In a document produced for the Ministry of Heritage by Professor Constance Backhouse of the University of Ottawa in 2001 entitled The Historical Construction of Racial Identity and Implications for Reconciliation, she writes about a man named Ira Johnson, who was confronted by the KKK in Oakville, Ontario in 1930
“In 1925," Backhouse wrote "there were estimates of eight thousand Klan members in Toronto and one thousand in both Woodstock and Dorchester. By 1927, ten thousand watched hooded Klansmen burn a six-foot cross in Moose Jaw, and subsequent reports credited the western wing of the KKK with having signed up 25,000 members. Alberta membership peaked between 5,000 and 7,000, but the Klan newspaper produced out of Edmonton purported to maintain a circulation of 250,000." [Backhouse p. 181-193]
"On the night of 28 February 1930," Backhouse rephrased the Toronto Star "75 KKK members, clad in white gowns and hoods, marched through the town of Oakville, planted a massive cross in the centre of the main street, and set a torch to the oil-soaked rags tied around it. They then proceeded to the home of Ira Johnson, a man they believed to be a “Negro” who was engaged to be married to a “white girl” named Isabel Jones. They pounded on the door, demanded that the two come out, and then spirited Isabel away to the custody of the Salvation Army. The Klansmen burned a second cross on the front yard, and threatened Ira Johnson that if he was “ever seen walking down the street with a white girl again 'the Klan' would attend to him. "
Prof. Backhouse continued:
The Toronto Star indicated that Johnson’s mother, described by the reporter as “a refined and intelligent woman,” was the daughter of Rev. Junius Roberts, a “white” who “preached for many years to negro congregations at Guelph, Hamilton and Oakville more than forty years ago.” Ira Johnson told the paper that the reason his grandfather preached in a “church for negroes” as because Ira's-half Cherokee grandmother "was so dark that some objections had been taken to her by members of the white congregations.”
Johnson then proceeded to provide The Star with a half dozen photos meant to prove that his account was true.
Number 1 is supposed to be Rev. JB Roberts, number 2 Ira is the man in the middle, Isabel is offset beside him Ira's father Mundy is in the bottom left.
The Star believed him, Professor Backhouse believed them, and I believed her: until I checked the 1881 census for the Roberts family, who were living in Guelph while Junius oversaw the construction of this church: the 81 census lists them and their children as being of African descent.
Ira's mother, Ida Leon Roberts, was one of a set of twins, born in Chatham, Ontario in 1871. Chatham was one of the most important towns to both the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and its Canadian 'daughter' The British ME church. In the 1870s, Reverend Roberts was a rising star in the denomination, but his calling wasn't much older than his daughter.
On September 28 1887, Ida married "Mundy" John Alexander Johnson, she was sixteen years old, so who knows what the reverend Roberts thought about that. Mundy Johnson was born in Maryland and farmed on the edge of the village of Oakville with his parents and siblings.
Mundy's mother's maiden name was Shepley, a name to which we will return.
Professor Backhouse, notes that The Toronto Globe learned that Johnson had been “refused liquor because he was an Indian,” but the paper recounted that “reliable sources” among the Black community insisted that he had “coloured blood in his veins.”
The fact is, all Halton Johnsons in the sphere of Ida Roberts were of recent African descent.
The number of escaped slaves from Maryland in Ontario is hard to state for certain, but it is probably one of the top two places of origin.
Oakville has three abolitionist heroes, two of whom commanded lake ships.
Captain Robert Wilson carried hundreds of fugitive slaves across Lake Erie from Ashtapula Ohio through the Welland Canal and then to Oakville, while the second captain, an escaped slave himself, James Wesley Hill – Canada Jim – led hundreds of freedom seekers to Ontario from Montgomery County, Maryland. Canada Jim also happened to be married to a woman named Adeline Shipley, a spelling variation of Mundy's mother's last name, Shepley. All were from Maryland.
The third abolitionist from Oakville was the Rev. James Nesbit of the Presbyterian Church. Nesbit, as noted in my book Exodus & Arrival, was the post-1850s Vice President of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society representing Oakville.
The Klan itself that day in Oakville in 1930, was not the southern Klan, but was connected to Indiana, the birth – and death place – of Reverend Junius B. Roberts.
Police Chief Kerr was reported as saying that he had first come across the men as their motorcade was crossing the Sixteen Mile Creek bridge on their way home to Hamilton. The Chief knew many of them, and thought them all respectable businessmen.
Kerr also noted how orderly they had been and that he had done nothing to interfere with their leaving town. He was impressed with reports of their silent, non-violent vigil and for cooperating with him by explaining what they had done and why.
What they had done, besides burn the two crosses, was to drive Ira's white fiancee, Isabel Jones to the home of Captain Brome of the Salvation Army, the church attended by both their mothers. Ida Roberts Johnson and Mrs. Jones were friends.
Ira and Isabel had been living together for a month, but his father's sister Viola, and her Mississauga husband, Joseph Sault had been staying with them. That relationship may be why Ira thought he could get away with the Cherokee story. The Saults are still on the Mississauga of the New Credit reserve. However, since Ira was the one paying the rent, when he asked them to leave, they did.
The month before, Ira had asked Mrs. Jones for Isabel's hand before he asked Isabel: Mrs. Jones had consented, so officially, Ira and Isabel were engaged.
They had only been alone together for 'two or three days in the house, after Ira's aunt and uncle left, but neighbours weren't happy that they were living in sin.
When unknown men showed up in a car wanting to speak with Ira, he went out to hear what they had to say, when he got out of their car, they went to the door of his house to talk to Isabel, who went to the car with them, and drove off with them. The cross was burned on the lawn after Ira went looking for her.
What they said to Isabel was never reported, but it may have no more than to explain how they came to be there. And since it was Mrs. Jones who had written to the Klan in the first place, on the advice of a friend who had given her the address, presumably, the Klan may have done no more than show Isabel the letter from her mother.
They took her to the home of the leader of the local Salvation Army, Captain Brome, because Mrs. Jones had asked the Bromes to look after her daughter, presumably mother and daughter weren't talking to one another at that point.
When asked by reporters, Mrs Jones admitted to having given her consent to the marriage, but said she'd changed her mind because of "certain things" she'd been told about Ira Johnson. Ira admitted there was some truth to some of those things, so clearly her problem with Ira had more to do with his reputation than his ancestry.
Captain Brome would not tell the press whether it was him that gave Mrs Jones the Klan's address, but he did say that he was not happy that he was being associated with the KKK (because belonging to secret societies was forbidden to the Army.) The morning after Isabel was dropped off, Brome had phoned the head office in Toronto to explain that he was acting on behalf of Mrs. Jones, presumably knowing it might blow up in his face.
It took complaints from the black community to rouse the provincial government into action against the Klan. Mayor Moat of Oakville, like the police, thought the Klan "had behaved properly." The Mayor also noted that the town's black population had been decreasing for some time and that there were only about 40 left, including children. One can only imagine how welcome they felt in Oakville if the Mayor and the police Chief supported the Klan.
The Star interviewed members of the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Hamilton, who denied their involvement. The only public event they had been involved in, they claimed, had been the previous summer when thousands had rallied near Stoney Creek and "increased their membership by several hundred."
The hard to read notes below the photo family-tree published in The Star, show the father of Rev. JB Roberts as “a white man” who was allegedly an Irish preacher named Reverend John Roberts and who had lived in Noblesville, Indiana. Junius' mother was supposedly a Scot. About the only thing accurate in that tree, is that Junius B. Roberts had been raised in Noblesville township Indiana.
Junius is at the bottom centre of this tree, his wife Frances McGowan below him.
The tree is from Stephen A. Vincent (see text below)
In the second week of March, three Klansmen from the Invisible Empire of Knights were charged with 'unlawfully masking”: which carried a five year penitentiary stay as a penalty: Dr. W.A. Phillips a Hamilton chiropractor was fined $50 and costs or 30 days in jail for the offense, the other two were released. That result did not please the majority of the province, white or black, because a majority opposed the Klan and it's racist agenda: a rabbi took up the cause because he regarded the issue as an attempt to violate the constitutional rights of Canadians.
Ira's 'love nest with Isabel', where they had been living together, was burnt to the ground on March 18, a blaze which the Fire department and police eventually deemed electrical and accidental, a conclusion that no one in the family protested. The house fire however, did add to the sense of threat around Ira and the black community, whatever it's actual cause.
On the same night, a KKK cross had been seen burning on Hamilton Mountain by thousands of people. The Klan claimed they had nothing to do with the Oakville cross or the Hamilton one, and that other people were pretending to be Klansmen to discredit the organization.
The Labour movement, Jewish Groups and the black community continued fighting the issue of the easy sentencing for the Hamilton Klansman because Phillips should have faced up to eight charges. To add insult to injury, the Klansman's business thrived in the aftermath of being fined. The Klan, while in Oakville, had been free to do what it had done, without police interference, since even the chief had no problem telling the press that the community was against white/negro marriages.
On March 22, The Star was reporting that the black lawyer, E Lionel Cross had delivered an impassioned speech on the subject; over the following weeks he would be called to apologize for his comments against the convicted Klansman but wouldn't.
In the same issue, the' negro minister' WC Perry, who was to have married Ira and Isabel, had report-edly withdrawn his willingness to perform the service; he told the papers that he was tired of being bothered by the press.
At the same time, since Ira was hiding his family's black blood, Perry may have been even more tired of Mundy and Ida's stories.
On Monday March 24 1930, The Star reported that on Saturday the 22nd, Ira and Isabel had gone to a "New Credit Six Nations United Church and were married" in the kitchen of the parsonage by a native minister, Reverend Burgess, witnessed by the minister's wife and a local Chippewan, Dan LaForme. That was when Isabel's mother told The Star that she approved of the marriage.
Isabel was still living with the Bromes at the time and left the parsonage and returned to Brome's after being married: she and Ira were being cautious.
Leaving all that aside, in 1925, the underbelly of the northern Invisible Empire of Knights had come to light after a woman was murdered by the head of the Klan, a man tried in Nobelsville, Indiana, the township where Junius B. Roberts was born. Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson, had kidnapped and raped an Indianapolis Statehouse secretary. He was found guilty and given the maximum prison sentence. When he realized that his political allies would not come to his aid, he started revealing everyone's dirty laundry. The scandal resulted in the indictment of many Indiana politicians, including Governor Ed Jackson.
Stephenson's Klan was made up of northern racial purists who had been repudiated by the southern Klan because the southerners claimed the Northerners were giving the Klan a bad name. Stephenson's Invisible Empire of Knights had branches in 22 northern states. One of his doctrines was that it was pro-Prohibition and a "defender of Protestant womanhood. This from a man who got his own German-American secretary drunk and then raped and chewed on her until she looked liked she'd been attacked by an animal before she died in hospital from poison she'd managed to take to escape him and his bodyguards: he was convicted on the strength of her deathbed statement.
After Stephenson first took over as Grand Dragon, membership in Indiana had increased rapidly, until one of every three men in the state was a member. After the trial, and over the course of the end of the 1920s, membership dropped so dramatically that by 1930 the Indiana Klan he had transformed, had been destroyed by him, except in Canada. The Oakville incident would trigger that.
Given that Indiana back story, it's not as hard to understand why Ida Roberts Johnson might have wanted to mislead The Toronto Star about who her father's family was.
As evidenced in The Star's family photo spread, Ira was veteran of Vimy Ridge, and he claimed he wasn't afraid of the KKK.
So who was the real Junius B Roberts?
In Southern Seed, Northern soil: African American farm communities in the Midwest by Stephen A. Vincent, Vincent references a file from Civil War Letters: the writer is Junius B. Roberts of the 28th Colored Regiment from The Roberts Settlement and he is writing to a Stephen Roberts, who was either his brother or father, a farmer, not a minister, as was claimed in Oakville.
In the 1880 Indiana census for the town of Noblesville, Robert's mother is listed as a North Carolina born, 58 year old named Mary. Everyone in the family are mulattoes.
The Roberts Settlement (about 40 miles north east of Indianapolis) was first created in a county already inhabited by Quakers. Stephen Vincent makes note of the fact that the Roberts family and the Quakers had a relationship that pre-dated Indiana. Most of the early Methodists of the settlement were originally black Quakers, which would have effected Junius B Robert's spiritual development before the Civil War and long after it, and may account for white blood in his makeup.
The Toronto Star was fed some scraps of Roberts' history, including a family legend of a Cherokee wife for Reverend Roberts. His real wife, Frances McGowan Roberts was born in the states, and may even have had Cherokee blood, but she also had black blood.
According to Vincent, Roberts saw heavy fighting during the Civil War with the 28th Colored Regiment, facts which corroborate and expand The Star's story of Ira's grandfather having fought in that war.
According to Civil War records, Roberts joined the 28th Colored Regiment, on Dec 31 1863, (a month after it had been formed on Nov 30) he'd volunteered for three years service. The description of him in the files, is that he had been born in Rush County, Indiana, lived in neighbouring Hamilton County, and was a 24 year old farmer, who was 5'11, had a dark complexion, with black hair and black eyes. Unfortunately, none of those records include his full name, so what the B stood for is a mystery.
The troops were trained until March 1864 and 6 companies then left to defend Washington DC. According to a note in "Civil War Manuscripts", eight letters written by Private Junius B. Roberts were written during 1864-65. Roberts was an orderly in the L'Ouverture African American military hospital in Alexandria Virginia, immediately South of Washington. He became a corporal on April 27 1865. He also suffered from chronic rheumatism and developed intermittent fevers for which he was granted sick leave.
Wikipedia notes that on July 30 of '64 the 28th Colored Regiment lost nearly half the regiment at the Battle of the Crater during 'the siege of Petersburg' Virginia, when the Union Army under Meade came up against a Confederate Army commanded by Robert E. Lee. The crater turned into the site of the “saddest thing I have ever seen in war.” according to Lee, so it's not hard to imagine that the cutting in half of the Colored Regiment would have shaped Junius Roberts' thoughts for the rest of his life, especially since he worked in a military hospital among the wounded, working and suffering physically, although he was never wounded himself, or fought in combat.
L'Ouverture Hospital was also a gathering grounds for escaped slaves, for whom the Army raised three barracks, to house the "contraband camp" as they called those seeking shelter with them (contraband, like seized property) The contraband slaves aided the Union Army with their labour.
For Junius B. Roberts, the Hospital and his service during the War undoubtedly scoured his soul, damaged his body and gave shape to his convictions.
When the Confederacy surrendered on April 9 1865 after the Battle of Appomattox, the 28th was sent south to guard the Texas-Mexico border because of French interventions in the Mexican Revolution. Roberts was mustered out of the army at Corpus Christi, Texas on Nov 8, 1865 and the company left that state on November 28, two months and nine days after Junius had written home about buying land once the war was over. The Regiment returned to Indianapolis on January 6 1866.
In Forged in battle: the Civil War alliance of Black soldiers and Whiteofficers . Joseph T. Glatthaar notes that:
"Young Private JB Roberts saved approximately four hundred dollars from his military career to use for education to become a minister." His War records note that he got most of that money in one payment before they went to Texas.
According to Vincent, Junius Roberts never did buy the specific parcel of land he had spoken of to Stephen in the letter, but "Hamilton County land records indicate that Junius did, however, buy 20 acres..." near that spot "... in February of 1866, two years before he sold the land and purchased a 40 acre parcel, only to sell it as well the following year. Shortly thereafter he left the Robert's Settlement and became a A.M.E. minister, travelling extensively through the United States and Canada during the decades that followed." [Glatthaar p. 198]
However much traveling Roberts did in the States, by Vincent's account, he left the Settlement in 1869. By 1871, he was married to Frances and had twin daughters born in Chatham Ontario.
The Wilberforce Educational Institute was opened in Chatham in 1873, and was incorporated by an act of Parliament. And important figure involved in that Institute was Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbot, who Roberts must have known from the Contraband camp, because Abbot was one of handful of black doctors there. After Oakville, Roberts went back to Chatham and the Institute in 1885.
Reverend Junius B. Roberts was admitted to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Marion Indiana on Oct 12 1893, and died of a hemorrhage there on June 13 1894. He was 54 years old, and had suffered chronic rheumatism for nearly thirty years. $6.20 and other personal effects were shipped to his brother Stephen R. Roberts in Noblesville. He is buried in the Marion National cemetery in Grant County Indiana. d. 06/13/1894, PVT CO C 28TH USCT,( Plot: 1 237 R2)
And that, basically, is most of what I know about the story of the man whose name is chiseled in the memorial stone above the front door of the church, a church he oversaw as it rose from its base stones, and if you glance up towards the gable when passing the building allow your sense of crossing a threshold in time, to linger on his story.