We heard last week the tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves in South Carolina. This week, we’ll hear the same from Mississippi’s former slaves.
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 Mississippi, home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. 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.
Jim Allen, Clay County, MS:
“I seed the Ku Klux. We would be working. Them people would be in the field, and must get home befoe dark and shut the door. They wore three cornered white hats with the eyes way up high. They scared the breeches off of me. First ones I got tangled up with was right down here by the cemetery. They just wanted to scare you. Night riders was the same thing. I was one of the fellers what broke them up. 4Wouldn’t you just love for Mr. Allen to elaborate on breaking them up?
Anna Baker, Monroe County, MS:
“I know about them Ku Kluxes. I had to go to court one time to testify about them. One night after us had moved to Tuscaloosa the come after my step-daddy. Whilst my ma and the rest went and hid I went to the door. I weren’t scared. I says, ‘Marster Will, ain’t that you?’ He say, ‘Sure, it’s me. Where’s your daddy?’ I told him thay he’d gone to town. Then they head out for him. In the meantime my ma she had started out, too. She warned him to hide, so they didn’ get him.”
John Cameron, Jackson, MS:
“I don’t know much about the Ku Klux Klan and all that. They rode about at night and wore long white ghost-like robes. They whip folks and had meetings way off in the woods at midnight. They done all kinds of curious things. None never did bother about Marster’s place, so I don’t know much about them.”
Charlie Davenport, Natchez, MS:
“Lord! Lord! I knows about the Ku Kluxes. I knows a-plenty. The was sure enough devils walking the earth a-seeking what the could devour. They larruped the hide off of the uppity Niggers drove the white trash back where dey belonged.” […]
“In them days nobody but Niggers and shawl-strop [carpet baggers] folks voted. Quality folks didn’t have nothing to do wid such truck. If they had a-wanted to, the Yankees wouldn’t a-let them. My old marster didn’t vote and if anybody knowed what was what he did. Sense didn’t count in them days. It was powerful ticklish times and I let voting alone.
“The shawl-strop folks what come in to take over the country told us that us had a right to go to all the balls, church meetings, and entertainments the white folks give. But one night a bunch of uppity Niggers went to an entertainment in Memorial Hall. They dressed themselves fit to kill and walked down the aisle and took seats in the very front. But just about time they got good set down, the curtain dropped and the white folks arose up without a-saying nairy word. They marched out the building with their chins up and left them Niggers a-setting in a empty hall.
“That’s the way it happen every time a Nigger tried to get too uppity. That night after the breaking up of that entertainment, the Ku Kluxes rode through the land. I heard they grabbed every Nigger what walked down that aisle, but I ain’t heard yet what they done wid them.
“That same thing happened every time a Nigger tried to act like he was white.
“A heap of Niggers voted for a little while. There was a black man what had office. He was named Lynch. He cut a big figure up in Washington. Us had a sheriff named Winston. He was a ginger cake Nigger and powerful mean when he got riled. Sheriff Winston was a slave and, if my memory ain’t failed me, so was Lynch.”
Dora Franks, Aberdeen, MS:
“I never will forget the Ku Klux Klan. Never will I forget the way that horn sound at night when they was a-going after some mean Nigger. Used to all run and hide. Us was living on the Troup place then, near old Hamilton, in one of the brick houses back of the house where they used to keep the slaves. Marse Alec Troup was one of the Ku Klux’s and so was Marse Thad Willis that lived close by. They’d make plans together sometime and I’d hear them. One time they caught me listenning, but they didn’t do nothing to me, because they knowed I were going to tell. Us was all good Niggers on his place.”
Pet Franks [husband of Dora], Aberdeen, MS:
“When I was on the Cox place I met Dora and’ us married. That was a big wedding and a big feast. Then us moved over to the Troup place and stayed there for a long spell. While us was there I remember the Ku Kluxers and all the carrying on. They would dress up in white sheets and come around and scare all the Niggers. They’d whip the bad ones. Some of them would get cow horns and put on their heads. One time they chased a Nigger plumb under the house just a-playing with him. They was a-bellowing just like bulls.”
Prince Johnson, Clarksdale, MS:
“I’ve seen many a patrol in my lifetime, but they daresn’t come on us place. Now the Ku Kluxes was different. I rode with them many a time. ‘Twas the only way in them days to keep order.” 5Two things. First, the patrolers (or patty-rollers) were basically slave catchers before and during the war. The Klan, of course, came after. Most former slaves make clear distinctions between the two. Second, though very small in number, it seems like some black men collaborated with the Klan.
James Lucas, Natchez, MS:
“Them Ku Kluxes was the devil. The Niggers sure was scared of them, but they was more after them carpet-baggers than the Niggers. I lived right in amongst them, but I wouldn’t tell. No Ma’am! I knowed them, but I didn’t talk. Sometimes they would go right in the fields and take folks out and kill them. Ain’t none of them left now. They is all dead and gone, but they sure was rabid then. I never got in no trouble with them, because I tended my business and kept out of their way. I’d have been killed if I’d have run around and done any big talking.” 6When these interviews were conducted, the second wave of the KKK was already in the decline. The interviewees never seem to mention this second wave. Granted, the Klan had shifted focus from being anti-black to being anti-anything not “American,” but it wasn’t like black people had dropped off their radar.
Sam McAllum, Meridian, MS:
“I know about the Ku Kluxes. I seen them. About the first time I seen them were the last. Ain’t nobody know exactly about them Ku Kluxes. Some say it were a spirit that hadn’t had no water since the war. One rider would drink four or five gallons at one time — kept us a-toting buckets fast as us could carry them. It were a spirit, a evil spirit.
“But folks that ain’t acted right liable to be found most’ anytime tied up somewheres. The Niggers were a-having a party one Saturday night on Hampton’s plantation. Come some men on horses wid some kind’ of scare-face on them. They were all wrapped up, disguised. The horses were covered up, too. They call for Miler Hampton. He were one of the Hampton Niggers. He been up to something. I don’t know what he done, but they say he done something bad. They didn’t have no trouble gitting him, because us were all scared us’d get killed, too. They carried him off with them and killed him that very night.
“Us went to DeKalb next day in a drove and ask the white folks to help us. Us buy all the ammunition us could get to take the spirit, because us were a-having another party the next week. They [the Klan] didn’t come to that party.
“I don’t know why they don’t have no Ku Kluxes now. The spirit still have the same power.” […]
“Then Mr. Chisolm’s brother got hisself appointed sheriff and make Mr. Chisolm deputy. That’s when he started running things, sure enough. Next thing you know, Mr. Chisolm is the sure enough sheriff, hisself.
“Then he gather all his kind of folks around him and they make out a black list. The folkses names that were on it were the ones the Chisolms didn’t need. It were talked around that the first name on that list were Mr. John Gully’s name. A heap of Ku Kluxes’ names were on it, too. Mr. Chisolm send the Ku Kluxes’ names to the Governor and expected him to do something about running them out. But, course, he couldn’t do nothing about that, because it were a spirit. But every now and then somebody what’s name were on that list would get shot in the back.” 7It’s not clear whether Mr. McAllum really believed the Klan members were spirits. He seems to know that they were people, especially with the Sheriff’s anti-Klan black list. Yet, he keeps referring to them as spirits. It’s possible that he was being sarcastic and it simply didn’t translate well through the interviewer.
Charlie Moses, Brookhaven, MSL
“I only seen the Ku Klux Klan once. They was a-parading the streets here in Brookhaven. They had a Nigger that they was a-going to tar and feather.”
Berry Smith, Forest, MS:
“The Ku Klux’s was bad up above here, but I never seen any. I heard tell of them whipping folks, but I don’t know nothing about it, much.”
Susan Snow, Meridian, MS:
“You know, they was mighty strict, about then, with colored folks, and white people, too. The Ku Kluxes was out nights. I heard tell about them whipping people. But they never bothered me.”
Isaac Stier, Natchez, MS:
“The Ku Klux Klan didn’t bother me none. Course, I was feared of them at first, but I soon learned that long as I behaved myself and tended my business they weren’t after me. They sure disastered them what meddled with the white folks. Nobody but a smart Alec would have done that. Only Niggers hunting trouble mixed into white folks business. Once or twice I seen Ku Klux’s riding by, but they always traveled fast and I kept my mouth shut.
“After the war my marster come back home. The fences was gone, the cattle was gone, the money and the Niggers was gone, too. On top of all that the whole country was over-run and plumb took over by white trash. It was cautious times.
“After awhile, robbers and low down trash got to wearing robes and pretending they was Ku Klux’s. Folks called them the ‘white caps.’ They was vicious, and us was more scared of them dan us had ever been of the Klan. When they got liquored up the devil sure was turned loose.”
Clara C. Young, Monroe, MS:
“The Yankees come around after the War and told us we’s free and we shouted and sang, and had a big celebration for a few days. Then we got to wondering about what good it did us. It didn’t feel no different; we all loved our marster and missus and stayed on with them just lak nothing had happened. The Yankees tried to get some of the men to vote, too, but not many did because the was scared of the Ku Kluxers. They would come at night all dressed up like ghosts and scare us all.”
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.||⇡||Wouldn’t you just love for Mr. Allen to elaborate on breaking them up?|
|5.||⇡||Two things. First, the patrolers (or patty-rollers) were basically slave catchers before and during the war. The Klan, of course, came after. Most former slaves make clear distinctions between the two. Second, though very small in number, it seems like some black men collaborated with the Klan.|
|6.||⇡||When these interviews were conducted, the second wave of the KKK was already in the decline. The interviewees never seem to mention this second wave. Granted, the Klan had shifted focus from being anti-black to being anti-anything not “American,” but it wasn’t like black people had dropped off their radar.|
|7.||⇡||It’s not clear whether Mr. McAllum really believed the Klan members were spirits. He seems to know that they were people, especially with the Sheriff’s anti-Klan black list. Yet, he keeps referring to them as spirits. It’s possible that he was being sarcastic and it simply didn’t translate well through the interviewer.|