosedale Oral History project through the Somerset Daily American to speak to Black leaders in Johnstown and documenting the event from the descendents of those who were forced out. McDevitt credits Claudia B. Jones for having gathered “tons of historical research” that he used to launch the Rosedale Oral History Project. Jones is a former professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a Johnstown native.
The oral tradition of the story of the banishment is still alive with some descendents, McDevitt said, yet there is a challenge in finding them; after being expelled from Johnstown, many moved west to Pittsburgh, then moved elsewhere in the country.
Johnstown’s removal of minority community members wasn’t an isolated incident in the North, nor in western Pennsylvania, during the early 20th century. McDevitt said a similar incident happened in Beaver County when 500 people were forced from their community. Yet another occurred to a Jewish community in Conneticut.
“Banished from Johnstown” is a local piece in a growing national trend to reconstruct major incidences of racial oppression and racially-motivated violence, including, for example, the New York Times’ recovery of information on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, and the 2005 book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” by James W. Loewen.
McDevitt said he hopes his book’s legacy will be a part of the reversal of years of dehumanization of Black Americans. He cited Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s speech on “42 million ways to be black,” rejecting a consolidation of the unique, individual experiences of any group.
“I often hear ‘they statements’ from those who have very limited interactions with people in certain communities,” McDevitt said. “We need to be better at seeing human beings in other races.”
McDevitt has won a Golden Quill and awards from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and the Pennsylvania Associated Press Media Editors organization.
He co-authored “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife and Bartending Tradition,” and wrote “Answering the Call: Somerset County During World War II,” which was a compendium of more than 30 true stories of the conflict as told from the perspectives of Somerset County veterans.
McDevitt worked for the Somerset Daily American. His writing has appeared in Pittsburgh Quarterly, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh City Paper. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2007 and earned a Master’s Degree at Point Park University. He lives in Murrysville and is currently working on a book about abortion rights.
“Banished from Johnstown” is for sale through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target and local bookstores.
Mirror Staff Writer Dom Cuzzolina is at 946-7428.