On this day in local history, Sept. 1, 1926, several hooded men from the Ku Klux Klan terrorist organization kidnapped Father Vincent B. Warren, a white Catholic priest known for teaching African American children as well as being pastor of the mostly black St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and School in downtown Norfolk.
A caravan of Klan members forced Warren out his automobile and took him to a rural area of old Princess Anne County, part of today’s city of Virginia Beach. There, the abductors threatened Warren with guns and the prospect of being burned alive as they interrogated him with questions, such as “What are you doing in the area?” and “Are you going to start a church?” The men released Warren several hours later.
The incident and its aftermaths received some national publicity, apparently via wire services. For example, an article in the Sept. 18, 1926, edition of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times said that Warren was speaking out against the Klan and had noted other incidents, including that “two Negroes were taken from their homes by mobs and badly beaten several days before the attack on him.”
The KKK was at the height of its powers in Virginia in the mid-1920s, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, which notes that by 1925, nearly 60 Klan units “had formed in Virginia from the Eastern Shore to the Appalachians, with all the state’s cities represented.” The entry, written by John T. Kneebone, chairman of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University, also reports that the Klan participated in politics, as well as violence, and supported a bill to “forbid the teaching of evolution in Virginia schools.”
The encyclopedia’s entry includes examples of Klan violence. Just a few weeks before Warren’s kidnapping, some 50 “masked Klan members forcibly removed Raymond Bird, a black man charged with an offense against two white women, from the Wythe County jail. Encountering little resistance from local authorities, the mob shot Bird, beat him, tortured him, and then lynched him. … Only one member of the mob, Floyd Willard, was actually charged and tried …”
In the Warren case, there was “an outcry of support of the priest as the public pressured Gov. Harry F. Byrd’s administration to bring Warren’s assailants to justice” but “nothing substantive was done beyond the passage of a local anti-mask ordinance,” at least immediately, according to the encyclopedia. Eventually, an anti-lynching law was authorized in 1928.
Father Vincent Warren and St. Joseph’s Church are long gone, but the church had an interesting history and its legacy continues to have an impact on Norfolk and the region, especially through the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Norfolk.
Warren “was a priest of the Josephites, an order of the Roman Catholic Church founded in post-Civil War Baltimore to serve African-Americans,” according a Baltimore Sun history feature on Nov. 1, 2013.
St. Joseph’s in Norfolk was founded in 1889 and “provided the only Catholic high school in the city of Norfolk and was also the home of the first high school band in the city,” according to a Feb. 1, 2008, story in The Virginian-Pilot by the noted regional playwright, thespian and journalist Terrance Afer-Anderson. The story adds: “In the 1920s, St. Joseph’s football team frequently engaged in legendary gridiron contests with local rival Booker T. Washington High School, the only other black high school in the city.”
Norfolk demolished St. Joseph in redevelopment activities in 1961. The parish then merged with St. Mary’s.
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