Petition calls for new Public Safety Building to be named for officer killed in KKK shootout

Jan 8, 2018

Nearly a century ago, there was a shootout on an East Side Street leaving a Buffalo special officer and a Ku Klux Klan member dead and two other Klansmen wounded. Today, there is an effort to name Buffalo's new Public Safety Building for slain Officer Edward Obertean.

The Roaring Twenties saw a rise in visibility of the Klan, with its increasing emphasis on attacking immigrants and workers, besides its traditional racism and anti-Semitism.

Officer Edward Obertean was killed in a 1924 gun battle with a member of the Klan.
Credit Buffalo History Museum

Buffalo was no different, with nearly 4,000 listed members in a roster that was stolen in a burglary and published. There was also a large membership in Niagara County.

This also mixed into the fight over Prohibition. Mayor Frank Schwab was attacked by the Klan for his open opposition to Prohibition, as a Catholic brewer. He recruited Obertean to infiltrate the Klan, which found him out, leading to the shooting.

Researcher and archivist Cynthia Van Ness said the officer deserves to be remembered.

"Buffalo should rename police headquarters, the new police headquarters, for Officer Edward Obertean, who lost his life in 1924 in a gun battle here in Buffalo with a member of the Klan," Van Ness said. "So Buffalo has a martyr to the Klan that has never been properly acknowledged. It seems like this is a perfect opportunity to say something about our values and what's important to us as a community, to name this new police headquarters for this martyr."

Van Ness has begun a petition in Obertean's name, saying this he be remembered in a time when the Klan is resurgent.

"All of a sudden, here we are relitigating Nazism and Klanism, again, in 2017 and 2018," she said. "So this is a really good for us to say, 'This is what we value. We value inclusion. We value diversity. We stand against hate and bigotry.'"

Buffalo is in the process of converting the old federal court house on Niagara Square into the new public safety building, to house the city's police and fire departments. North District Common Councilmember Joe Golombek said the naming idea deserves consideration.

The new public safety complex
Credit Mike Desmond/WBFO

"I'm not sure if I'm in favor, necessarily, of that right now, but I'm in favor of exploring it," Golombek said. "I think that would be a great option for that building. I think the officer should be commemorating, somehow, for many reasons."

Obertean was not married, but there are relatives still alive. In the wake of his death, the Klan faded locally and back into the history until it rose again in the time of the Civil Rights Movement four decades later and again today.