Continuing in our series, we’ll hear tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves in Alabama.
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.
In this post, we’ll look at the answers given in Alabama, home of the Confederacy’s first capital. 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.
Oliver Bell, Livingston, AL:
“Us lived in the third house from the big house in the quarter, and when I was a boy it was my job to set out shade trees. And one day the Ku Klux come riding by and their leader was Mister Steve Renfroe. (Alabama bandit of Reconstruction days). He wore long hair and he call my pappy out and asked him a heap of questions. While he sitting there his horse pull up nigh about all the trees I done sought out.
“After talking to my pappy, he rode on across Horn’s bridge, about two miles south of here, and there he met Ol’ Man Enoch Sledge and Frank Sledge. They was darkies what belonged to Marsa Simmy Sledge’s father, Ol’ Doctor Sledge. Slaves on that plantation was allowed pretty good privilege after the surrender and was working on halvens. Uncle Enoch and Frank was in town trading some, and Mr. Renfroe didn’t want them to have anything. When they left town, they pass the Ku Kluxes right on the slough bridge. Mister Renfroe asked Enoch to give him a piece of string to fix his saddle with; then shot him. Frank run to the river, but the Ku Kluxes caught him and shot him, too.
“The niggers went down to the river that night and got the bodies and buried them in the old Travis graveyard. My mammy and daddy is buried there, too.”
Emma Crockett, Livingston, AL:
“I seed the patterollers, and after Surrender the Ku Kluxes they come then, but didn’t never bother me. See, I wan’t so old and I minded everybody, and didn’t vex them none.”
Carrie Davis, Smith’s Station, AL:
“When freedom come, I remembers that marster told us that us was free, but that we could stay on if we liked. Most of us stayed on with him for a spell. Now and then the Ku Klux Klan would come around and beat on a nigger.”
Henry Garry, Birmingham, AL:
“I was a mighty little shaver, but I remembers one night after supper, my daddy and mammy and us children was setting under a big tree by our cabin in the quarters when all at once, lickety split, here come galloping down the road what look like a whole army of ghosts. Must have been about a hundred and they was men riding horses with the men and horses both robed in white.
“Cap’n, them mens look like they ten feet high and their horses big as elephants. They didn’t bother nobody at the quarters, but the leader of the crowd ride right in the front gate and up to the big dug well back of our cabin and holler to my daddy. ‘Come here nigger!’ Ho-oh!, Of course we scared. Yes sir, look like our time done come.
“My daddy went over to where he setting on his horse at the well. Then he say, ‘Nigger get a bucket and draw me some cool water.’ Daddy got a bucket, fill it up and hand it to him. Cap’n, would you believe it? That man just lift that bucket to his mouth and never stop till it empty. Did he have enough? He just smack his mouth and call for more. Just like that, he didn’t stop till he drunk three buckets full. They he just wipe his mouth and say, ‘Lordy, that sure was good. It was the first drink of water I’ve had since I was killed at the battle of Shiloh.’ 4This was an incredibly typical meeting. You’ll read nearly identical accounts from black citizens of nearly every southern state.
“Was we good? Cap’n, from then on there wasn’t a nigger dare stick his head out the door for a week. But next day we find out the was Ku Kluxes and they found the body of a white man hanging to a post oak tree over by Grand Prairie. His name was Billings and he come from the North. He been over around Livingston messing up the niggers telling them they had been promised forty acres and a mule, and they ought to go ahead and take them from the white folks.”
Mary Ella Grandberry, Tuscumbia, AL:
“Right after the war the Ku Klux got after the colored folks. They would come to our houses and scare us most to death. They would take some of the niggers out and whip them and those that they didn’t whip they tied up by their fingers and toes. These Ku Klux would come to our windows at night and say: ‘Your time ain’t long acoming.’ The Ku Klux got so bad that they would even get us in the daytime. They took some of the niggers and throwed them in the river to drown. They kept this up ’till some folks from the North come down and put a stop to it.”
Gabe Hines, Eufaula, AL:
“The first thing we knowed them Ku Kluxes had the gentleman from the north out of his hiding place behind our house and a-setting on one of them horses. They never spoke with him. They just took him off somewhere, we never knowed where, but he didn’t come back no more.”
Hannah Irwin, Eufaula, AL:
“It weren’t long after that when some horses was heard down the road, and I look out my cabin window which was right by the road, and I saw acoming up through the trees a whole pack of ghosties; I thought they was, anyways. They was all dressed in white, and their horses was white and they galloped faster than the wind right past my cabin. Then I heard a nigger say: ‘The Ku Klux is after somebody.’
“Them Ku Klux went over to that lady’s plantation and told them niggers that if they ever heard of them starting anything more that they was a-going to tie them all to trees in the forest till they all died from being hungry. After that these niggers all around Louisville, they kept mighty quiet.
“No ma’am, I weren’t afraid of no Ku Klux. At first I though that they was ghosties and then I was afraid of them, but after I found out that Massa Bennett was one of them things, I was always proud of ’em.”
Hattie Anne Nettles, Opelika, AL:
[Hattie recalled one night of terror on the plantation when the Ku Klux Klan raided a prayer meeting where a large number of Negroes had congregated.]
“The Klansmen beat up lots of them. If a nigger didn’t behave, they’d nigh about kill him.”
Rev. Wade Owens, Opelika, AL:
” The Ku Klux Klan was terrible. One John Lyons would cut off a woman’s breast and a man’s ear or thumb.” 5Rev. Owens wasn’t the only subject to mention that the Klan cut off a woman’s breast. It didn’t come up much, but it seemed to be a thing.
Nicey Pugh, Mobile, AL:
“I remember one day when me and another little nigger gal was going after the cows down in de field and us seed what I reckoned was the Ku Klux Klan. Us was so scared us didn’t know what to do. One of them walked up to us and say: ‘Niggers, where you agoing?’
“‘Us is just after the cows, Mr. Ku Klux,’ us say. ‘Us ain’t up to no devilment.’
“‘All right then,’ they say, ‘just you be sure that you don’t get up to none.’
“After we got home us told the massa about the experience, and he just laugh. He told us that we weren’t going to be hurt if we was good; he say that it was only the bad niggers that was going to be got after by the Ku Klux.”
Mingo White, Tuscumbia, AL:
We kept moving and making share crops till us saved up enough money to rent us a place and make a crop for ourselves. Us did right well at this until the Ku Klux got so bad, us had to move back with Mr. Nelson for protection. The mens that took us in was union men. They lived here in the south but they took us part in the slave business. 6The original read: “Dey lived here in the south but dey tooken us part in de slave business.” I’m not totally clear on what that means, though it’s obvious that white Unionists were helping the newly-freed black people. The Ku Klux threat to whip Mr. Nelson in case he took up for the niggers. Heap of nights we would hear of the Ku Klux coming and leave home. Sometimes us was scared not to go and scared to go away from home.
“One day I borrowed a gun from Ed Davis to go squirrel hunting. When I taken the gun back I didn’t unload it lack I always been doing. That night the Ku Klux called on Ed to whip him. When they told him to open de door, he heard one of them say, ‘Shoot him when he gets the door open.’
“‘Well,’ Ed says to them,’wait till I can light the lamp.’ Then he got the gun what I had left loaded, got down on his knees and stuck it through a log and pull the trigger. He hit Newt Dobbs in the stomach and kill him. He couldn’t stay around Burleson any more, so he come to Mr. Nelson and got enough money to get to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Ku Klux got bad sure enough then and went to killing niggers and white folks, too.”
The recorded Slave Narratives of Alabama 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.||⇡||This was an incredibly typical meeting. You’ll read nearly identical accounts from black citizens of nearly every southern state.|
|5.||⇡||Rev. Owens wasn’t the only subject to mention that the Klan cut off a woman’s breast. It didn’t come up much, but it seemed to be a thing.|
|6.||⇡||The original read: “Dey lived here in the south but dey tooken us part in de slave business.” I’m not totally clear on what that means, though it’s obvious that white Unionists were helping the newly-freed black people.|