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‘We’ll Make You Damn Niggers Wish You Wasn’t Free’ – Former Emmigrated Slaves Speak on the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South

After weeks of hearing from former slaves across the South, we’ve come to those who moved to new states following the war. By the 1930s, the time the interviews took place, they were living in Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana.

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 by former slaves in Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana. Most of them had moved there in the decades following Reconstruction. This gives us a fine overview of how the Klan was seen as a whole. 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.

Francis Bridges, Oklahoma City, OK [Originally from Texas]:
“I used to hear them talking about Ku Klux Klan coming to the well to get water. They’d draw up a bucket of water and pour the water in they false stomachs. They false stomachs was tied on them with a big leather buckle. They’d just pour the water in there to scare them and say, ‘This is the first drink of water I’ve had since I left Hell.’ They’d say all such things to scare the colored folks.”

Betty Foreman Chessier, Oklahoma City, OK [North Carolina]:
“I laid in my bed a many night scared to death of Klu Klux Klan. They would come to your house and ask for a drink and no more want a drink than nothing.”

Polly Colbert, Colbert, OK:
“I was afraid of the Ku Kluxers too, and I suspects that Master Holmes was one of the leaders if the truth was known. They sure was scary looking.” 4Ms. Colbert was actually from Oklahoma – born in Tishomingo.

Ku Klux rider, 1868.
Ku Klux rider, 1868.

Doc Daniel Dowdy, Oklahoma City, OK [Georgia]:
“We had Ku Klux Klans till the government sent Federal officers out and put a stop to their ravaging and sent them to Sing Sing.”

Joanna Draper, Tulsa, OK [Mississippi]:
“About the time he come home to stay I seen the first Ku Klux I ever seen one night. I was going down the road in the moonlight and I heard a hog grunting out in the bushes at the side of the road. I just walk right on and in a little ways I hear another hog in some more bushes. This time I stop and listen, and there’s another hog grunts across the road, and about that time two mens dressed up in long white skirts steps out into the road in front of me! I was so scared the goose bumps jump up all over me because I didn’t know what they is! They didn’t say a word to me, but just walked on past me and went on back the way I had come. Then I see two more mens step out of the woods and I run from that as fast as I can go!

“I asked Miss Kate what they is and she say they Ku Klux, and I better not go walking off down the road any more. I seen them two, three times after that, though, but they was riding horses them times.”

Morris Hillyer, Alderson, OK [Georgia]:
“I saw lots of Ku Kluxers but I wasn’t afraid of them. I knowed I hadn’t done nothing and they wasn’t after me. One time I met a bunch of them and one of them said, “Who is this feller?” Another one said, “Oh, that’s Gabe’s foolish boy, come on, don’t bother him.” I always did think that voice sounded natural but I never did say anything about it. It sounded powerful like one of old Judge’s boys. They rode on and didn’t bother me and I never was a bit afraid of them any more.”

Josie Jordan, Tulsa, OK [Tennessee]:
“Never did have no big troubles after the War, except one time the Ku Klux Klan broke up a church meeting and whipped some of the Negroes.

“The preacher was telling about the Bible days when the Klan rode up. They was all masked up and everybody crawled under the benches when they shouted: ‘We’ll make you damn niggers wish you wasn’t free!’

“And they just about did. The preacher got the worst whipping, blood was running from his nose and mouth and ears, and they left him laying on the floor.

“They whipped the women just like the men, but Mammy and the girls wasn’t touched none and we run all the way back to the cabin. Layed down with all our clothes on and tried to sleep, but we’s too scared to close our eyes.

“Mammy reckoned old Master Lowery was a-riding with the Klan that night, else we’d got a flogging too.”

Bert Luster, Oklahoma City, OK [Tennessee]:
“My mother took me to Greenville, Texas, because my step-pappy was one of them half smart niggers round there trying to preach and the Ku Klux Klan beat him half to death.

“There was some white folks who would take us to church with them. This was after the war now — and one night we was all sitting up there and one old woman with one leg was there and when them Klans shot in amongst us niggers and white folks aunt Mandy beat all of us home. Yes suh.

“My first two teachers was two white men, and them Klans shot in the hotel what they lived in, but they had school for us niggers just the same. After that, those Klans got so bad Uncle Sam sent soldiers down there to keep peace.

“After the soldiers come and run the Klans out we worked hard that fall and made good crops. About three years later I came to Indian Territory in search of educating my kids.”

Stephen McCray, Oklahoma City, OK [Alabama]:
“Them patrollers [actually talking about Klan] done their work mostly at night. One night I was sleeping on cotton and the patrollers come to our house and ask for water. Happened we had plenty. They drunk a whole lot and got warm and told my father to be a good nigger and they wouldn’t bother him at all. They raided till General Grant come through. He sent troops out looking for Ku Klux Klanners and killed them just like killing black birds. General Grant was one of the men that caused us to sit here free today and able to talk together without being killed.

“Bushwhacker, nothing but poor white trash, come through and killed all the little nigger children they could lay hands on. I was hid under the house with a big rag on my mouth many a time. Them Ku Klux after slavery sure got enough from them soldiers to last ’em.”

Hannah McFarland, Oklahoma City, OK [South Carolina]:
“I didn’t heah nothing about the Ku Klux Klan till I come to Oklahoma neither. More devilment in Oklahoma than any place I know.”

Jane Montgomery, Oklahoma City, OK [Louisiana]:
“The Ku Klux whipped niggers when so never they could catch them. They rid at night mostly.”

Harriet Robinson, Oklahoma City, OK [Texas]:
“Them Ku Klux Klans come and ask for water with the false stomachs and make like they was drinking three bucketsful. They done some terrible things, but God seen it all and marked it down.”

The recorded Slave Narratives of Oklahoma are available here.

____________________

Ohio

Hannah Davidson, Toledo, OH [Kentucky]:
“What I call the Ku Klux were those people who met at night and if they heard anybody saying you was free, they would take you out at night and whip you. They were the plantation owners. I never saw them ride, but I heard about them and what they did. My master used to tell us he wished he knew who the Ku Kluxers were. But he knew, all right, I used to wait on table and I heard them talking. ‘Gonna lynch another nigger tonight!'”

Thomas McMillan, Steuvenville, OH [Alabama]:
“The Ku Klux Klan was pretty rough to us and they whip us. There was no school for us colored people.”

Richard Toler, Cincinnati, OH [Virginia]:>
“Some of the people I belonged to was in the Ku Klux Klan. Tolah had four girls and four boys. Some of those boys belonged. And I used to see them turn out. They went around whipping niggers. They’d get young girls and strip them stark naked, and put them across barrels, and whip them till the blood run out of them, and then they would put salt in the raw parts. And I seen it, and it was as bloody around them as if they’d stuck hogs.”

The recorded Slave Narratives of Ohio are available here.

____________________

Indiana

George Taylor Burns, Vanderburgh County, IN [Missouri]:
Uncle George has many friends along the water-front towns. He admires the Felker family of Tell City, Indiana. He is proud of his own race and rejoices in their opportunities. He remembers his fear of the Ku Klux, his horror of the patrol and other clans united to make life dangerous for newly emancipated Negroes. [Text by interviewer]

Mandy Cooper, Franklin, IN [Kentucky]:
“My mother related some experiences she had with the Paddy-Rollers, later called the Ku Klux. These Paddy-Rollers were a constant dread to the Negroes. They would whip the poor darkeys unmercifully without any cause. One night while the Negroes were gathering for a big party and dance they got wind of the approaching Paddy-Rollers in large numbers on horseback. The Negro men did not know what to do for protection, they became desperate and decided to gather a quantity of grapevines and tied them fast at a dark place in the road. When the Paddy-Rollers came thundering down the road bent on devilry and unaware of the trap set for them, plunged head-on into these strong grapevines and three of their number were killed and a score was badly injured. Several horses had to be shot following injuries.

“When the news of this happening spread it was many months before the Paddy-Rollers were again heard of.”

Sarah H. Locke, Indianapolis, IN [Kentucky]:
She remembers one night the slaves were having a dance in one of the cabins, a band of Ku Kluxers came, took all firearms they could find, but no one was hurt, all wondered why, however, it did not take long for them to find out why. Another night when the Kluxers were riding, the slaves recognised the voice of their young master. That was the reason why the Keephart slaves were never molested. [Text by interviewer]

George Miller, Indianapolis, IN [Kentucky]:
George Band was a very powerful slave, always ready to fight, never losing a fight, always able to defend himself until one night a band of Ku Kluxers came to his house, took his wife, hung her to a tree, hacked her to death with knives. Then went to the house, got George, took him to see what they had done to his wife. He asked them to let him go back to the house to get something to wrap his wife in, thinking he was sincere in his request, they allowed him to go. Instead of getting a wrapping for his wife, he got his Winchester rifle, shot and killed fourteen of the Kluxers. The county was never bothered with the Klan again. However, George left immediately for the North. [Text by interviewer]

Mrs. Preston, Jefferson County, IN [Kentucky]:
Several years later the Ku Klux Klan gave them a ten days notice to leave, one of the masked band interceded for them by pointing out that they were quiet and peacable, and a man with a crop and ten children couldn’t possibly leave on so short a notice so the time was extended another ten days, when they took what the Klan paid them and came north. They remained in the north until they had to buy their groceries “a little piece of this and a little piece of that, like they do now”, when her father returned to Kentucky. Mrs. Preston remained in Indiana. Her father was burned out, the family escaping to the woods in their night clothes, later befriended by a white neighbor. Now they appealed to their former owner who built them a new house, provided necessities and guards for a few weeks until they were safe from the Ku Klux Klan. [Text by interviewer]

The recorded Slave Narratives of Indiana are available here.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote 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, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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