White supremacy has had a continuous presence in Ulysses and surrounding Potter County since the Ku Klux Klan arrived a century ago, giving the town — with a population today of about 650 — improbable national significance. In the mid-2000s, it hosted the World Aryan Congress, a gathering of neo-Nazis, skinheads and Klan members.
This year, after a sting operation, federal prosecutors charged six members of an Aryan Strike Force cell with weapons and drug offenses, contending that they had plotted a suicide attack at an anti-racism protest. A terminally ill member was willing to hide a bomb in his oxygen tank and blow himself up, prosecutors said. The group had met and conducted weapons training in Ulysses.
Neo-Nazis and their opponents here say that white extremists have grown more confident — and confrontational — since the rise of Donald Trump. Two months before the 2016 presidential election, the KKK established a “24 hour Klan Line” and sent goody bags containing lollipops and fliers to hundreds of homes. “You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake,” the message read. A regional newspaper ran Klan advertisements saying, “God bless the KKK.”
Local police said the group had not openly recruited in years.
Two weeks later, the area’s two neo-Nazi groups, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and Aryan Strike Force, held a “white unity meeting” in Ulysses to discuss their response to Trump and plan joint action. One organizer would not say when the groups had last met, simply commenting: “It’s just a good time.”
Potter County is staunchly Republican and has voted Democratic once since 1888; Trump received 80 percent of the vote, tying with Herbert Hoover for the highest percentage won.
“I can tell you with certainty that since November 2016, activity has doubled, whether it’s feet on the street or money orders or people helping out,” said Daniel Burnside, 43, a woodcarver who owns the Nazi-themed home and directs the state chapter of the National Socialist Movement, a far-right group that was founded in Detroit in the mid-1970s. It has a presence in many states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, and the NSM was among the groups taking part in the violent August 2017 rally in defense of Confederate statues in Charlottesville.
“We have meetings every 30 days,” he said. “ There’s more collaboration.”
Burnside, who declined to say how many local residents were involved in his group, was born in Ulysses and raised there by a grandfather who he said was a Nazi sympathizer who fought in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Burnside said his beloved grandfather drank himself to death because of the war’s impact on him.
The younger Burnside said he joined the NSM four years ago but has long harbored anti-Semitic views and is a practicing Odinist — the pagan religion Odinism is popular among some neo-Nazis. Burnside does not see Trump as a leader of the NSM cause but as a politician who amplified long-standing white-nationalist views at the right time.
“Personally, I don’t know about Trump,” he said. “You won’t necessarily see MAGA hats at an NSM meeting. We’re anti-Semitic. Something’s off about Trump with the Jews. That said, we’re strategically aligned. When Trump says something that aligns with us — close the borders, build the wall, look after your own — that’s good: We’ve been saying this for 25 years, but he has made it mainstream.”
“We’re still a white nation, and I respect that he supports that,” Burnside added. “He’s also highlighted social problems. The kids who go to bed hungry, people who can’t pay their bills, the damage being done to society.”
Joe Leschner, 38, a white restaurant manager, fled the county this year because of what he said was abuse aimed at him and his wife, Sashena, who is black, after Trump’s election.
After he discovered a KKK leaflet outside their home, Leschner organized an anti-racism gathering in Ulysses. “And these guys drove by us and gave the gun signal, like they’re going to shoot us,” he said.
One of those who Leschner said made a pistol gesture had previously been jailed for 10 years for an aggravated assault on a black man. This year he was convicted of possession of firearms he was not legally allowed to own and intent to sell drugs.
Photographs of the Leschners were circulated on VK, a Russian-run social media site, with users posting death threats, he said.
“A guy came up to us in a restaurant and said, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ I wanted to say something, but just couldn’t. This was where I grew up, at the restaurant where I got my first job. My wife was almost in tears,” he recalled.
“We had to leave,” said Leschner, who now runs a restaurant in Frederick, Md. “Most people aren’t racist, but there are enough that are and enough who let it happen.”
Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor and expert on white extremism, said Ulysses came to be a nexus of such thinking as like-minded residents gravitated to one another.
“Modern white extremism is different to the KKK in the 1920s or Nazi Germany in that it is exclusively produced through small networks. It is not a mass movement,” she said. “It’s just one person recruiting another. Somebody knowing somebody. . . . You get an extremist in an area, they attract other extremists.”
Ulysses’s most famous resident may have been August Kreis III, 63, a neo-Nazi from New Jersey who moved to town in the 1990s and left about 10 years ago. Kreis made Ulysses the national headquarters of the Aryan Nations group and organized events such as the Aryan World Congress. In 2015, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison on a child-molestation conviction.
Pennsylvania has 36 racial hate groups, more than Alabama, Arkansas or Kansas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“This area is well known for white supremacy. It’s got a rich history and the right conditions to thrive,” said Heidi Beirich of the SPLC. “It’s as significant as many areas in the South usually associated with white supremacy.”
Rural Appalachia, which includes Ulysses’s Potter County, has a wary attitude to outside forces — especially the state — that is often cited as a reason that anti-government militia groups and white extremists have prospered here. “There is also an extreme mind-your-own business approach and a belief in individual rights,” Blee said.
Months before the Leschners fled the area, another controversy erupted after a sheriff’s deputy from a neighboring county entered Burnside’s front yard and confiscated a Nazi flag. Burnside called his local police force, demanding that the deputy return the flag and record a video apology. When that did not happen, he went to state police and pursued a theft case. The 23-year-old deputy was forced to return the flag and pay damages. Local police confirmed that he was suspended and left his position shortly after the trial’s conclusion.
Many locals suggested that they were more upset by the deputy’s actions than by the neo-Nazism. One man, an Army veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of being branded a racist, said there was no comparison between World War II Nazis and Ulysses residents.
“World War II was a totally different time period. It’s part of history,” he said. “He can do what he wants. . . . Everyone has their own thing.”
One day recently, Burnside, accompanied by a reporter, drove around town dressed in a shirt featuring Hitler’s face as the main design. None of the locals he chatted with objected to his attire.
City council president Roy Hunt insisted that this reflected the town’s generous spirit.
“We’re a laid-back town, and we’re going to be nice to everybody,” Hunt said. “I’ve known Danny for 20 years. If you were in town and you walked around with him, you’re right, he’ll be welcome in every store. . . . If you’re nice, people will be nice to you 98 percent of the time.”
“If he were to put something up that said kill all members of a race, in my opinion that would be crossing the line, but he doesn’t have that sign up,” Hunt said.
He added that the town’s Nazi presence had been exaggerated by the news media and opposing groups.
Burnside said he serves the community. “I do fundraisers for American Legion with my artwork. Boys and Girls Clubs, regardless of race or ethnicity, I do fundraisers. . . . The only way I can help white people is by helping everyone.”
Other residents disagree about the impact of the white supremacists’ presence. As he shopped among Burnside’s carved wooden bears and eagle sculptures, some of them signed with a swastika, Tom Lee, a road construction manager, said that he supports the First Amendment and that the Nazi presence “ain’t nothing to do with me. It’s a free country.”
“After a while, you’re not what you were anymore,” he added. “It is America out here, but not in the inner cities anymore.”
William Fish, a 72-year-old carpenter, recalled as a child accompanying his mother as she delivered blankets and shoes to the shacks where black field workers lived.
“We’re not a racist town, but there are people who will turn a blind eye when they see racism happening. That’s why we have this history,” he said. “I think it has got worse since Trump, I honestly do. I also think our young people do not today share the same rotten values as older people.”
Belinda Empson, 59, said it pained her that veterans in the Memorial Day parade had to march past Nazi signs.
“My grandson is 8 years old and he’s already asking about the Nazi flags,” said Empson, a retired waitress. “And I don’t want to explain to my grandson what it means, what they’re about. We should have settled this stuff years ago.”
Empson said Ulysses had been divided since Trump’s victory: “I think Trump has opened the gate and said, ‘It’s okay.’ It was not a license, but a subtle, ‘It’s okay.’ I think we are seeing that now.”
“It bothers me,” she added, “because we have good people in this town.”
Wanda Shirk, 68, an English teacher who worked at a Potter County school for 28 years, joked that the town had become LGBT — “Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump.”
“I don’t think everyone here is racist, but I think a lot are racially insensitive,” she said, “and Trump has allowed that to grow.”