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‘They Didn’t Know What Freedom Meant’ – Former Slaves Speak on the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas (Part 4)

Once again, we’ll hear tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves living in Arkansas. We should continue to take note of the differences between the actions in Arkansas and the various 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 last 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.

James Reeves, Little Rock, AR
“When the emancipation came about, the people of the South went to work to see what they could do about it. The whole South was under martial law. Some of the people formed the Ku Klux Klan to keep the Negro down. I never remember that they bothered any of our family or the people in our house. But they scared some and whipped more, and killed some.”

Charlie Rigger, Palestine, AR:
“The Ku Klux come ’round right smart. Some had on skin coverings, cow heads and horns. Some wore white sheets and black dresses on white horses. They was scary looking. They would whoop and kill too. I was too scared to get caught off at night.”

William Henry Rooks, Brinkley, AR:
“They didn’t have the Ku Klux but it was bout like it what they had. They wore caps shine de coons eye and red caps and red garments. Red symbolize blood reason they wore red. They broke up our preaching. Some folks got killed. Some was old, some young—old devlish ones. They was like a drove of varments. I guess you be scared. They run the colored folks away from church a lot of times. That was about equalization after the freedom. That was the cause of that.”

Cat Ross, Brassfield, AR:
“I have seen the Ku Klux quarter mile long and two breasted on horses. They scared me so bad I never had no experiences with them. They run my uncle in. He was a big dancer. One time they made him dance. He cut the pigeon-wing for them. That was the name of what he danced.”

Casper Rumble, De Valls Bluff, AR:
“The Ku Klux had killed several Negroes. That scared them all up. I remember Tuscaloosa, Alabama when we cone through there. We was walking—a line a mile long—marching and singing. They was building back in a hurry seemed like to me. The town had been burned up. Some dropped out to get work along. Some fell out sick. Some so weak they died long the road. Had to keep up. Some stopped; they never caught up no more. Mostly old folks or half starved folks couldn’t keep going. The Ku Klux whoop and shoot you down for any little thing. They started at night, fraid of the Yankees but they whooped and run them out and the Negroes left. The Ku Klux got so bold they didn’t dress up nor go at night neither. At first they was careful then they got bold. The Yankee soldiers bout all they was afraid of. The Negroes found out who some of the Ku Klux was and told the Yankees but it didn’t do much good.”

Mahalia Shores, Marianna, AR:
“The Ku Klux come to our house, called Uncle Billy—that was my papa. They got him up out of bed. One man said, ‘I ain’t had no water since the battle of Shiloah.’ He had pa draw water till daybreaking. He had a horn he poured the water in. We was all scared half to death. Next morning there was a branch from the well done run off. Something took place about a well. Uncle Neel Anderson and Uncle Cush dug wells for their living. They come after them. Aunt Mandy had a baby. They pitied her and Uncle Neel got so scared he run upstairs in his shirt tail and stuck his head in the cotton. They found him that way. Uncle Cush said, ‘Come on, Neel, and go with me.’ They whooped Uncle Cush in his shirt tail. If you didn’t open the door they would break it in.”

Maggie Stenhouse, Brinkley, AR:
“The Ku Klux was awful in South Carolina. The colored folks had no church to go to. They gather around at folks’ houses to have preaching and prayers. One night we was having it at our house, only I was the oldest and was in another room sound asleep on the bed. There was a crowd at our house. The Ku Klux come, pulled off his robe and door face, hung it up on a nail in the room, and said, ‘Where’s that Jim Jesus?’ He pulled him out the room. The crowd run off. Mama took the three little children but forgot me and run off too. They beat papa till they thought he was dead and throwed him in a fence corner. He was beat nearly to death, just cut all to pieces. He crawled to my bed and woke me up and back to the steps. I thought he was dead—bled to death—on the steps. Mama come back to leave and found he was alive. She doctored him up and he lived thirty years after that. We left that morning.

“The old white woman that owned the place was rich—big rich. She been complaining about the noise—singing and preaching. She called him Praying Jim Jesus till he got to be called that around. He prayed in the field. She said he disturbed her. Mama said one of the Ku Klux she knowed been raised up there close to Master Barton’s but papa said he didn’t know one of them that beat on him.”

One of the earliest photos of a Klan member.
One of the earliest photos of a Klan member.

James Henry Stith, Little Rock, AR:
“He belonged to the paterole gang and they went out after the Negroes one night after freedom. The Negroes bushwhacked them and killed four or five of them. They give it out that the men that was killed had gone to Texas. Brantley was one of the killed ones. The pateroles was awful bad at that time. Ku Klux they called them after the War, but they was the same people. I never heard of the Klan part till this thing come up that they have now. They called them Ku Klux back when I was a boy. My stepmother carried me over to Brantley’s house the night he got killed. So I know the Texas he went to. That was in ’69 or ’70. He lived about a mile from us and when he got killed, she carried me over to see him just like we would have gone to see any other neighbor.

“The Negroes were naturally afraid of the Ku Klux but they finally got to the place where they were determined to break it up. They didn’t have no ropes, but they would take grapevines and tie them across the road about breast high when a man would be on horseback. The Ku Klux would run against these vines and be knocked off their horses into the road and then the bushwhackers would shoot them. When Ku Klux was killed in this manner, it was never admitted; but it was said that they had gone to Texas. There was several of them went to Texas one night.”

Felix Street, Little Rock, AR:
“You know they used to ku klux the niggers. They went to the house after the War of an old man named Hall. They demanded for him to let them in but he wouldn’t. They said that they would break open the door if he didn’t let them in. He didn’t let them in, and they broke it down. When they started in, his wife threw fire brands in amongst ’em and he knicked one down with an ax. Them that wasn’t hurt carried the wounded man away and it was reported the next day that he was sick. They never did bother the nigger no more and he never had no charges made against him.”

Mrs. Dicey Thomas, Little Rock, AR:
“I am not sure whether or not my father is dead. The Ku Klux scared him out of Atkins, and he went up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I ain’t never heard of him since. I don’t know whether he is dead or not.


“These Ku Klux, they had not long ago used to go and whip folks that wasn’t doing right. That was amongst the white people and the colored. Comer that used to have this furniture store on Main Street, he used to be the head of it, they say.

“I used to work for an old white man who told me how they done. They would walk along the street with their disguises hidden under their arms. Then when they got to the meeting place, they would put their disguises on and go out and do their devilment. Then when they were through, they would take the disguise off again and go on back about their business, Old man Wolf, he used to tell me about it.”

J.T. Tims, Little Rock, AR:
“I heard lots about the Ku Klux. They were terrible. The white folks had one another going around watching and keeping them from running off. The Ku Klux would whip people they caught out. They would whip them just because they could; because they called themselves bosses, because they was white and the colored people was niggers. They didn’t do nothing but just keep the slaves down. It was before the war that I knew about the Ku Klux. There wasn’t no difference between the pateroles and the Ku Klux that I knows of. If they’d catch you, they all would whip you. I don’t know nothing about the Ku Klux Klan after the war. I know they broke them up.

S.S. Taylor, Little Rock, AR:
“The Ku Klux never bothered us. They bothered some people about a mile from us. They took out the old man and whipped him. They made his wife get up and dance and she was in a delicate state. They made her get out of bed and dance, and after that they took her and whipped her and beat her, and she was in a delicate state too.

“There was a man there in Black Rock though that stopped them from bothering anybody. He killed one of them. They went to the train. They was raging around there then. He got off the train and they tried to take him to jail. The jail was way out through the woods. He hadn’t done anything at all. They just took hold of him to take him to the jail because he had just come into the town. They had tugged him down the road and when they got to the woods, he took out his gun and killed one of them, and the rest left him alone. The man who was killed had a wife and four or five children. They sent the nigger to the penitentiary. He stayed there about a year and come out. That broke up the Ku Klux around Black Rock and Portia. They never seemed to get much enjoyment out of it after that.”

John Wesley, Helena, AR:
“The Ku Klux come about and drink water. They wanted folks to stay at home and work. That what they said. We done that. We didn’t know we was free nohow. We wasn’t scared.”

Robert Wesley, Holly Grove, AR:
“The Ku Klux sure did run some of them. Seem like they didn’t know what freedom meant. Some of them run off and kept going. Never did get back. I don’t know a thing bout the Ku Klux. I heard them say they got whippings for doing too much visiting. I was a baby so I don’t know.”

Sarah Whitmore, Clarendon, AR:
“Recken I do remember the Ku Klux. They scared me to death. I go under the bed every time when I see them about. Then was when my father was killed. He went off with a crowd of white men. They said they was Rebel scouts. All I know I never seed him no more since that evening. They killed him across the line, not far from Mississippi.”

Tom Windham, Pine Bluff, AR:
“After the war I continued to work around the white folks and yes ma’am, I seen the Ku Klux many a time. They bothered me sometimes but they soon let me alone. They was a few Yankees about and they come together and made the Ku Klux stay in their place.”

Cal Woods, Bisco, AR:
“I recollect about the Ku Klux after the war. Some folks come over the country and tell you you free and equal now. They tell you what to do and how to run the country and then if you listen to them come the Ku Klux all dressed half mile down the road. That Ku Klux sprung up after the war about voting and office-holding among the white folks. The white folks ain’t then nor now having no black man ruling over him.

“Them Ku Klux walked about on high sticks and drink all the water you have from the spring. Seem like they meddled a whole heap. Course the black folks knowed they was white men. They hung some slaves and white Yankees too if they be very mean. They beat them. Hear them hollowing and they hollow too. They shoot all directions around and up an down the road. That’s how you know they coming close to your house. If you go to any gatherings they come break it up and run you home fast as you could run and set the dogs on you. Course the dogs bite you. They say they was not going to have equalization if they have to kill all the Yankees and niggers in the country.”


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

Vol. 5
Vol. 6
Vol. 7

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.