This week, we’ll hear the tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves of three different states – Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri.
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 Tennessee, where the Klan got their start, Kentucky, and Missouri, where the Klan took slightly more time to arrive. 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.
Frankie Goole, Nashville, TN:
“I remember the Ku Klux Klan and Pat-a-rollers. They would come around and whip the niggers with a bull ship. If they met a nigger on the road, they’d say, ‘Where is you going this time of morning?’ The slaves would say, “We is going over there to stay awhile,’ and then they would start beating them.
“I stood in our door and heard the hard licks and screams of the ones that was being whipped, and I’d tell my Misses, ‘Listen to that!’ She would say, ‘See, that is what will happen to you if you try to leave.’
“I remember one night at Ku Klux Klan rode up to our door. I told my Misses somebody was at the door wanting to know where my Marster was. She told him he was dead and her son had gone away that morning. He hunted all through the house, and up in the loft, and said ‘Where is the niggers?’
“My Misses told them they was down in the little house. He went down there, woke them up, asked them about their Master and the whipped all of them. If we had the Ku Klux Klan now there wouldn’t be so many people on the county road and in the pen.”
Precilla Gray, Nashville, TN:
“I remember the Ku Klux. One night a bunch of us went out, they got after us. We waded a big creek and hid in the bushes to keep them from getting us.”
Measy Hudson, Nashville, TN:
“The Ku Klux was bad on the ex-slaves at first.”
Patsy Hyde, Nashville, TN:
“I don’t remember much aboud the Ku Klux Klan, but I does remember seeing them parade one time in Nashville.” (She evidently refers to the Klan’s last parade in 1869 in Nashville, immediately preceeding the disbandment of the Klan at Fort Negley.)
Ellis Ken Kannon, Nashville, TN:
“I remember the Ku Klux Klan coming to my daddy’s home, asking for water, and they would keep us toting water to them for fifteen or twenty minutes. They didn’t whip or hurt any of us.”
Ann Matthews, Nashville, TN:
“In Manchester the Klu Klux Klan wore big high hats, red handkerchiefs on their faces and red covers on their horses. They took two niggers out of jail and hung them to a chestnut tree.
“One night when I was going with my daddy from the field hom, we met some of the K.K.K., and they said, ‘Aint’ you out late henry? And who is that gal with you?’ My daddy said, ‘We is going hom form work, and this is my daughter.’ They said, ‘Where has she been, we ain’t never seen her.’ He told them, ‘I’d been in Nashville.’ They said they’d be back that night, but we didn’t see them.”
Rev. John Moore, Nashville, TN:
“The Ku Klux Klan’s plan was to whip all white and colored people that didn’t stay at home and support their families, but would run around and live a bad life. When the Klan would be passing through the slaves would call them ghosts.”
Andy O’Dell, Nashville, TN:
“I remembers the Ku Klux Klan, but they never bothered me, though I heard a lot about them. They called themselves ‘White Caps’ and said they was right from the grave. When a slave got whippped it was because they disobey their white folks and the overseer whipped them. I thought my white folks was awful mean to me sometimes.”
Laura Ramsey Parker, Nashville, TN:
“I don’t remember now, very much about the Ku Klux Klan. I do remember that one night they passed our home and I grabbed a shotgun and said that I was goint to shoot them if they come on my place.”
Naisy Reece, Nashville, TN:
“Didn’t see any Ku Klux Klan, but I always got scared and hid when we’d hear they was coming.”
Millie Simpkins, Nashville, TN:
“I was scared to open my door after dark on account of Ku Klux Klan, they was red hot.”
Dan Thomas, Nashville, TN:
“Was told lost about the Ku Klux Klan and how they would catch and whip the colored people, but my white folks made me stay in and they never got me.”
Narcissus Young, Nashville, TN:
“One time, the Ku Klux Klan come to our house, but they harm nobody. Guess they was lookng for some slave or someone from another plantation without their marster’s pass.”
The recorded Slave Narratives of Tennessee were published here.
Easter Sudie Campbell, Hopkinsville, KY
“When my Pappy come home from the war, he was on the government side, he brung a pistol back with him that shot a ball they had caps on it, and used it in the war. The Ku Klux jumped after him one night and he got three of them with this pistol. Nobody ever knowed who got those Kluxes.”
Mary Wright, Gracey, KY:
“The Ku Klux used to stick the niggers head on the stake alongside the Cadiz road and there, the buzzards woudl eat them till nothing was left but the bones. There was a sign on this stake that said, ‘Look out nigger. You are next.’ Us children would not go far away from that cabin. I tells you that is so. I just knowed that this Ku Klux would do that to us sure if we had been caught.”
Charles Gabriel Anderson, St. Louis, MO
“The Ku Klux never bothered me none because I stayed up north out of their reach.”
George Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, MO
“Ku Klux? Yes, they was around sometimes, but they didn’t bother if you mind your own business. But the darkies better not congregate; because they sure take them out and flogged them. If they catch you at a neightbor’s house after dark, you sure better have a pass from your Massa.”
Betty Brown, Cape Girardeau, MO
“No, that wasn’t the gray-coats doign the killing, that was bushwackers and Ku Kluxers. They sure was bad. They shot my little sister in the back of her neck and they shot me in the leg. See that scar? That’s where they shoot me. And they killed my grandfather, they sure did.
“Grandgather’s name was Jim Hanover. Ole Massa Hanover, he was a lawyer and he educated my grandfather to be an overseer. He lived with Massa Hanover for long time. He was a good man, my grandfather was, and he was smart too. And when the war surrender, they make him Mayor of Pie-hatten, and he made a good mayor too. People all said so, and they was going to elect him for four more years, and the Ku Kluxers said they wasn’t going to have no nigger mayor. So they took him out and killed him. They was awful times. Now you know that wasn’t right and who’s the curse for such things is going to rest on?”
Lula Chambers, St. Louis, MO
“I used to be scared to death of those old Ku Klux folks with all them hoods on their heads and faces. I never will forget, I saw a real old darkey woman slave down on her knees praying to God for his help. She had a Bible in front of her. Course she couldn’t read it, but she did know what it was, and she was praying out of her very heart, until she drawed the attention of them old Ku Klux and one of them just walked in her cabin and lashed her unmerciful. He made her get up off her knees and dance, old as she was. Of course the old soul couldn’t dance but he just made her hop around anyhow.”
Ann Ulrich Evans, St. Louis, MO
“Now child, let me tell you right here, I was always a heap more scared of them Ku Klux Klan I was of anything else. Because the war was to help my folks. But them old Ku Klux never did mean us no good. Honey, I used to make pallets on the floor after the war for my children, myself and husband to sleep on, because them Ku Klux just come all around our house at night time and shoot in the doors and windows. They never bothered nobody in the day time. Then some time they come on in the house, tear up everything on the place, claim they was looking for somebody, and tell us they hungry because they ain’t had nothing to eat since the battle of Shiloh. Maybe twenty of them at a time make us cook up everything we got, and they had false pockets made in their shirt, and take up the skillet with the meat and hot grease piping hot and pour it every bit down the front of them shirts inside the false pockets and drop the hot bread right down there, behind the meat and go on.
“One night they come to our house after my husband to kill him, and my husband had a dream they’s coming to kill him. So he had a lot of colored men friends to be at our house with guns that night and time they saw them Ku Klux coming over the hill, they started shooting just up in the air and about, and them Ku Klux never did bother our house no more. I sure glad of that. I was so tired of them devils. If it hadn’t been for that they would have killed everyone of us that night. I don’t know how come they was so mean to us colored folks. We never did do nothing to them.
“They go to some of them niggers’ house, and they run up the chimney corner to hide and them low down hounds shoot them and kill them in the chimney hole. They was terrible. ”
Emily Camster Green, Cape Girardeau, MO
“The Ku Kluxers come around sometimes but mostly to see that darkies stay where they belong.”
Dave Harper, Montgomery City, MO:
“My mother-in-law was from Memphis. One day they went to church and the Ku Klux Klan came in and beat the people over their heads with pistols. The people went out the doors and windows. They could just blow a horn and the Ku Klux Klan would come from all directions.”
Harriet Lee, Cape Girardeau, MO
“Yessum the Ku Kluxes come around right smart. The woman I stayed with wouldn’t allow no foolishness round her place and they never bothered her none, but they beat up some of the neighbors. One ole man they beat till he die.”
Mattie Lee, Fredericktown, MO
“I remember when the Ku Klux Klan started out when they would dress up in white and they had a noise like ‘O-O’ ‘O-O’. But we were not afraid of them because we knew they would be killed if they come on the place.”
Letha Taylor Meeks, Smelterville, MO
“One time there was Ku Klux come to the door. I never seen them because I run and crawl under the bed, but I heard them say, ‘Please get me some water, I ain’t had a drink since the battle of Shiloh.'”
Wylie Miller, Cape Girardeau, MO
“I remembers one night the Ku Kluxers came — they wants a drink of water. One man say ‘Gimme some water. I ain’t had no drink since the battle of Shiloh.’ I had to carry water for him about as far as from here to across the street and that man drink five big buckets full and say he want more. My young Massa Wes, he step up, and tell them to leave here and he say ‘Wylie, don’t you carry no more water.’ They don’t want to go — they had on white gowns buttoned up the front with black buttons and masks on their faces.
“Young Wes, he had a pistol. He call it a Remington and he just as soon shoot them as to say ‘Howdy-do!’ So he tell them again, ‘Get out from here, I know you.’ They they goes but they say to me, ‘Boy, we don’t wanna catch you out at night’ — And they didn’t.”
Marilda Pethy, Montgomery City, MO
“The Ku Klux Klan come out and run the colored people away from home. Many a colored woman came to mother’s house in the middle of the night with clothes covered with ice and snow to the waist and carrying her baby in her arms because they ran her away from home.
“We knowed who the men was. We’d hear them say, ‘Are you going out tonight?’ ‘Yes’, I’s got a little Kluking to do.’ Going Klukin’! Huh! (Marilda fairly snorted with indignation and in some subtle way gave the impression that she did not approve of Klansmen.) Those men would bust the door down and run the people out. Run some of them clean away.”
Susan Rhodes, St. Louis, MO
“Them old Ku Klux folks in them old hoods, would catch us and beat us so bad. Them was the meanest folks in all the world I do know. We sure did hate them folks. They run off every one of my brothers. Then there was them nigger dogs. I guess you sure done heard about them, they get on the niggers’ tracks and run them down every time.”
Madison Frederick Ross, Commerce, MO
“One time the Ku Klux come around. They knock on the door, then they say ‘Please give me a drink, I ain’t had a drink since the battle of Shiloh.’ What for they say that? Why, you see, they wants us to think they’s the spirits of the soldiers killed at Shiloh and they been in hell so long they drinks all the water they can get. This one man make us carry him five buckets of water, and it look like he drink them but next morning there’s a big mud puddle side the door.”
Jane Thompson, Fredericktown, MO
“The Ku Klux Klan would come and claim they could drink a bucket of water. That was done so they could get us to come out to them. There would be four or five in a gang.”
The recorded Slave Narratives of Missouri were published here.
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.|