Hidden History: Not forgotten, Klan congregated prejudices to fuel flames of hate – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Not forgotten, Klan congregated prejudices to fuel flames of hate

A photo of an unnamed Osage County town shows unmasked Klansmen riding horses in a parade. Osage County Historical Society photo.

Sometimes history that is hidden just means it is forgotten. Other times, history is purposefully suppressed because it is much easier to forget than to deal with it. One of those topics that has been intentionally pushed to the side is associations with the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan in Kansas found a foothold in the 1910s.

Increased immigration, along with a surge of nationalism with the first world war, provided a foundation for a resurgence of the KKK. The original Klan emerged in the South in the period following the Civil War called Reconstruction, a plan to alter the skewed social structure that existed in the South caused by slavery. The Klan used political and social terrorism to keep those of African descent in check during this period.

While Klan activities diminished after the early 1870s, memories of the organization did not. The KKK experienced a resurgence when the group was romanticized by author Thomas Dixon in his 1905 novel, The Clansman, which went on to be adapted into a motion picture called The Birth of a Nation in 1915.

The same year the movie came out, the new Klan initiated its first citizens into the “invisible empire” around a fiery cross on top of Stone Mountain in Georgia. The new Klan voiced prejudice against not only African Americans, but also Roman Catholics, Jews, individuals with low morals, or those that showed a lack of patriotism. The new iteration of the organization was much larger than the first one, gaining membership nationwide, and took hold predominantly in the rural states.

Kansas, however, fought hard to keep the Klan out of its borders. Earliest actions included the Kansas censorship bureau banning The Birth of a Nation from being shown in the state.

An ad in the Enterprise Chronicle, Sep. 6, 1923, issue announces a public speech on “One Hundred Per Cent Americanism and the Ku Klux Klan,” in the city park in Burlingame, Kan.

Even though outward evidence of the Klan had not shown up in Osage County at this time, early agreements with the precepts of the KKK were there. One man, an editor for a Burlingame newspaper, voiced his disgust with the banning of The Birth of a Nation, as well as his disagreement with African American troops being mustered into the war effort (African American men in armed service was nothing new, but the new war offered an opportunity to voice one’s opinion on it once again).

Despite early attempts at discouragement, the Klan began to take hold in the state especially in the 1920s. Appeal to the everyday white, Protestant man came in the form of old-fashioned morality and patriotism in a time where values were changing, and immigration was increased. The Klan was also against bootleggers, immoral women, unpatriotic individuals, habitual criminals, modernist theologians, and a long list of shifty characters. It was this stance for morality that enticed new members, and it was that appeal that drew in many to their numbers. President Coolidge spoke to it in a statement in 1924 when he said, “Patriotism does not mean a regard for some special section or an attachment for some special interest, and a narrow prejudice against other sections and other interests: it means a love of the whole country. This does not mean that any section or interest is to be disproportionately disregarded, but that the welfare of all is equally sought.”

Ad in The Enterprise Chronicle, Aug. 7, 1924, shows a homecoming schedule including Klan Day, at Harveyville, Kan.

The Kansas governor in the beginning of the 1920s, Henry Allen, spoke out against the organization calling it “the curse that comes to civilized people, the curse that rises out of unrestricted passions of men governed by religious intolerance and racial hatred.”

The Klan’s National Grand Master issued a statement that Catholics had a hold on the Associated Press, because the press reported on the mobs and beatings perpetuated by the organization.

In Kansas, William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette, began a series of editorials in 1921 on the Klan. Later in 1924, White ran for governor, primarily with the intent of bringing more attention to the dangers of the organization. Local newspapers also voiced their opinions on the Klan. When a Burlingame editor questioned in an editorial whether the town had a Klan organization, the Quenemo newspaper editor quipped that he could know soon enough if he published the works of the Pope in the paper.

Kansas entered into 1923 fighting strongly against the KKK, but in Osage County the Klan’s grip was tightening, building upon the prejudices that festered under the surface. With each initiation ceremony, a flaming cross would appear in the darkness, a signal to its followers and a fierce warning to those judged undesirable by its membership. With each ceremony, more and more swore allegiance and a secret oath to the invisible empire. Even people that weren’t interested in joining would flock to the ceremony sites to watch, silently encouraging the festivities with their presence.

Participation was conversely both open and in secret. Women’s auxiliary groups known as the Klukkerettes met in the day at homes and churches. Public rallies and gatherings were promoted far and wide, inviting new membership and claiming to be welcoming without discrimination by “race, color, religion, politics, or previous condition of servitude or affiliation.” Contrarily, clandestine ceremonies were held under the curtain of night and men hid behind their $6.50 shrouds. And while lip service was given to inclusiveness to make the group palatable to the public, the prejudices that surrounded the Klan still reigned. One businessman who moved from Lyndon to Topeka claimed that he sold his business to a “real merchant” and not a “Jew or a trader.”

Announcement of Fourth of July celebration in Lyndon, Kansas. The People’s Herald, June 12, 1924.

Klan activities in Osage County manifested in so-called enforcement of morality, themes that were already laid in place before its entrance into the area. The establishment of curfews to curtail illegal activities had been created more than a decade earlier. Burlingame established its curfew in 1908. Curfew laws essentially stated that people under a certain age (locally, usually 16) couldn’t be out after a certain time of night unless it was an emergency, or they were at work.

The KKK enforced curfews as a kind of private law enforcement, promoting the fact that it was at no cost to the county and that it was taking care of the “petting parties,” vandalism, and any other undesirable activities. But as a private entity, it also had no regulatory guides in its enforcement. It was widely known that it would be a good plan to retire to a person’s home before the ringing of the curfew bell, particularly for people of color. Certain towns within the county gained reputations for being “Sundown Towns,” or ones that African Americans should avoid after dark. Actions were also taken against those deemed “unpatriotic” by refusal to purchase war bonds for the war effort.

Effects on the black community by the Klan, while not openly violent, had a significant impact – building on prejudices that bubbled under the surface before the Klan became an entity.

If our grandfathers had some strong prejudices, those are usually the first thing we inherit.” Melvern Review, 1924.

One black business owner in Osage City had his business burned by “pranks of children,” prompting him leave town shortly after. Other black men were oppressed under the guise of morality. Many black men had been shunned from mainstream jobs on account of the color of their skin, and took up bootlegging to support their families. This association with an occupation that was illegal during a time of Kansas Prohibition further put a target on their heads by the KKK.

Although numbers within the organization in Osage County numbered in the hundreds, intimidation did not prohibit individuals from speaking out against it. A.L. Lawning, of Melvern, brazenly stated to the Lyndon paper in 1923, “I do not think it necessary to wear a ghost robe to proclaim my wishes or convictions.” The Burlingame Presbyterian minister asked in his sermon, “Does the American Christian Need a Mask?” And the Klan’s stance against the Associated Press prompted local editors to speak out against the organization as well.

The Klan’s national membership reached a peak of four to five million before it began its decline in the mid-1920s. The process of finally getting a foothold on wrangling Klan activities in Kansas started in 1924, when the state attorney general applied for a statewide restraining order that forbade masked parading.

At the end of that decade, mentions of the Klan in Osage County grew fewer and farther between. Klan association, instead of dominating social gatherings, became a thing of shame. Paraphernalia was burned or buried in trunks, and any mention of Klan membership was shunned.

A Klansman painting was displayed at a grocery and dry goods store in Melvern, Kan. Robert McNabb donated the painting to Kansas Museum of History in 1990.

See related article: Hidden History: ‘Kiss the flag’ – Mobs enforce patriotism in Osage County

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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