This week, we’ll again hear tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves living in Arkansas. Most interestingly, the narratives describe an overall different experience with the Klan than other states.
Formed in Tennessee in 1866, the Klan spread quickly to the surrounding states, and then all across the South. These terrorist operations lasted until 1874, when they were disbanded in name. 1More about the founding of the Klan can be found here.
Nearly sixty years later, these former slaves were interviewed by the Federal Writers Project. The project interviewed over 2,300 black Americans living in most of the former slave states. Many were asked a nearly identical series of questions, including: “Do you remember the Ku Klux Klan?” 2It must be kept in mind that most of the former slaves were young when the first incarnation of the Klan came into existence. Most were probably under fifteen; some were probably as young as five. Additionally, it should be remembered that when interviewed in the 1930s, most were between 75 and 85. With all the decades in between, the memory certainly suffered. That said, while the accounts vary, many are nearly identical.
For reasons that deserve a full investigation, many in Arkansas seemed to fight back against the Klan in ways and in numbers unseen elsewhere. While in all of the other states, many former slaves seemed to be more or less in favor of the Klan, in Arkansas can be seen a fighting spirit that did not die with old age.
This post is the second of four for Arkansas. These are their replies. 3While almost all of the former slave were asked the Klan question, many claimed to have had no contact with them. Those who said little or nothing have not been included. Still, there are some included who claimed to have little contact with the Klan, and reaped a benefit for that distance.
Hammett Dell, Brasfield, AR:
“The only experience I had myself with the Ku Klux was one night before Grandma and auntie left. Somebody wrap on our cabin door. They opened it. We got scared when we seed them. They had the horses wrapped up. They had on white long dresses and caps. Every one of them had a horse whip. They called me out. Grandma and auntie so scared they hid. They told me to get them water. They poured it some way it did not spill on the ground. Kept me toting water. Then they say, ‘You been a good boy?’ They still drinking. One say, ‘Just from Hell pretty dry.’ Then they told me to stand on my head. I turned summer sets a few times. They tickled me around with the ends of the whips. I had on a long shirt. They laugh when I stand on my head. Old Mars White laughed. I knowed his laugh. Then I got over my scare.
“They say, ‘Who live next down the road?’ I told them Nells Christian. They say, ‘What he do?’ I said, ‘Works in the field.’ They all grunt, m-m-m-m. Then they say, ‘Show us the way.’ I nearly run to death across the field to keep out of the way of the white horses. The moon shining bright as day. They say Nells come out here. He say ‘Holy Moses.’ He come out. They say ‘Nells what you do?’ ‘I farms.’ They say ‘What you raise?’ He say ‘Cotton and corn.’ They say ‘Take us to see your cotton we just from Hell. We ain’t got no cotton there.’
“He took them out there where it was clean. They got down and felt it. Then they say ‘What is that?’, feeling the grass. Nells say ‘That is grass.’ They say, ‘You raise grass too?’ He said, ‘No. It come up.’ They say ‘Let us see your corn.’ He showed them the corn. They felt it. They say ‘What this?’ Nells say, ‘It grass.’ They say, ‘You raise grass here?’ They all grunt m-m-m-m everything Nells say.
“They give him one bad whipping and tell him they be back soon see if he raising grass. They said ‘You raise cotton and corn but not grass on this farm.’ They they moan, ‘m-m-m-m.’ I herd them say his whole family and him too was out by day light with their hoes cutting the grass out their crop. I was sure glad to get back to our cabin. They didn’t come back to Nells no more that I heard about.
“The man Nells worked for must have been one in that crowd. He lived way over yonder. No, I think the Ku Klux was a good thing at that time. The darkies got sassy (saucy), trifling, lazy. They was notorious. They got mean. The men wouldn’t work. Their families have to work and let them roam round over the country. Some of them mean to their families. They would have starved the white out and theirselves too.
“I seed the Ku Klux heap a times but they didn’t bother me no more. I herd a heap they done along after that. They say some places the Ku Klux go they make them get down and eat at the grass with their mouths then they whip them. Sometimes they make them pull off their clothes and whip them. I sure did feel for them but they knowd they had no business strolling round, visting. The Ku Klux call that whiping helping them get rid of the grass.”
Luke D. Dixon, DeValls Bluff, AR:
“The Ku Klux was bad. They was a band of land owners what took the law in hand. I was a boy. I scared to be caught out. They took the place of pattyrollers before freedom.”
Tom Douglas, El Dorado, AR:
“I used to be a big politics man — lost all I had house, forty acres, a good well and stock and everything. I was told one day that the Ku Kluxes was coming to my house that night and I got on my horse at sundown an left and ain’t never been back. I was a big politics man then — lost all I had and quit politics.”
Sebert Douglas, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Paddyrollers was about the same as the Ku Klux. The Ku Klux would take the roof off the colored folks’ houses and take their bedding and make them go back where they come from.”
Pauline Fakes, Brinkley, AR:
“I recollect the Ku Klux. They rode at night, some dressed in dark and some white clothes. They come through our house one time. I got under the cover. I was scared nearly to death.
“Near Cotton Plant there was a log cabin (Methodist?) church — Negro church two and one-half miles northeast direction. They had a Negro preacher. When they went to church they whooped and hollowed along the road. White people lived close to the road. The Ku Klux planned to break it up. They went down there and went in during their preaching, broke up and scattered their seats. One was killed. He may have acted ‘smarty’ or saucy or he may have been the leader.”
Mattie Fannen, Forrest City, AR:
“I never had no dealings with the Ku Klux. I was in Atlanta then. I heard my mother say they killed and beat up a lot of colored people in the country where she was. Seem like they was mad because they was free.”
Fanny Finney, Brinkley, AR:
“A little white boy said, ‘I tell you something if you give me a watermelon.’ The black man give the boy a big watermelon. He had a big patch. The boy said, ‘My papa coming take all your money away from you some night.’ He fixed and sure enough he come dressed like a Ku Klux. He had some money but they didn’t find it. One of the Ku Kluxes run off and left his spurs. The colored folks killed some and they run off and leave their horses. They come around and say they could drink three hundred fifteen buckets of water. They throw turpentine balls in the houses to make a light. They took a ball of cotton and dip it in turpentine, light it, throw it in a house to make a light so they could see who in there. A lot of black folks was killed and whipped. Their money was took from them.”
Ellen Fitzgerald, Brinkley, AR:
“We dodged the Ku Klux. One night they was hunting a man and come to the wrong house. They nearly broke Mama’s arm pulling her out of our house. They give us some trouble coming around. We was scared of them. We dodged them all the time.”
Will Glass, Little Rock, AR:
“I heard them speak of the Ku Klux often. But they didn’t call them Ku Klux; they called them whitecaps. The whitecaps used to go around at night and get hold of colored people that had been living disorderly and carry them out and whip them. I never heard them say that they whipped anybody for voting. If they did, it wasn’t done in our neighborhood.”
George Greene, Little Rock, AR:
“The Ku Klux never bothered me but they sure bothered others. Way yonder in Mississippi directly after the surrender, they’d hated it so bad they killed up many of them. They caught white men there and whipped them and killed them. They killed many a nigger. They caught a white man there and whipped him and he went on up to Washington, D.C. and came back with a train load of soldiers. They came right down there in the south end of our town and they carried them Ku Kluxers away by train loads full. They cleaned out the east side of the river. The Ku Klux had been stringing up niggers every which way. ’Twasn’t nothing to find a nigger swinging up in the woods. But those soldiers come from Washington City. If they didn’t clean them up, I’ll hush.
“I don’t know what become of them. They never did come back to Aberdeen.”
Abram Harris, Marvell, AR:
“Them Klu Klux what they brought on after the surrender was sure pizen [?]. They was white men. That what they was, and all dressed up in them long white garments with a red cross on them and riding a big horse. They was after them niggers what they claim is mean and deserted their marsters and went an dtook up with the Yankees.
“When them ku Klux first come in operation the niggers think that they is haints or spirits, till they find out that they weren’t nothing but white mens with them garments on them. Them Klux would catch a nigger that they want and pin his head down to the ground with a forked stick and one would hold him whilst the others whip him with a strap or a lash. Yes sire, Captain, them Ku Klux sure did dis-encourage the niggers a heap.”
Rachel Harris, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Yes, Jesus, I seen them Ku Klux. I remember once we had a big ball. We was cutting a dash that night. The Ku Klux come and made out they was dead. Some of the folks run they was so scared, but one woman come out and said she knowed every one of the men. She knowed them by their horses. Next morning we went by old Purvis Newman’s house and it looked like they was a hundred saddles laying out in the yard. I was a young woman then and sparking fit to kill. Yes ma’am I remember all about it. I recollect it just as well as I can walk out that door.”
Laura Hart, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Ku Klux? The Lord have mercy! I remember them. They came and surrounded the house, hundreds of em. We had a loose plank in the floor and we’d hide under the floor with the dogs and stay there, too, till they’d gone.”
G.W. Hawkins, Little Rock, AR:
“The Ku Klux Klan weren’t just after Negroes. They got after white folks and Negroes both. I didn’t think they were so much after keeping the Negro from voting as some other things.
“There was one colored fellow in Alabama — I think his name was Egbert Bondman — that wasn’t influenced. He was a politician and they got after him one time. He lived about six miles south of Vernon in Lamar County, Alabama. He went down to the hole where they watered their horses and stretched an old cable wire across the road just high enough to trip up their horses. He hid in the woods and cut down on them with his shotgun when they came up. I hear there was one more scramble when those horses commenced stumbling, and those men started running through the forest to get away from that shot. 4Readers of past narratives will, no doubt, be familiar with this story of direct action. It’s interesting to see it enacted across several different states.
“I remember one night my mother woke me up, and I looked out and there was a lot of the Ku Klux riding down the road. They had on long white robes and looked like a flock of geese in the dark.
“The main thing the Ku Klux seemed to try to do, it seemed to me, was to try to keep the colored folks obedient to their former masters and to keep the white folks from giving them too much influence. And they wanted to stop the white men that ran after colored women.
“But they didn’t last long. They whipped a fellow named Huggins in the early seventies, and he was a government man. After that government men camped on their trail, and they didn’t amount to much.”
Eliza Hays, Little Rock, AR:
“I’ve heard of the pateroles and Ku Klux. I thought they said the Ku Klux was robbers. I think the Ku Klux came after the War. But there was some during the War that would come around and ask questions. ‘Where’s your old master?’ ‘Where’s his money hid?’ ‘Where’s his silverware?’ And on like that. Then they would take all the money and silver and anything else loose that could be carried away. And some of them used to steal the niggers theirselves especially if they were little childrens. They was scared to leave the little children run around because of that.” 5A fine explanation as to why patrollers and Klan members were so difficult to tell apart, especially seventy or so years after the war.
Phillis Hicks, Edmondson, AR:
“I heard them say the Ku Klux kept them run in home at night. So much stealing going on and it would be laid at the hands of the colored folks if they didn’t stay in place. Ku Klux made them work, said they would starve and starve white folks too if they didn’t work.”
Harriet Hill, Forrest City, AR:
“My folks was living in Decatur, Georgia when the Ku Klux was raging. We sure was scared of them. Mighty nigh to death. When freedom come on the niggers had to start up their churches. They had nigger preachers. Sometimes a white preacher would come talk to us. When the niggers be having preaching here come the Ku Klux and run them clear out. If they hear least thing nigger preacher say they whip him. They whipped several. They sure had to be mighty particular what they said in the preaching. They made some of the nigger preachers dance. There wasn’t no use of that and they knowed it. They must of had plenty fun. They rode the country every night for I don’t know how long and that all niggers talked bout.”
Hattie Hill, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Them Ku Klux was hateful too, but they never bothered my father’s house. They beat one man — Steve McLaughlin — till he couldn’t get back to the house. They beat him from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.”
Charlie Hinton, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Oh yes, the Ku Klux use to run my daddy if they caught him out without a pass, but I remember he could outrun them—he was stout as a mule.”
John Hunter, Little Rock, AR:
“I heard talk of the Ku Klux. I can remember once when they come through there (Enfield). That was eight or ten years after the War. They would catch some of the niggers and whip them. The young niggers got their guns and rigged up a plan to kill them and laid out in a place for them, but they got wind of it and stopped coming.”
The recorded Slave Narratives of Arkansas span seven volumes, the second and third were used for this post. Those can be read here:
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||More about the founding of the Klan can be found here.|
|2.||⇡||It must be kept in mind that most of the former slaves were young when the first incarnation of the Klan came into existence. Most were probably under fifteen; some were probably as young as five. Additionally, it should be remembered that when interviewed in the 1930s, most were between 75 and 85. With all the decades in between, the memory certainly suffered. That said, while the accounts vary, many are nearly identical.|
|3.||⇡||While almost all of the former slave were asked the Klan question, many claimed to have had no contact with them. Those who said little or nothing have not been included. Still, there are some included who claimed to have little contact with the Klan, and reaped a benefit for that distance.|
|4.||⇡||Readers of past narratives will, no doubt, be familiar with this story of direct action. It’s interesting to see it enacted across several different states.|
|5.||⇡||A fine explanation as to why patrollers and Klan members were so difficult to tell apart, especially seventy or so years after the war.|