Town to Address Road Named After KKK Leader

“Exalted Cyclops” John Algernon Domin

Tonight the Smithfield Town Council gets to take up, for a third time, the issue of Domin Ave., named for John Algernon Domin, Exalted Cyclops of the RI KKK in 1928. When Colonel Roger Schenck pointed the history of Domin Ave. to the Town Council in a letter, he suggested the name be changed, because, after all, who would want to live on a street named after the hate mongering leader of a terrorist organization? (Schenck called it “a stain on Smithfield.”)

By 1928 the Klan in Rhode Island was dying, and according to David M. Chalmers in the 3rd Edition of his book Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, was composed of about 900 members. On March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, the Providence Journal reported that the Klan had successfully infiltrated and taken control of three companies of the state militia. Having fallen on hard times, the First Light Infantry Division, which had an honorable history in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, was close to being disbanded. But suddenly, companies E, F and H showed up at the Cranston Street Armory 200 strong, with brand new armaments to boot. The new membership was made up entirely of Klansmen.

The plan was to reinvigorate and militarize Klan membership by requiring anyone who wanted to join the First Light Infantry Division to first join the Klan at $15 a pop. As Chalmers points out, “With the United States, as the Klan saw it, in the midst of its continuing “Roman crisis” and a religious war impending, the 1st Light Infantry would be but the first step toward control of the nation’s militia and armories.” In other words, the Klan was positioning itself for a kind of military coup of the United States, to fight a war against Catholics, minorities, immigrants and other American citizens.

John Algernon Domin was a major part of this and was called to testify in front of the Rhode Island General Assembly in hearings looking into these allegations.  The April 6, 1928 Providence Journal covered the hearings and reported on some of what Domin said:

Exalted Cyclops Domin was then called. He said he was 42 years of age and lived at 6 George street, Pawtuxet. He is a motorman for the United Electric Railways Company and had joined the F.L.I. [First Light Infantry] in September at the suggestion of Sergt. Hawes of the F.L.I., also a member of the Klan.

Domin said he knew that eight or 10 or possibly a dozen Klansmen were members of the F.L.I. and did not know if more Klansmen were members of the military organizations because he cannot remember the names of all Klansmen.

The Roger Williams Klan of which he has been President for 18 months has between 2000 and 3000 members, he said. In addition six sub-divisions of the Klan were organized in Providence early this year, he declared. He said he had not attended F.L.I. drills lately.

It should be noted that though no legal charges were filed, it was speculated for good reason that the Klansmen who were called to testify, including Domin, perjured themselves in their testimony.

“What is the attitude of the Klan towards non-Protestants?” [Domin] was asked.

“The Klan believes in the Constitution, that men can worship according to their beliefs.”

Later, Domin spoke of his military history:

Domin said he had no military record and had joined the F.L.I. for good fellowship and exercise. He claimed exemption during the war because he was married and had two children, he said.

Domin said that the ultimate aim of the Ku Klux Klan was to band all Protestants together through the Klan. He said he thought Protestants should organize and there should be a Klan in every State, but, he denied that the organization is antagonistic towards Catholics or towards any church. He said there is nothing in Klan regulations which prohibits voting for Catholics.

After Representative Sullivan had produced Klan literature attacking Governor Al Smith of New York, Sullivan asked, “Are Klansmen banded together to vote against Al Smith because of his religion?”

“No.”

Domin declared, however, he thought no man should be elected President who kisses the hand of another man. Domin said that Klan literature is not circulated to foster prejudice.

The General Assembly investigation prevented the Klan in Rhode Island from attaining military power, and, according to Chalmers, by 1930 the organization boasted less than 500 members. Domin’s ambition to see the Klan grow in Rhode Island was over.

But what of Domin? He was not just the leader of a local branch of a murderous terrorist organization, but a man who hoped to wrest power from the government in a military coup. He was a traitor to the United States willing to perjure himself while claiming to hold the Constitution in high regard. He’s so much worse than just a mean spirited bigot, he represents everything America stands against.

Those in favor of keeping a street named after this man might want to reconsider, and tonight’s Town Council meeting in Smithfield might be a good start in that direction.

One final note: In researching this piece I came across some papers at the Rhode Island Historical Society compiled by Joseph W. Sullivan in 1987, which listed all Rhode Island Klan members that had been publicly identified in sundry news reports and during the General Assembly investigation. I converted this list into a database that can be accessed here. The database can be searched by name of Klan member, or by occupation or city.  It makes one wonder what other secret or lost street names and fields might still bear the taint of the KKK. (I’m looking at you, Westerly.)

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Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist and current president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

4 responses to “Town to Address Road Named After KKK Leader”

  1. Portsmouth Citizen

    “Domin said that Klan literature is not circulated to foster prejudice.”
    I’m sure Domin actually believed that. It’s a facet of human nature that bigots don’t think that they are hateful or prejudiced or bigots. For proof look no further than at the people today who are activists against marriage equality. I’m sure none of them think that they are homophobic bigots.

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  2. DogDiesel

    I recall the E911 implementation years ago when mostly only house numbers were changed and a few street names. After experiencing that debacle, I can understand why the majority of the residents on the street are digging in their heels. Plus, I think some of them are a little miffed that the instigator for this is currently living in Hawaii and never lived on that street. I don’t think they’re feeling ‘stained’ by the name of the street.

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  3. donroach

    I’ve never been overly offended by the KKK. Seems odd coming from a black man, but I think I understand their perspective and worldview. 

    I obviously, don’t see myself as any sort of second class citizen nor would I want their worldview to dominate politics, but I do believe in their right to try to persuade the rest of us into believing that their way is the right way. I believe there are many people from many political persuasions who would stand against such ‘allure’. 

    Steve, I’m also different from you in that I don’t feel the need to root out every single person/concept that doesn’t fit within today’s paradigm from historical record. Should we debase Jefferson because he had slaves and we don’t today? I don’t buy that argument. History serves to teach us many things, and simply removing this man’s name from a street doesn’t teach anyone about racism. All it says is that we disagree with him today and that he needs to be punished for his views.

    America is all about democracy and as much as I detest many of the ideas of the KKK they have just as much right to them as you and I do ours.   

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  4. cailin rua

    Great piece.  Washington County seems way over represented.  

    I lived in Smithfield from age 4 into my teens.  I knew someone’s father who had memories of the meetings and cross burnings. I wasn’t aware that there was a street named after this person.  What is amazing is that it took so long to bring this to anyone’s attention. 

    I can’t believe there are those who are dismissive of the need to remove Domin’s name and all the supremicist associations that go along with it and instead see no problem with continuing to commemorate the values that go along with the name.  I happen to be of an ehnic Catholic background.  I have a lot of problems with this. It isn’t ironic how minority rights are about abstract rights, though; actually, not about any particular religion, sex, race in a specific way.   

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