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‘How They Died In Piles’ – Former Slaves Speak on the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas (Part 1)

This week, we’ll 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 first 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.

Selie Anderson, Holly Grove, AR:
“I just can remember this Ku Klux broke down our door with hatchets. It scared us all to death. They didn’t do nothing to us. They was hunting Uncle Jeff. He wasn’t about our house. He was ox driver for Mr. Sprangle. Him and a family of poor white folks got to fussing about a bridle. Some of them was dressed up when they come to our house, Ma said. After that Mr. Kirby killed him close to his home starting out one morning to work. His name was Uncle Jeff Saxon. Ma knowd it was some of the men right on Mr. Sprangle’s place what come to our house.”

Campbell Armstrong, Little Rock, AR:
“[The Ku Klux is] another devil. Man, I’ll tell you we seen terrible times. I don’t know nothing much about them myself. I know one thing. Abe Lincoln said, ‘Kill him wherever you see him.'”

Jeff Bailey, Little Rock, AR:
“The Ku Klux run my father out of the fields once. And the white people went and got them about it. They said, ‘Times is hard, and we can’t have these people losing time out of the fields. You let these people work.’ A week after that, they didn’t do no more. The Ku Klux didn’t. Somebody laid them out. I used to go out to the fields and they would ask me, ‘Jeff Bailey, what you doing out here?’ I was a little boy and you just ought to seen me getting away from there. Whooo-eeee!”

Enoch Beel, Green Grove, AR:
“The Ku Kluxes were not hunting work theirselves. They was keeping order at the gatherings and down the public roads. Folks had came toted off all the folks made in the crops till they don’t call nothing stealing. They whooped em and made em ride on rails. I don’t know all the carrings on did take place. I sure would been scared if I seed them comin to me.”

Carrie Bradley Logan Bennet, Helena, AR:
“I was scared to death of the Ku Klux Klan. They come to our house one night and I took my little brother and we crawled under the house and got up in the fireplace. It was big enough for us to sit. We went to sleep. We crawled out next day. We seen ‘them coming, run behind the house and crawled under there. They knocked about there a pretty good while. We told the folks about it. I don’t know where they could have been. I forgot it been so long. I was afraider of the Ku Klux Klan then I ever been about snakes. No snakes about our house. Too many of us.”

James Bertrand, Little Rock, AR:
“I remember hearing him say that the Ku Klux Klan used to come to see us at night. But father was always orderly and they never had no clue against him. He never was whipped by the Ku Klux.”

Mandy Billings, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Yes ma’am, I’ve seen the Ku Klux. Seen them taking the niggers out and whip them and kick them around. I’m talking bout Ku Klux. I know about the patrollers too. Ku Klux come since freedom but the patrollers was in slavery times.” 4Often, the memory of the interviewees conflates the pre-war patrollers with the post-war Klan. Because of this, some made an effort to point out the difference.

Boston Blackwell, North Little Rock, AR:
“Yessum, miss, them Ku-Kluxers was terrible, what they done to people. Oh, God, they was bad. They come sneaking up and runned you out of your house and take everything you had. They was rough on the women and children. People all wanted to stay close by where soldiers was. I sure knowed they was my friend.”

Henry Blake, Little Rock, AR
“After slavery we had to get in before night too. If you didn’t, Ku Klux would drive you in. They would come and visit you anyway. They had something on that they could pour a lot of water in. They would seem to be drinking the water and it would all be going in this thing. They was getting it to water the horses with, and when they got away from you they would stop and give it to the horses. 5This often-repeated slight of hand is mentioned quite a bit in the slave narratives. However, that they were actually watering the horses with it makes it even more interesting. When he got you good and scared he would drive on away. They would whip you if they would catch you out in the night time.

“My daddy had a horse they couldn’t catch. It would run right away from you. My daddy trained it so that it would run away from any one who would come near it. He would take me up on that horse and we would sail away. Those Ku Klux couldn’t catch him. They never did catch him. They caught many another one and whipped him. My daddy was a pretty mean man. He carried a gun and he had shot two or three men. Those were bad times. I got scared to go out with him. I hated that business. But directly it got over with. It got over with when a lot of the Ku Klux was killed up. […]

“That gang that got after you if you let the sun go down while you were out — that’s called the Pateroles [patrollers]. Some folks call them the Ku Klux. It was all the same old poor white trash. They kept up that business for about ten years after the War. They kept it up till folks began to kill up a lot of ’em. That’s the only thing that stopped them. My daddy used to make his own bullets.”

Early Ku Klux whipping a white lawyer.
Early Ku Klux whipping a white lawyer.

F.H. Brown, North Little Rock, AR:
“I was right smart size when I saw the Ku Klux. They would whip men and women that weren’t married and were living together. On the first day of January, they would whip men and boys that didn’t have a job. They kept the Negroes from voting. They would whip them. They put up notices, ‘No niggers to come out to the polls tomorrow.’

“They would run them off of government land which they had homesteaded. Sometimes they would just persuade them not to vote. A Negro like my father, they would say to him, ‘Now, Brown, you are too good to get messed up. Them other niggers around here ain’t worth nothing, but you are, and we don’t want to see you get hurt. So you stay away from the polls tomorrow.’

“And tomorrow, my father would stay away, under the circumstances. They had to depend on the white people for counsel. They didn’t know what to do themselves. The other niggers they would threaten them and tell them if they came out they would kill them.”

Lewis Brown, Pine Bluff, AR:
“Oh yes’m — the Ku Klux was plentiful after peace. They went about robbing people.”

Peter Brown, Helena, AR
“They broke the Ku Klux up by putting grapevines across the roads. I know about that? I never seen one of them in my life.” 6This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this specific bit of direct action against the Klan.

William Brown, North Little Rock, AR:
“I know the Ku Klux must have been in use before the War because I remember the business when I was a little bit of a fellow. They had a place out there on Crowley’s Ridge they used to meet at. They tried to make the impression that they would be old Confederate soldiers that had been killed in the battle of Shiloh, and they used to ride down from the Ridge hollering, ‘Oh! Lordy, Lordy, Lordy!’ They would have on those old uniforms and would call for water. And they would have some way of pouring the water down in a bag or something underneath their uniforms so that it would look like they could drink four or five gallons.

“One night when they come galloping down on their horses hollering ‘Oh! Lordy, Lordy’ like they used to, some Yankee soldiers stationed nearby tied ropes across the road and killed about twenty-five of the horses and broke legs and arms of about ten or fifteen. They never used the ridge any more after that.” 7Many former slaves conflated the patrollers and the Klan – it’s fairly understandable. Many of the same white people were likely involved in both. Also note another instance of ropes across the road – this time by Yankee soldiers!

Will Burks, Sr., Holly Grove, AR:
“Ku Klux come to our house and took my papa off with them. Mama was crying, she told us children they was going hurt him. I recollect all about it. They thought my papa knowed about some man being killed. My papa died with knots on his neck where they hung him up with ropes. It hurt him all his life after that. It made him sick what all they done to him trying to make him tell who killed somebody. He was laid up a long time. I recollect that. When they found out papa didn’t know nothing bout it, they said they was sorry they done him so mean.”

Emmett Augasta Byrd, Marianna, AR:
“In 1868 I lived with John Welch one year. I seen the going out and coming in. I heard what they [the Klan] was doing. I wasn’t afraid of them then. I lived with one of them and I wasn’t afraid of them. I learned a good deal about it. They called it ‘uprising’ and I found out their purpose was to hold down the nigger. They said they wanted to make them submissive. They catch them and beat them half to death. I heard they hung some of them. No, I didn’t see it. I knew one or two they beat. They took some of the niggers right out of the cotton patch and dressed them up and drilled them. When they come back they was boastful. Then they had to beat it out of them.”

Willie Buck Charleston, Jr., Biscoe, AR: 8Mr. Charleston was speaking of his time in Georgia, before moving to Arkansas.
“When we lived over about Forrest City I seen the Ku Klux whip Joe Saw and Bill Reed. It was at night. They was tied to trees and whipped with a leather snake whip. I couldn’t say how it come up but they sure poured it on them. There was a crowd come up during the acting. I was scared to death then. After then I had mighty little use for dressed-up folks what go around at night.”

Maria Sutton Clemmonts, DeValls Bluff, AR:
“When that war was done Georgia was just like being at the bad place. You couldn’t stay in the houses fear some Ku Klux come shoot under your door and bust in with hatchets. Folks hide out in the woods mostly. If they hear you talking they say you talking about equalization. They whip you. You couldn’t be sitting or standing talking. They come and ask you what he been tell you.

“That Ku Klux killed white men too. They say they put them up to hold offices over them. It was heap worse in Georgia after freedom than it was before. I think the poor nigger have to suffer for what the white man put on him. We’s had a hard time. Some of them down there in Georgia what didn’t get into the cities where they could get victuals and a few rags for cold weather got so poor out in the woods they nearly starved and died out. I heard them talk bout how they died in piles. […]

“Niggers didn’t have no guns before the war and nothing to shoot in one if he had one what he picked up somewhere after the war. The Ku Klux done the uprising. They say they won’t let the nigger enjoy freedom. They killed a lot of black folks in Georgia and a few white folks what they said was in with them. We darkies had nothing to do with freedom. Two or three sit down on you, take leaves and build a fire and burn their feet nearly off. That the way the white folks treat the darky.”

T.W. Cotton, Helena, AR:
“The Ku Klux come through the first and second gates to papa’s house and he opened the door. They grunted around. They told papa to come out. He didn’t go and he was ready to hurt them when they come in. He told them when he finished that crop they could have his room. He left that year. They come in on me once before I married. I was at my girl’s house. They wanted to be sure we married. The principal thing they was to see was that you didn’t live in the house with a woman till you be married. I wasn’t married but I soon did marry her. They scared us up some.”

D.Davis, Marvell, AR:
“The Ku Klux they was riding the country continual, and the niggers they scared plum sick by them tall white looking hants [ghosts] with they horses all white with the sheets, and some say just come out and they grab and are looking for the niggers to take back with them when they daylight come. All the time the niggers having their club meetings in the old loose house there at Chapel Hill, and the Klux were getting more numerous all the time, and the feeling amongst the white and the black was getting worse and worse.

“And one night when the niggers having their great big meeting, and were beating their drums and were carrying on, here come the Ku Klux or something, and shooting right and left and are pouring the shots into that old house and at every nigger they see. And the niggers, they started shooting back, but not for long, because most of them done lit out for the woods, that is most all what ain’t killed. And that was the very last of the club meetings, and the very last of the niggers holding the office in the court house.”

James Davis, Pine Bluff, AR:
“I’ve seen them Ku Klux in slavery times and I’ve cut a many a grapevine. We’d be in the place dancing and playing the banjo and the grapevine strung across the road and the Ku Klux come riding along and run right into it and throw the horses down.” 9It’s possible Mr. Davis, as well as many other former slaves, confused the Klan for patrollers, who operated prior to the war. In some cases, it’s outright confusion, but in others it seems they’re unable to distinguish life before and after the war. If true, it says quite a bit about living conditions for blacks during Reconstruction.

Minerva Davis, Biscoe, AR:
“The Ku Klux wanted to whip my papa. They all called him Dan. They said he was mean. His white folks protected him. They said he worked well. They wouldn’t let him be whipped by them Ku Kluxes.”


The recorded Slave Narratives of Arkansas span seven volumes, the first and second were used for this post. Those can be read here:

Vol. 1
Vol. 2

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.