- Illustration by Tom Carlson
There are, apparently, logistics to consider when burning crosses, especially when burning them on seven separate black and Jewish families' lawns in one night.
"You don't just have crosses lying around, see," says Tim, a 68-year-old man from Solon. "You got to build the crosses, put the wood together, keep off your fingerprints, get the chemicals ... . You get chlorine and brake fluid, put them in a sock, mix them just right. If one guy screws up and the cross doesn't burn, it makes everyone look stupid. So we had cross-burning classes for that."
Tim knows because he was there that night in Florida in 1984, four years after he first pulled on the white hood and became a high-ranking Ku Klux Klan member. A year later, he would be indicted for plotting to blow up property owned by blacks and Jews, terroristic intentions in violation of the Florida Anti-Paramilitary Act.
Tim lights a cigarette. It's 25 years later, in 2019. We're sitting in his modest, white-painted home off Aurora Road. The flame illuminates his piercing blue eyes. A tuft of white hair shoots from his nose like a dragon's breath.
I've known Tim for over a year now. Over time, we've had numerous conversations and built what could be described as a good rapport, an odd amiability considering that I'm a mixed-race Taiwanese-Jewish writer and he's a former Klansman — though we are both from Solon. So, I get questions from friends. Two in particular:
One, what is Tim like?
Tim is short-fused but authentic, likable in the way that I imagine Donald Trump is likable, even to his enemies.
Two, how does he feel about me?
"I don't care about that," he says in regards to my race. He tells me that he's friends with Jews, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans, Arabs. He relishes his contradictions — bragging to me in the same breath that his daughter would never date a black man, but that her first play-boyfriend at 12 was black, and if the kid showed up at his door today, he'd gladly let him stay on the couch, but the kid is a drug addict, and, "Of course he is — he went back to his roots."
So he contradicts himself, and is still quite racist. Every wisp of redemption that rises from his stories, he just as quickly extinguishes with the N-word or some other epithet.
"Listen," he tells me. "I still have these views. Some guy's not going to walk in here after all these years, after all the things I've seen and done, and make me change."
* * *
Solon will celebrate its bicentennial next year. One needs only to gaze at pictures from the 150th anniversary celebration in 1970 to see how much the leafy suburb has changed: The sea of white faces from 50 years ago has been replaced with a significant number of minorities, including an Asian-American population five times the percentage of Ohio's overall average makeup.
It's a demographic shift that parallels the changing face of America, a country that will likely tilt white-minority by the year 2050. Ellis Island is synonymous with immigration, but that era pales in comparison to the immigration wave of the late 20th century after Congress abolished racial quotas. By the turn of the century, 85 percent of immigrants were non-Europeans. They were Africans, Arabs, Indians, Hispanics, East Asians and others, including my Taiwanese mother, who stayed and bore children.
As a Solon High School student in the early 2010s, there was a specific definition of the town in Urban Dictionary that we hunched over and laughed at in the computer lab: "Solon — a town (suburb of Cleveland) where the white majority tries to take credit for the sports achievements of the blacks and the academic achievements of the Asians." We laughed because, in our eyes, it was true.
Nearly 30 percent of our graduating class was black, Asian, or Hispanic, and a good chunk of the white majority was Jewish. Of the 21 National Merit Semi-Finalists in the district in 2011, 18 were Asian-American, two were Jewish, one was black, and one was white.
Growing up in Solon, we never really felt a pushback on our presence. Political correctness was doctrinaire by then, and the liberal conception of a colorblind society hadn't been challenged by the identity politics of both sides of the past few years. One had the idyllic impression that a town that was all white just a few decades prior would embrace its new immigrants. And for the most part — other than a few grumblings about Jews here, or blacks there, or too many Asians — it did.
The 2016 presidential election brought to light the fact that some did not want to accept this new reality. These people were our family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors. And they included the ex-Klansman I discovered living right down the street, relatively speaking, from my childhood home in Solon.
* * *
Tim was born in Solon in 1951. His schoolteachers included names legendary to any Solonite, including Miss Roxbury, the namesake of Roxbury Elementary. Growing up, Tim never heard his father, who employed black laborers, use the N-word, but his mother, who was more educated, did often. According to Tim, the town held the racial biases of most all-white suburbs in America — in sports, they didn't want to play schools with blacks, and "you'd never hear about a white girl dating a black guy." But ensconced in the suburbs, surrounded only by other whites, there was no appetite for more savage forms of racism.
In 1974, Tim moved to Pinellas County, near Tampa, Florida. He owned a few businesses, including a landscaping company and a topless bar in Madura Beach. For one landscaping job, he recalls being outbid by a penny per acre by a contractor employing Cubans. "I couldn't go any lower," he grumbles now. He learned the government was subsidizing Cuban labor, which infuriated him, as he employed and advertised an all-white crew. His other gripes — billboards that displayed relationships between black men and white women, the rise of affirmative action — are familiar refrains to any budding white nationalist today.
One night at his topless bar, he got to talking with Brad Russian, whom Tim recalls as a vicious racist, even by his standards. Brad was part of the United Klansmen of America, then considered to be the most violent and dangerous Ku Klux Klan organization in the country. Tim was apprehensive of Brad, but more Klansmen showed up to talk to him. "We got guys like Brad that are a little more extreme, but we could use your help with the other stuff," they told him. Tim claims that he didn't believe in some of the stuff the Klan was doing, such as the indiscriminate assaults of blacks, but was more interested in the vigilante punishment of child molesters and drug dealers. "That's what I was in charge of," he says.
According to Tim, his "unit," as it was called, was as concerned with the policing of white families as it was in enacting racial terror. "There were rules for us," Tim says. "We weren't allowed to fight, we couldn't get drunk or do drugs, we weren't allowed to be alone with each other's wives." The Klan acted as a hotline of sorts: When a black or Jewish family moved into the neighborhood, white neighbors or the police would call the Klan to take action. "A lot of the time we were only allowed to burn a cross at a Jewish or black guy's home," he recalls. "But people like Brad Russian, he'd be the kind of guy to shoot the house up."
Because he could hold meetings at his bar, Tim was, in just a few months, made a Kleagle, a high-ranking officer responsible for recruiting new members and enforcing Klan principles. In one particularly gruesome anecdote, Tim recalls the torture of an alleged white child molester. "We had quite a few sheriffs in the Klan," Tim says. "So they called us to take care of this guy."
"I'm still proud of this one," he says, a crooked grin spreading across his face. "He got caught with a 7-year-old boy. So we put our hoods on and got him down. I found the rustiest piece of barbed wire I could and stuck it into a garden hose. And then I shoved it up his ass. I pulled the hose out and the barbed wire stayed up there. He didn't die, but he went to the hospital for many, many months. We never heard from him again."
Every year, Tim would visit the Alabama property of Robert Shelton, the Grand Wizard and leader of the UKA. "It was like a gymnasium — we'd go up there, and that's how we initiated people and did stuff like that," Tim says. A few years earlier, in 1981, UKA members James Knowles and Henry Hays had brutally killed Michael Donald, one of the last documented lynchings in the United States. "They gathered us together and said, 'We're in big trouble guys,'" Tim recalls. "'They're tapping all the lines, they're following everybody.' And it went downhill from there."
"It was dumb what those two guys did," Tim says. "Hanging that boy. They didn't have a reason to kill him. I never understood that senseless stuff. I'd ask them: 'What's the reason to hurt him?' 'Because he's black.' But he didn't do anything. So I'd tell them, 'I'll watch you but I don't understand it.'"
On April 9, 1985, federal agents arrested four of Tim's fellow Klansmen, including Brad Russian, and charged them with plotting to blow up property owned by blacks and Jews. Tim was drinking at a bar. "The TV said they were looking for one more, and my picture showed up," he says. "Everyone asked, 'Should we call the cops?' And someone said, 'Would you want to call the cops on a Klansman?' So they bought me a few drinks and I left."
Later that day, Tim was arrested in his girlfriend's neighborhood. At the jail, "they thought it'd be funny to put the Klansman in with all the blacks. 'I think these honkeys are wanting us to whip your ass,'" his cellmates told him. "You have family out there, I have family out there," Tim replied. "If I don't come out looking as pretty as I did when I came in, someone's going to get hurt." His cellmates looked at each other, looked at him, then at each other again. They shrugged. A few minutes later, they were all playing cards.
* * *
The judge read the verdict: Not guilty. Tim sat back in relief. The wiretaps had saved him: He had been lucky, and reticent enough, to avoid being recorded. Every one of his codefendants had been convicted, but Tim would be going home.
After the trial, in 1990, Tim moved back up to Solon. The UKA gave him the names of other units to contact — he remembers some being in Elyria and Mansfield — but he had been discouraged by the lack of financial support during the trial from the UKA, which was itself collapsing under lawsuits and indictments.
Tim's life was changing in other ways. In the early 1990s, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober. "We went to a retreat, there was a cabin, and I got roomed with a black guy, he was a Black Panther," he recalls. "We looked each other and said, 'Can you believe this?' But we got to talking and became the best of friends."
In the years following, Tim fraternized with other minorities. As a delivery driver, he was invited to eat dinner in the homes of Arab shop owners — "They're good people," he says — and worked for Koreans who he says he admired. He relentlessly pursued AA meetings and often found himself in areas of Cleveland where he would be the only white man present and, of course, the butt of jokes. "This guy used to be in the Klan," they'd say. "Should we let him out alive?" He grinned back: He didn't feel out of place.
Tim's friendships helped to disassemble his racism, but it never truly disappeared. What remains today is a neutered but still prejudiced version of the extreme views baked into him by his mid-30s: a protectiveness over what he still believes to be the dignity and purity of the white race, and a crass racism that's spoken, but not acted upon. "If you read the Bible," he says, "Each people is separate — Jews here, Christians there. It's a better world that way. And you see that that's proved by the way that prisons are. They separate themselves: whites here, Asians here, blacks there."
It wasn't until the election of 2016 that Tim saw mainstream validation of his current beliefs. "I love what Trump did," he says. "And I see the results of it." He crows about no longer seeing gas stations "full of Mexicans" — harbingers of lower wages, in his eyes, for working-class whites. "Trump is not letting them here," he says. "And you know what? They're paying the white guys $18 an hour now."
"That's what they should do with the Klan," he says, "They need to make sure whites are working their jobs. Don't let them get cut out because of someone else's race or [affirmative action]. You just can't do it with a hood and all that stuff, because right away it's gonna be a big fight if someone sees that."
When I bring up Solon, a diverse place that's friendly enough, he demurs.
"You go down Aurora Road, down to places like Mantua," he says. "Everyone says, 'Hey, how you doing?' to each other. Everyone knows each other. You go to a place like Solon, there's so many different races there ... everyone's always in a rush, no one wants to say, 'Hey.' It's not a community. You lose something when you have everyone together like that."
* * *
Tim isn't totally wrong about Solon. My parents and their friends, at least when I was growing up, frequently complained about Solon's scant neighborliness. The town's lack of community is a perennial complaint in its local journalism. And I know how some Asian-American families can be inclined to stick to themselves. Regardless, the town continues to diversify: In 2017, Solon city council approved Solon's first mosque, to the chagrin of over 1,300 residents who signed a petition against it.
"I think it really challenged some of the Solon residents at first," says Jeffrey Aker, a former Solon High School teacher who taught from 1978 to 2014, of the town's changing diversity. "But as younger couples moved in, it was seen as a much more positive thing to have your kids, whatever race they are, exposed to different people."
My parents were one of those couples. They worried that on the far-westside of Cleveland — where I had begun to field questions asking why the Jews killed Jesus, or was laughed at for the way my lunch smelled — I would be ostracized or alienated. We moved to Solon when I was 10.
When I think of growing up in Solon, I think of mild self-segregation, especially at middle school lunch tables: There were the rich whites, the poor whites, the cool Asians, the nerdy Asians, the Jews, the blacks, and so forth. But as we trickled into high school, we mingled and bonded in groups like marching band, Model United Nations, and track team. The breadth of perspective I gained from my friends and all the families — Punjabi Indian, single-parent black, Jewish, chaotic latchkey homes, Filipino, well-off Republicans — who welcomed us into their homes proved invaluable as I left Solon and entered the real world.
It's a beautiful summer day and we're watching Tim's granddaughters play softball. A few black and brown kids are on the team, and their parents sit in the bleachers and cheer them on. A parade of Tim's family members arrive to greet him — sons, daughters, ex-wives, children-in-law, freshly born babies. He gestures toward his granddaughter. "She don't know nothing about the Klan stuff," he says.
"None of my kids are racist," he tells me. A hint of pride surfaces in his voice, as if he's pleasantly surprised. "I ... guess I'm more racist than most people, but none of them are. They were brought up around AA people, they had different friends in the school, so they got to meet all kinds of people, every color." He reflects for a while. "That's probably what did it."
His granddaughter steps up to bat. Tim looks at her, then at me, then at her again. He smiles.
"World's changed a lot," he says.