One hundred years after the banishment of African Americans and Mexican Americans from Johnstown, people from all over the region gathered together to commemorate the event through prayer, speeches, and music at a vigil held at Gazebo Park. Attendees included Johnstown residents and students; members of the NAACP; United Methodists from Johnstown and Pittsburgh; Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and the WPAUMC Coordinating Cabinet; and an ecumenical collection of clergypeople. Common refrains throughout the event were of remembrance, repentance, and restoration as speakers recounted the history of the Johnstown Banishment and looked toward a more just and equitable future.
At the start of the vigil Peggy Ward, president of the WPAUMC United Women in Faith organization, shared the history of the banishment of residents from the Rosedale neighborhood in Johnstown in 1923. She explained that police had an altercation with a drunk Black man who ultimately killed four officers, which became the catalyst for Mayor Joseph Cauffiel to order the expulsion of all African American and Mexican American individuals from the town who had lived there less than seven years. Cauffiel also decreed that Black people still living in Johnstown were prohibited from holding public gatherings and would not be allowed to assemble except for church. While his decree held no legal standing, ultimately over 2000 people were expelled from the city through threats and intimidation.
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi spoke of repentance, asking for forgiveness for those residents who called themselves disciples of Jesus Christ yet celebrated the mayor’s edict. She recognized that while none gathered were there 100 years ago, “all of us today bear the burden of that decision.”
“None of us were there when some residents in this city celebrated the edict and others remained silent… Yet all of us here today, and especially those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus who is the Christ, and therefore follow scripture, bear the shame of the edict.”
Bishop Moore-Koikoi reminded that regrettably, most of the people who were involved in carrying out the edict most likely attended church services that Sunday. She reminded that in order to be part of the KKK, members must profess belief in Jesus Christ.
“While I was not there 100 years ago, I am here today to seek forgiveness for the members of the Christian Community who 100 years ago celebrated or stayed silent,” she said.
Recounting the events of this historical event is an important step towards racial reconciliation and restoration in the area. Each speaker spoke of the importance of remembering history as a way to deeper understand our present and to do better in the future. The legacy of the Johnstown Banishment is not just that of the African and Mexican Americans who still live there, but everyone who claims Johnstown as their home. Two students from the local school, supported by the Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio, shared that up until recently they had never heard of this historic event. The book Banished from Johnstown is now part of the curriculum.
While remembering the past, Ward urged those gathered to reflect on the past in the context of today. In 1923, Johnstown became a sundown town which is a systemic method of excluding non white people from living in a specific location. Nonwhite individuals may work or travel through these towns during the day, but must leave by sun down. These towns and cities are created through discriminatory local laws, intimidation or violence. This could look like a strong Ku Klux Klan presence, as occurred when the KKK marched into churches and burned crosses in the hills surrounding Johnstown. But also, less violent yet no less insidious means like redlining and gerrymandering are prevalent tactics meant to keep towns white only. There is a misconception that is a South-only problem - but “the large majority of these towns were in the Midwest, Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the West, whereas relatively few existed in the Deep South” (Britannica).
Ward reminded the gathered that sundown towns are not a thing of the past and asked the following questions: Where are our current sundown towns? What does current banishment look like? (While not comprehensive, this map allows you to see if your town is listed as a sundown town.)
Remembrance and repentance only go so far without actions towards restoration. On top of asking for forgiveness, Bishop Moore-Koikoi entreated all to turn and go a different way and to resist oppression. “Our time together here would be a mockery if all we do is read a litany, offer a prayer, and light a candle,” she implored. “We will have mocked God if we do not dedicate ourselves today to turn and go in a different way, if we do not dedicate ourselves to take proactive action to repair the harm that was done 100 years ago.”
Rev. Carol Hickman, pastor of Grove Avenue UMC, voiced similar sentiments. “We have to use our voices to educate other people to bring about change. We have to use our dollars, use our votes. And we have to speak out against injustice at every opportunity we can.”
After a litany of remembrance, repentance, and restoration, the vigil ended on a hopeful note with the participants joining together to sing “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine.”