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‘Sprung Right Up Out of the Earth’ – Former Slaves Speak on the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina

This week, we’ll continue our series, hearing the tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves – this time from North Carolina.

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 North Carolina, where the Klan was an early presence. 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.

Martha Allen, Raleigh, NC:
“I remembers that the Ku Klux used to go to the Free Issues houses, strip all the family and whip the ole folkses. Then they dances with the pretty yaller gals and goes to bed with them. That’s what the Ku Klux was, a bunch of mean mens trying to have a good time.” 4A “yaller gal” was a woman who was mostly white, but considered black due to the “one drop” laws. Much was made of this term in vaudeville and pulp fiction novels.

W.L. Bost, Asheville, NC:
“Then the Ku Klux Klan come along. They were terrible dangerous. They wear long gowns, touch the ground. They ride horses through the town at night and if they find a Negro that tries to get nervy or have a little bit for himself, they lash him nearly to death and gag him and leave him to do the best he can. Some time they put sticks in the top of the tall thing they wear and then put an extra head up there with scary eyes and great big mouth, then they stick it clear up in the air to scare the poor Negroes to death.”

Mandy Coverson, Raleigh, NC:
“The Ku Kluxes was pretty mean, but they picked there spite on the Free Issues. I don’t know why they done this except that they ain’t wanting no niggers a-favoring them near by, now that slavery am over. They done a heap of beating and chasing folkses out in the country but I except that the Carpetbagger’s rule was mostly the cause of it.”

Willis Cozart, Zebulon, NC:
“The Ku Klux Klan sprung right up out of the earth, but the Yankees put a stop to that by putting so many of them in jail. They do say that that’s what the State Prison was built for.”

Zeb Crowder, NC:
“The Ku Klux would certainly work on you. If they caught you out of your place they would get with you. I don’t remember anything about the Freedman’s Bureau but the Ku Klux Klan was something all niggers was scared of. Yes sir, they would get with you. That’s right.”

Adeline Crump, NC:
“The Ku Klux made the niggers think they could drink a well full of water. They carried rubber things under their clothes and a rubber pipe leading to a bucket of water. The water bag held the water – they did not drink it. Guess you have heard people tell about they drinking so much water.”

Reverend Squire Dowd, Raleigh, NC:
“I did not like the Yankees. We were afraid of them. We had to be educated to love the Yankees, and to know that they freed us and were our friends. I feel that Abraham Lincoln was a father to us. We consider him thus because he freed us. The Freedmen’s Bureau and carpet baggers caused us to envy our masters and the white folks. The Ku Klux Klan, when we pushed our rights, came in between us, and we did not know what to do. The Ku Klux were after the carpet baggers and the Negroes who followed them.”

Engraving of a photo depicting the re-enactment of the Ku Klux Klan's attempted lynching of John A. Campbell in Moore County, North Carolina in August 1871. Click the photo for more information.
Engraving of a photo depicting the re-enactment of the Ku Klux Klan’s attempted lynching of John A. Campbell in Moore County, North Carolina in August 1871.
Click the photo for more information.

Kitty Hill, Raleigh, NC:
“I remember the Ku Klux and how they beat people. One night a man got away from them near where we lived in Chatham County. He lived out in the edge of the woods; and when they knocked on the door, he jumped out of a back window in his night clothes with his pants in his hands and outrun them. There was rock in the woods where he run and that nigger just tore his feet up.

“They went to one nigger’s house up there and the door was barred up. They got an ax and cut a hole in the door. When the hole got big enough the nigger blammed down on them with a gun and shot one of their eyes out. You know the Ku Klux went disguised and when they got to your house they would say in a fine voice, ‘Ku Klux, Ku Klux, Ku Klux, Ku Klux.'”

Tina Johnson, Raleigh, NC:
“After the surrender we stayed on and went through the Ku Klux scare. I know that the Ku Kluxes went to a nigger dance one night and whipped all of the dancers. Ole Marster Berry was mad, because he ain’t sent for them at all and he don’t want them.”

Charity McAllister, Raleigh, NC:
“Oh! ho, the Ku Klux, Ha!, Ha! They were real scandals, and I just can’t tell you all the mean things they done right after the war. Reubin Matthew’s slave, George Matthews, killed two Ku Klux. They double teamed him and shot him, and he cut them with an ax, and they died.”

Fannie Moore, Asheville, NC:
“After the war the Ku Klux broke out. Oh, miss they was mean. In their long white robes they scare the niggers to death. They keep close watch on them afraid they’d try to do something. They have long horns and big eyes and mouth. They never go round much in the day. Just night. They take the poor niggers away in the woods and beat them and hang them. The niggers was afraid to move, much less try to do anything. They never know what to do, they have no learning. Have no money. All they can do was stay on the same plantation till they can do better.”

Julius Nelson, Raleigh, NC
“If the Yankees comed to our part of the country I don’t remember seeing them but I does know that the Ku Kluxes done give us a heap of trouble.”

Tiney Shaw, Wake County, NC
“The Ku Klux Klan weren’t half as bad as them Yankee robbers what stayed in Raleigh after the war, robbing, plundering, and burning up everything. The south had to have the Ku Klux Klan but they ain’t had no need for the Yankees.”

Lizzie Williams, Asheville, NC
“Then there was the Ku Klux Klan. They were fightful looking critters. My pappy say they go out in the country and die poor niggers to the tree and beat them to death. They dress all kinds of fashions. Most of them look like ghosts. They never go like the paddyrollers, they just sneak around at night when the poor niggers in bed. Then about twelve o’clock they tie up all the niggers they catch and after they through beating them they leave them with their hands tied in the air and the blood streaming out of their backs.”

Alex Woods, Raleigh, NC:
“I was very much afraid of the Ku Klux. They wore masks and they could make you think they could drink a whole bucket of water and walk without noise, like a ghost. Colored folks was afraid of them. They was the fear of the niggers.”


The recorded Slave Narratives of North Carolina were published in two volumes.
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.