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"Unwashed Sins: The 1923 Racial Cleansing in Johnstown, PA" by Marilyn Green

Unwashed Sins: The 1923 Racial Cleansing in Johnstown, PA

Marilyn Green, Community College of Allegheny County

Abstract: This paper is about the racial cleansing that occurred in Johnstown, PA in 1923. This paper references Cody McDevitt’s book titled Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania. I did not know much about racial cleansing but after reading McDevitt’s book, I wanted to learn more about this dark time in history. I wanted to learn why racial cleansings happened, what was the outcome of the experience, and how it could be prevented from happening now. My focus of this paper is on the racial cleansing that occurred in Johnstown, and also to let the reader know that racial cleansings happened far more often than people realized. I have included the readings of Elliot Jaspin, Guy Lancaster, Wildstyle Paschall and other authors on racial cleansings to increase the awareness of other racial cleansings.



When I think about Johnstown, I think of the flood they had in 1977. After reading McDevitt’s book, I now know that they experienced another tragedy: Racial Cleansing. Racial cleansing is also known as ethnic cleansing. The term “Ethnic Cleansing” was coined during the Serbian/Bosnian War in 1992. The definition of racial cleansing is

…created to be analogous to “ethnic cleansing”, itself a term originating in the Yugoslav military vocabulary of the 1990s and defined by one scholar as “a deliberate policy designed by, and pursued under, the leadership of a nation/ethnic community or with its consent, with the view to removing an “undesirable” indigenous population of a given territory on the basis of its ethnic, national or religious origin, or a combination of these, by using systematically force and/or intimidation (Mulaj, 2008).

For this paper, I will use the term racial versus ethnic to describe the experiences that occurred.

Why Racial Cleansings Happen

Racial cleansings happen for different reasons. Some of the reasons are: self-proclaimed rights, misconceptions of other people, and for land. In 1987 the Oprah Winfrey Show discussed racial cleansing that occurred in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912. The incident started due to the allegations that an African American man assaulted and killed a White woman.

According to writer Patrick Phillips there were killings, property burnings, and 1098 African Americans that were expelled from Forsyth County between September and October 1912. Phillips grew up in Forsyth County Georgia and wrote an explanation of why the racial cleansing occurred in 1912:

Georgians were reminded that while the racial cleansing of 1912 seemed like ancient history, in truth, many in Forsyth believed that “racial purity” was their inheritance and birthright. And like their fathers’ fathers’ fathers, they saw even a single black face as a threat to their entire way of life. (Phillips, 2016, p xiii).

Forsyth County remained a “White county” until well into the twentieth century. Current census data state that four percent of the population is African American. Elliot Jaspin’s book titled Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America writes about twelve racial cleansings that occurred from 1864-1923. Jaspin says that some of the racial cleansings were fueled by exaggerated stories from White Americans about African American men lusting after White women and misconceptions about the African American race. These stories ignited a fire of rage which festered and in turn, created a fiery White mob. The incendiary mob overpowered and engulfed White people like wood in the fireplace. The fire usually fizzled out after the mob was satisfied by a sacrifice in the form of a lynching or an expulsion of an African American (Jaspin, 2007). Another reason for racial cleansing was land. On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This act authorized President Jackson to have Native Americans living in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee removed from their homes and moved to Oklahoma. This expulsion known as the “Trail of Tears” was the price these Native Americans paid for the expansion of White settlers. Large numbers of Native Americans died before reaching the reservations in Oklahoma. (, 2021). Another example of land expulsion was in Indianapolis. The residents were forced out of their homes due to racial discrimination and for the land. Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis was known as the Black Wall Street due to its affluent African American residents, businesses, and their self-sufficiency. The area became a target for White developers looking to move Whites into new territory. African Americans could not relocate easily to other areas due to redlining practices and other racist tactics. African Americans were instead forced to live in cramped areas (Paschall, 2020).

Before the Racial Cleansing

In the early 20th century, Johnstown had the promise of becoming a booming industrial town with its growing citizenship. Joseph Schantz, a German immigrant, founded it in 1800. The town was predominately German with a mixture of Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian people until the mid to late 1800s when other immigrants began arriving (Johnstown Heritage Association, 2021). When World War I happened, the Europeans were not permitted to leave Europe, which left American industries with a shortage of workers. The industries invited African Americans to come from the South to the North to work in mills, plants, and factories. In 1916, there was a great migration of southern African Americans to the North. The African Americans were tired of the racial injustice in the South and accepted the work in hopes of a better life. There, they met other African Americans who had come to Johnstown after the Civil War. These northern African Americans viewed the southern African Americans as rowdy and not acclimated to northern ways. The Mexicans were also invited to Johnstown for work and like the African Americans, went in hopes of a better life. Author Cody McDevitt states in his book that the Mexicans were mostly employed in the steel mills as laborers. This is because they were foreigners to the area and the supervisors thought they would cause no trouble. The African Americans were not bothered much by Whites if they stayed within their community. Cauffiel and other racist Whites, however, viewed all African Americans and Mexicans as unsophisticated, uncivilized, and unworthy. The most animosity was directed towards the migrated African Americans and Mexicans because they were considered job stealers and troublemakers by the White workers. Most African Americans were forced to live in a section of town called Rosedale. Rosedale had very deplorable living conditions, which contributed to spreading diseases and discontent among the residents. The Mexicans also lived in deplorable conditions in their area.

What Started the Cleansing

The friction between African Americans and Whites reached a plateau when there was a shootout between an African American and six police officers. On August 30, 1923, Robert Young and his wife Rose were arguing over her infidelity. A neighbor called the police and a footman by the name of Joseph Grachen arrived at the house to investigate. Young was not at home when Grachen arrived, but his wife said that there was no problem. It was reported that Young and a friend left for Franklin Borough to partake in alcohol, drugs, and other activities. Sometime during the outing, Young had heard that Grachen was looking for him. Young and his friend ended up in a car accident and Grachen was the officer who investigated it. Young confronted Grachen about looking for him and proceeded to shoot Grachen. Grachen managed to leave the scene to go to a nearby restaurant to call for help. The police summoned to the scene were Captain Otto Fink, Lieutenant William Bender, and Officer John Yoder. In the meantime, Young had broken into a man’s house looking for his wife. He did not find her there and went home. Young fired shots through the door of a second-floor tenant in his house. The screaming from the tenant brought the three police officers. In the meantime, County Detective John A. James was notified of the shooting in Rosedale and went to Rosedale taking Assistant City Assessor Joseph Abrahams with him. Officer Otto Nukem was also present at the shooting. Young fired bullets, injuring four and killing two. Officer Yoder was credited with delivering the fatal shot to Young. Nukem reported there were two African American shooters. Police entered Rosedale arresting any African American they encountered, looking for the second shooter. The police ended up arresting thirty African Americans who were later released. However, the police and white citizens did not believe there was only one shooter, so the story of multiple shooters was published in the Johnstown Tribune. The misinformation caused a ripple in the White area and White citizens congregated to discuss how to deal with the African Americans. Some suggested torching Rosedale, others suggested expelling the African Americans. Rosedale was guarded by police after the shootout against any rioting on the White citizens’ part. The investigation determined that Young acted alone. The African Americans of Rosedale wrote a letter to the Johnstown Democrat expressing sorrow for the shooting and killing of the police officers and that they did not support the incident. After this incident, Mayor Cauffiel developed an order to expel or cleanse Johnstown of any African American or Mexican who had lived in Johnstown for less than seven years. He believed this group was the cause of the cultural discord. Cauffiel told Johnstown residents their lives could be in danger, and they believed him. Johnstown became what was known as a sundown town after the racial cleansing. A sundown town is “a term usually defined as a community or neighborhood whose White residents either 1) have driven African Americans away at some point in the past, usually violently and/or 2) work to keep African Americans from settling there, often through campaigns of organized harassment” (Lancaster, 2014, p.1).

Racial cleansing was widely supported by most White racist citizens and members of the Ku Klux Klan, not realizing the impact it would have on the economic growth of Johnstown. The Ku Klux Klan took advantage of the police killings, and Cauffiel’s order to “flex their muscles” and to gain fame. They informed the local newspapers and African Americans that they were only burning crosses and demonstrating against non-law-abiding African Americans. The African Americans that did remain lived in constant fear from the harassment they received from Cauffiel, White citizens, and the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan did receive negative criticism from respected White citizens, but they were supported by the White citizens who had power. The Mexicans had the support of the Mexican government, and they came to the rescue of the Mexican immigrants. The Americans relied upon trade with Mexico, so when the Mexican government became involved, Cauffiel was forced to desist from harassing and expelling the Mexicans. However, African Americans continued to be harassed and expelled from Johnstown because they did not have the support of anyone at the governmental level.

Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot was pushed by the press and authority figures to stop Cauffiel’s order of expulsion. Cauffiel continued his order until his term ended. He ran again and was defeated. He was defeated because of the negative press he had received when he was mayor but was reelected mayor in 1927 and continued his tirade of expelling African Americans. This was his third time as mayor. This time though, Pinchot put his foot down and Cauffiel was sued for the corruptive behavior he displayed. He was sentenced to two years in prison and served eighteen months. Cauffiel died in 1932.

The Outcome of the Experience

My focus on racial cleansing is what happened in Johnstown, PA in 1923 based on Cody McDevitt’s book, Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania. McDevitt became interested in African American history and learned about the Johnstown racial cleansing from Richard Burkhart, President of the Johnston Area Heritage Association. McDevitt used online newspaper databases in his research methods for the story. He chose to write about the tragedy in the paper he wrote for called the Somerset Daily American. The editor of the Somerset Daily American wanted McDevitt to expand his research to include libraries and oral narratives so that he could write a book, which was published in 2020. African Americans and Mexicans were the victims of the 1923 Johnstown PA racial cleansing. The Mayor and Magistrate of Johnstown, Joseph Cauffiel spearheaded this expulsion of African Americans and Mexicans. Historians, national newspapers, and renowned authorities knew about this event and expressed their anger over it. Some citizens in Johnstown knew what was occurring, but most did not. The tragedy has not been well remembered in American history or even by Johnstown citizens due to fear, shame, and ignorance.

The first reason the cleansing was not well remembered is due to fear. The African Americans never talked about the event afterwards. According to McDevitt, Reverend James Johnson of the First Cambria Zion AME Church said African Americans did not talk about the 1923 event because they were afraid of it happening again (McDevitt, 2020). The fear that engulfed the African American community was too thick to dissolve, therefore not talking about what happened provided a way for them to continue living in Johnstown. Eventually the event was pushed so far back into their minds that that it disappeared into darkness and was forgotten. The second reason the cleansing was not well remembered is due to shame. Family members of citizens who harassed and terrorized African Americans did not want to be associated with their family member’s behavior. Therefore, the event was not discussed within the families. A conversation could have revealed a family malady – uncovering a disease that could have caused the family to be shunned by other White citizens. This shame was hidden behind the family’s morals and forced into silence. The third reason the event was not well remembered is due to ignorance. Simply, most White citizens of Johnstown did not mingle with the African Americans and therefore did not realize that there was even a problem. Those who knew chose to wear moral blinders, meaning if they did not see it, it did not happen. That way, they did not have to re-evaluate their own morality.


It was reported that 2,000 people were forced out of Johnstown during 1923 without clear records of where they went. It is certainly a different climate today than it was in 1923.Johnstown even had a female Mayor in 1994. In 1968, a Pennsylvania constitution was put in place disallowing a judicial member to also be a political member. It stated that “… the Pennsylvania legislature adopted a new constitution that stipulates that no member of the statewide judiciary shall hold political office or public appointment for which he or she receives compensation-nor will he or she hold office in a political party or organization” (McDevitt, 2020, p. 177). This way, one person could not have great power like Cauffiel since he was both the mayor and magistrate. The Johnstown Council scrutinized the mayors after Cauffiel to ensure the corruptive behavior he displayed was not repeated. It would be almost impossible today in America to have a racial cleansing of the same magnitude as that of Johnstown’s. Today, citizens’ rights are better protected. Citizens are aware that they have the constitutional right to live wherever they want, and they would not be afraid or ashamed to express this awareness. Citizens today would refuse to be silenced into darkness and would bring injustice to light. Therefore, a racial cleansing in the United States in this century would be extremely difficult and challenged by today’s legal system.

How Racial Cleansings Can Be Prevented Now

It might seem due to media coverage that only African Americans experienced racial cleansing, but African Americans were not the only victims. One of the earliest records of racial cleansing dates back to 350 BC in China. The Wu Hu people of China faced discrimination from the Chinese due to having different facial features than the general population. They were killed because of their physical differences (Gernet, 1996). Another example of racial cleansing occurred in Yugoslavia in 1992. Serbians expelled the Bosnian Muslims out of Yugoslavia in 1992 because of religious differences (Naimark, 2001). Racial cleansings continue today in the twenty-first century in other countries. The Ethiopians perform racial cleansings on the Tigrayans who live in Northern Ethiopia. They physically and mentally abuse the Tigrayans and force them to change their identity cards to Amharic and to speak Amhara. While the Tigrayans have sought help from the government, they have had their crops burned, electricity shut off, and harassment has increased (Anna, 2021). Rohingya in Myanmar experienced racial cleansing in 2017 for religious differences. They were mostly Muslims living in a Buddhist country. The government had overlooked the persecution of the Rohingyas. In 2018 an agreement was signed by the government to have the Rohingyas return to Myanmar from refugee camps, but not many wanted to return to what they once considered home (Morse, 2018). The Ukrainians experience racial cleansing at the hands of the Russians. In the article titled “An expert says it may be hard, but not impossible, to prove genocide in Ukraine,” writer Nell Clark asks should Russia’s actions against Ukraine be considered “war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or genocide?” (Clark, 2022). Nell cites an interview National Public Radio (NPR) conducted with war crimes expert Leila Sadat for the answer. Sadat says in the article that evidence of genocide has to be proven and that ethnic cleansing is a form of genocide when it targets a specific population with intent to violate, displace or exterminate them. Sadat also says the “Biden administration is seriously considering dismantling some of the obstacles to cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it can see that this is exactly the kind of situation the ICC was created to address” (Clark, 2022). In the twentieth century the United States is working to restore power to those who experience human atrocities. Executive Order 14014 signed by President Joseph Biden on February 10, 2021, provided sanctions against the Burmese Government to protect Rohingyas in a democratically elected government. The United States government granted protection in the United States for 18 months to Rohingyas who did not want to return to Myanmar. In May 2021, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) stepped in to provide aide to the Tigrayans and to put a stop to the persecution. The United States has put a hold onto trades with Ethiopia while the Tigrayans are in distress. This racial cleansing began in November 2020 and the Tigrayans continue to be imprisoned, displaced, and violated in 2022. According to Agnes Callamard and Kenneth Roth, the African Union Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council should assist the Tigrayans with their crises and a collaboration between the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, UN Human Rights Council, and the Commission of Iniquity to “…make it a priority to document human rights abuses in Western Tigray and press for credible justice and redress for serious crimes…” (Callamard & Roth, 2022). Racial cleansing can be prevented if there is a strong supportive government in place. They could put laws in place protecting all citizens’ rights and uphold these laws.


Mulaj, K. (2008). The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing: Nation-State Building and Provision of In/Security in Twentieth Century Balkans. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Jaspin, E. (2007). Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. New York, New York: Basic Books.

“The Trail of Tears and Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation” (Teaching with Historic Places) (July 6, 2021).

Paschall, W. (February 4, 2020). “Indiana Avenue: The Ethnic Cleansing of Black Indianapolis.”

Johnstown Heritage Association. (2001). “Johnstown’s Immigration History.” Johnstown Heritage Association.

Lancaster, G. (2014). Racial Cleansing in Arkansas 1883-1924: Politics, Land, Labor, and Criminality. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

McDevitt, C. (2020). Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press.

McDevitt, C. (2020). Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press.

Gernet, J. (1996). A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Naimark, N.M. (2001). “Ethnic Cleansing, History of.” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.

Anna, C. (April 7, 2021). “’Leave no Tigrayan’: In Ethiopia, an Ethnicity is Erased.”

Morse, M. (January 3, 2018). “A Just World Must Work to Stop the Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya.”

Clark, N. (April 4, 2022). “An expert says it may be hard but not impossible, to prove genocide in Ukraine.”

Callamard, A. & Roth, K. (June 2, 2022). “Ethiopia’s Invisible Ethnic Cleansing. The World Cannot Afford to Ignore Tigray.”


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