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December 18, 2014

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Genealogy:

Letters provide context to historical events

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Frank Ivo Weller was fired in 1923.

Weller was the first city editor for the new Peru (Indiana) Daily Tribune from May 1921 until November 1923 (Peru Tribune Web site cites its first issue April 16, 1921). Managing Editor Frank O. Evens trusted Weller with "complete charge of the make-up of the paper and the choice of news going into its columns," and he credited Weller's editorship: "the Tribune has grown in two years to have a circulation of 3,650 subscribers. Mr. Weller has been largely responsible for this unusual success." W. E. Trippeer similarly praised Weller: "As president of the Board of Directors of The Peru Daily Tribune I wish to recommend Frank I. Weller, for two years city editor of our newspaper, to any man to whom he may apply for a position."

So why did Evens and Trippeer terminate Weller? According to Evens, "Mr. Weller was dismissed from this paper, not because he fell down on the job, nor because he was inefficient. He was dismissed upon a vote of the directors on the complaint that he did not play-up Ku Klux Klan news to their satisfaction." Trippeer concurred, "We are sincerely sorry that owing to attitude of the Ku Klux Klan of Peru, who does not feel that he has been giving them the right sort of publicity, we were obliged to discharge him without warning." Evens and Trippeer addressed their letters To Whom It May Concern on Nov. 12, 1923.

The "Invisible Empire" of the Ku Klux Klan began in Tennessee just after the Civil War but grew rapidly throughout the South. The white supremacist members hid their identities behind white robes and masks as they terrorized freed slaves. The group largely died out after Congress passed three Reconstruction Acts in 1870 and 1871, authorizing federal military force to guarantee 14th Amendment freedoms for newly emancipated black citizens.

The great migration following the Civil War brought waves of black and white southerners to formerly Union states in search of better opportunities, but southern migrants brought their politics with them. After the 1915 release of D. W. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, Klan membership rebounded, and by 1920 had spread throughout America's rural and urban areas. KKK targets expanded to include immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Indiana, with its 1924 Klan membership of 300,000, was "the site of the largest and most politically powerful Klan operation of the 1920s" (James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America, p. 292).

Weller was a 23-year-old World War I veteran when he resisted Indiana Klan demands and subsequently lost his job. Weller's termination in Peru precipitated a distinguished journalism career, which included several short regional moves with the Associated Press (AP). By 1925 Weller had moved to Washington, D.C., where his 19 years with the Associated Press included a 1941 National Headliners Club award "for consistently outstanding feature stories" ("Headliners Club . . .," New York Times, June 21, 1941, p. 9). Weller's Who's Who in America listing (Vol. 26, 1950-51, p. 2903), notes that his "First Ten Months of the New Deal," was voted the best financial story of 1933 by his AP peers; this piece was later published as a book. Weller died April 19, 1951, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 51 years ("Frank I. Weller," New York Times, April 21, 1951, p. 17).

When we examine the context of American history in which Weller lived, we more fully understand what the 23-year-old, newly married city editor risked when he refused in 1923 to submit to Klan bullies in Peru, Ind. Weller's 1923 termination letters keep company in his daughter's home collection along with Weller's White House press pass, invitations to the Roosevelt White House and letters from prominent New Deal politicians.

Weller's daughter, Rita, was born in Indiana, shortly after he left the Peru Tribune and before Weller's series of AP career moves took him to Washington, D.C. She remembers that her father was an editor at the Washington Star while he worked with the AP. Within a few years of Rita's birth, the KKK's Invisible Empire crumbled in the face of public backlash (it re-emerged during the 1950s and 1960s). Rita Weller's collection of her father's 1923 termination letters carries less cachet than his Washington, D.C., mementos, but together, they illustrate the silent power then wielded by the Indiana Klan. They also define Frank Ivo Weller, father of Rita Weller and first city editor of the Peru Tribune. He was a man.

Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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