LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - I’m aware that some readers don’t like stories that mix sports with politics or non-football history.
Yet with Notre Dame making its first appearance in Louisville on Monday night, I feel obligated to provide some context about what Notre Dame and the city have in common, especially since immigration is such a controversial issue right now.
Way back in the mid-1800s, Catholics from western Europe – Ireland, Germany Italy, and other nations – began migrating to America in search of jobs and better lives than they had in their native countries.
Then as now, Louisville had a large population of Irish and German Catholics. They were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Instead, they were treated more or less like Hispanic immigrants are being treated on the Mexican border today.
The hatred boiled over on Aug. 6, 1855, in what still is known as “Bloody Monday." Of Louisville’s Caucasian population of 36,000, about one third were Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany.
That Monday was Election Day in Louisville, and members of the so-called “Know Nothing” political party were determined to keep the immigrants from voting. All day, the two sides fought in the streets of downtown Louisville, and the new St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church was attacked.
By nightfall, the death count had reached 22.
The nation’s assimilation of immigrants, and Catholics, had improved somewhat by 1924. One reason for that was the success of the Notre Dame football team under coach Knute Rockne.
So good were the Irish that immigrants and Catholics across the country adopted them and turned them into America’s Team. But this didn’t sit well with the white Protestant establishment or one of its most hateful allies, the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan feared the success of Rockne’s teams would lead to a new sense of empowerment among Catholics and immigrants. It hated Catholics because it believed they were more loyal to the Vatican than the White House.
Notre Dame students took notice when it was announced in “The Fiery Cross,” the Klan newspaper, that the organization would hold a three-day rally in South Bend, beginning on May 17, 1924.
Besides being the home of Notre Dame, South Bend was selected because the Klan was huge in Indiana at that time. Membership was estimated at 425,000, or more than Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia combined.
Forewarned by the Klan newspaper article, students and other protesters began attacking arriving Klan members as soon as they stepped off their trains. For the next three days, fights and scuffles took place around the city. Fortunately, nobody was killed.
The Klan had an office on the third floor of a downtown building at the corner of Wayne and Michigan Streets. In a window, was a cross lit with red light bulbs. As legend has it, the students grabbed potatoes from a grocery and began throwing them at the cross, knocking out the light bulbs one by one.
However, nobody had an arm strong enough to reach the last bulb at the top of the cross. Supposedly somebody went and got Harry Stuhldreher, the football team’s quarterback. He fired a potato at the last taunting bulb and smashed it, earning him cheers every bit as passionate as the ones he got in Notre Dame Stadium.
Five months later, Stuhldreher, along with backfield mates Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden and Don Miller, were immortalized by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice as Notre Dame’s “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
From that day, Notre Dame has remained a bastion of inclusion and diversity. Its all-time football roster includes many sons of Catholic immigrants. Louisville’s most significant contribution to Irish folklore is Paul Hornung, the so-called “Golden Boy” who won the 1956 Heisman Trophy for a 2-8 Notre Dame team.
Louisville also has been one of the more progressive cities south of the Mason-Dixon line. And the influence of the original Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany still is strong. So at Saturday’s game, many local fans will face a tough wardrobe choice: UofL red and black or Notre Dame blue and gold?
Whatever they choose, it will be an historic day for the large number of Catholics who live in Louisville. Whenever Notre Dame goes on the road, it brings its mystique, its special place in American history, with it, not to mention a boatload of devoted fans.
I hope Hornung is honored before the game or at halftime, and I’d also like to see a prayer for Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, currently being treated for cancer in North Carolina.
I guess it’s too much to expect Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Trinity High graduate, to play host to his South Bend counterpart, Pete Buttigieg, who’s currently campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Buttigieg’s father was from Hamrun, Malta, and he studied to be a Jesuit priest before emigrating to the U.S. and becoming a professor of literature at Notre Dame. Mayor Pete graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and studied at Oxford, in England, on a Rhodes Scholarship. He also is a military veteran who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
In Buttigieg’s two terms as mayor of South Bend, he has embraced immigration on both moral and business grounds.
“I guess the President thinks America’s full,” he said. “We’re not. We’ve got plenty of room for more for more residents and taxpayers…People have been told immigration is the problem. I think it does change the way we look at things versus when it’s kind of all this fear of the unknown.”
So now, here come the Irish into a city where they’ve always had a huge following, especially among the Catholic community. It’s something that could only have been dreamed back in the days before 1984, when Howard Schnellenberger, one of Hornung’s teammates at the old Flaget High in Louisville’s West End, arrived to lift the program to the elite level.
The Irish, ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation, have an outstanding quarterback Ian Book, and cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who’s also a sprinter on the Notre Dame track team.
They are favored by more than three touchdowns over a UofL team that has been retooled by new coach Scott Satterfield. The team was so bad last season, that it has to be better. Yet nobody knows what to expect because Satterfield has gone about his business as if he’s running a CIA operation.
Whoever wins, or whatever the margin, may Notre Dame and Louisville both continue to be places where bigotry of any kind is rejected and where immigrants are embraced regardless of their race, religion, or nationality.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.