This week, we’ll hear tales of the Ku Klux Klan as told by former slaves in Texas. What is most striking are the varieties of experiences former slaves had with the Klan. Some saw brutal lynchings and were personally targeted, while others actually supported or even accompanied the Klan for a night.
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, the first of two due to the volume of testimonies, we’ll look at the answers given in Texas – a state that saw an early rise of the Klan in its eastern portions. 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.
Will Adams, Marshall, TX:
“I remembers when that Ku Klux business starts up. Smart niggers causes that. The carpetbaggers ruined the niggers and the white men couldn’t do a thing with them, so they got up the Ku Klux and stirs up the world.”
Agatha Babino, Beaumont, TX 4Ms. Babino is originally from Carenco, Louisiana. Since Louisiana did not participate in the Slave Narratives project, this is a rare interview, as it would have been impossible unless Ms. Babino hadn’t have moved to Texas.:
“The Ku Klux killed niggers. They come to take my uncle. He open the door. They don’t take him but tell him to vote Democrat next day or they will. They killed some niggers what wouldn’t vote Democrat.
“They kill my old uncle Davis. He won’t vote Democrat. They shoot him. They they stand him up and let him fall down. They tie him by the feet. They drag him through the brush. They dare his wife to cry.”
Harrison Beckett, Beaumont, TX:
“It’s at Panola County where I first hears of the Klux. They call them White Caps then. They move over in Panola County and ranges at the place called Big Creek Merval by McFaddin Creek. They’s pretty rough. The landowners tell the niggers not to kill the White Caps but to they pry it open and run you out in the field. They run the niggers from Merryville round Longview. They some good men in the Klux and some bad men. But us work hard and go home and they ain’t bother us none.”
Ellen Betts, Houston, TX:
“And after the war them Ku Kluxers what wear the false faces try to tinker with Marse’s niggers. One day Uncle Dave start to town and a Kluxer ask him where am his pass. Theat Kluxer caught him but Uncle Dave outrun him in the [sugar] cane. Marse grab the horse and go arrest that man and Marse a judge and he make that man pay the fine for hitting Uncle Dave. After they hears of that, them old poky faces sure scared of old Marse and they get out from Opelousas and stays out.”
Betty Bormer, Fort Worth, TX:
“Sure, I seen the Klux after the war but I has no experience with them. My uncle, he gets whipped by them, what for I don’t know exactly, but I think it was about a horse. Marster sure rave about dat, because my uncle weren’t to blame.
“When the Klux come, the no account nigger sure make the scatterment. Some climb up the chimney or jump out the window and hide in the dugout and such.”
Gus Bradshaw, Marshall, TX:
“The Klu Klux done lots of cutting up round there. Two of them come to Dr. Taylor’s house. He had two niggers what run off from the Klux and they want to whip them, but Dr. Taylor wouldn’t allow them. I knowed old Col. Alford, one of the Klux leaders, and he was a sight. He told me once, ‘Gus, they done send me to the pen for Kluxing.’ I say, ‘Massa Alford, didn’t they make a gentleman of you?’ He say, ‘Hell, no!'”
Louis Cain, Madisonville, TX:
“Wages was terrible small for a long time after I married and sometimes they wouldn’t pay us, and we had to beg or steal. I’s went a whole two days without nothing to eat. If it hadn’t been for them there Klu Klux, sometimes the niggers would have went on the warpath for starving. But the Klu Kluxers wouldn’t let them roam none, if they tried they stretch them out over a log and hit them with rawhide, but never say a word. That was what got the niggers — they was so silent, not a sound out of them, and the nigger he can’t stand that.”
John Crawford, Travis County, TX:
“The Ku Klux made a lot of devilment round-about that county. They always chasing some nigger and beating him up. But some them niggers sure deserve it. When they gets free, they gets wild. They won’t work or do nothing and thinks they don’t have to. We didn’t have no trouble, because we stays on the farm and works and don’t have no truck with them wild niggers.”
Eli Davison, Madisonville, TX:
“I never done no voting, because them Klu Kluxers was always at the voting places for a long time after the niggers was freed. The niggers has got on since them old days. They has gone from nothin’ to a fair educated folks. We has been kind of slow, because we was turnt loose without nothing, and couldn’t read and write.”
Lorenza Ezell, Beaumont, TX:
“I come in contact with the Klu Klux. Us left the plantation in ’65 or ’66 and by ’68 us was having such an awful time with the Klu Klux. First time they come to my mamma’s house at midnight and claim they soldiers done come back from the dead. They all dress up in sheets and make up like spirit. They groan around and say they been killed wrongly and come back for justice.
“One man, he look just like ordinary man, but he spring up about eighteen feet high all of a sudden. Another say he so thirsty he ain’t have no water since he been killed at Manassas Junction. He ask for water and he just kept pouring it in. Us think he sure must be a spirit to drink that much water. Course he not drinking it, he pouring it in a bag under he sheet. 5This is a strange, reoccuring theme with many Ku Klux visits. It won’t be the last we hear of it. Usually, their little trick was quickly sussed out. Also of note is the mention of Manassas – typically it was Shiloh.
“My mama never did take up no truck with spirits so she knowed it just a man. They tell us what they going to do if we don’t all go back to us massas and us all agrees and then they all disappear.
“Then us move to New Prospect on the Pacolet River, on the Perry Clemmons’ place. That in the upper edge of the county and that where the second swarm of the Klu Klux come out. They claim they going to kill everybody what am Republican. My daddy charge with being a leader amongst de niggers. He make speech and instruct the niggers how to vote for Grant’s first election. The Ku Klux want to whip him and he have to sleep in a hollow log every night.
“There’s a old man name Uncle Bart what live about half mile from us. The Kuu Klux come to us house one night, but my daddy done hid. Then I hear them say they going go kill old man Bart. I jump out the window and cut a shortcut through them woods and warn him. He get out the house in time and I save he life. The funny thing, I knowed all them Ku Klux. Despite their sheets and things, I knowed their voices and their saddle hosses.
“There was one white man name Irving Ramsey. Us play fiddle together lots of time. When the white boys dance they always wants me to go to play for their party. One day I say to that boy, ‘I done knowed you last night.’ He say, ‘What you mean?’ I say, ‘You one of them Ku Klux.’ He want to know how I know. I say, Remember when you go under the chestnut tree and say, “Whoa, Sont, whoa, Sont, to your horse?” He say, ‘Yes,’ and I laugh and say, ‘Well, I’s right up in that tree.’ They all knowed I knowed them then, but I never told on them. When they saw I ain’t going to tell, they never try to whip my daddy or kill Uncle Bart no more.”
O.W. Green, Del Rio, TX:
“The Ku Klux Klan made everything pretty squirrelly, so they taken the orphan children to Little Rock and kept them two, three years.” 6The interviewer was likely saying that the orphanage moved to Little Rock to escape the Klan.
Pauline Grice, North Fort Worth, TX:
“Us have most nothing to eat and then the Ku Klux come around there. Massa say not mix with that crowd what lose the head, just stay to home and work. Some of them niggers on other plantations ain’t keep their head and they gets whipped and some gets killed, but us does what massa say and has no trouble with them Klux.”
Pierce Harper, Galveston, TX:
“After us colored folks was considered free and turned loose, the Ku Klux broke out. Some colored people started to farming, like I told you, and gathered the old stock. If they got so they made good money, and had a good farm, the Ku Klux would come and murder them. The government builded school houses and the Ku Klux went to work and burned them down. They’d go to the jails and take the colored men out and knock their brains out and break their necks and throw them in the river.
“There was a colored man they taken, his name was Jim Freeman. They taken him and destroyed his stuff and him, because he was making some money. Hung him on a tree in his front yard, right in front of his cabin.
“There was some colored young men who went to the schools they’d opened by the government. Some white woman said someone had stole something of hers so they put them young men in jail. The Ku Klux went to the jail and took them out and killed them. That happened the second year after the War. 7It’s clear from Mr. Harper’s testimony, as well as that of many others, that the Klan was responsible for more than a few lynchings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the lynchings happened before anyone bothered to keep track of them. Most lynching databases begin their count in the 1870s or even 1880s.
“After the Ku Kluxes got so strong, the colored men got together and made the complaint before the law. The Governor told the law to give them the old guns in the comisary, what the Southern soldiers had used, so they issued the colored men old muskets and said protect themselves. They got together and organized the militia and had leaders like regular soldiers. They didn’t meet except when they heard the Ku Kluxes was coming to get some colored folks. Then they was ready for them.
“They’d hide in the cabins and then they found out who a lot of them Ku Kluxes was, because a lot of them was killed. They wore long sheets and covered the horses with sheets so you couldn’t recognize them. Men you thought was your friend was Ku Kluxes and you’d deal with them in stores in the daytime and at night they’d come out to your house and kill you. I never took part in none of the fights, but I heard the others talk about them, but not where them Ku Klux could hear them.
“One time they had 12 men in jail, accused of robbing white folks. All was white in jail but one, and he was colored. The Ku Kluxes went to the jailor’s house and got the jail key and got them men out and carried them to the River Bridge, in the middle. Then they knocked their brains out and threw them in the river.”
Tom Holland, Madisonville, TX:
“If the Negro wanted to vote the Ku Kluxes was right there to keep him from voting. Negroes was afraid to get out and try to exert their freedom. They’d ride up by a Negro and shoot him just like a wild hog and never a word said or done about it.”
Charley Hurt, Fort Worth, TX:
“After the war the Ku Klux am organized and they makes the niggers plenty trouble. Sometimes the niggers has it coming to them and lots of times they am opposed on. There was a old, colored man name George and he don’t trouble nobody, but one night the white caps — that what they called — comes to George’s place. Now, George know of some folks what am whipped for no-cause, so he prepare for them white caps. When they gets to he house George am in the loft. He tell them he done nothing wrong and for them to go away, or he kill them. They say he going to have a free sample of what he get if he do wrong and one of them white caps starts up the ladder to get George and George shoot him dead. Another white cap starts shooting through the ceiling. He can’t see George but through the cracks George can see and he shoots the second fellow. So they leaves and say they come back. George runs to he old massa and he takes George to the law men. Never nothing am done about him killing the white caps, because them white caps goes around abusing niggers.”
Richard Jackson, Woodlawn, TX:
“The Ku Kluxers come to our house in Woodlawn, and I got scared and crawled under the bed. They told mammy they wasn’t going to hurt her, but just wanted water to drink. They didn’t call each other by names. When the head man spoke to any of them he’d say, Number 1, or Number 2, and like that.”
John James, Fort Worth, TX:
“Some of the niggers thinks they am bigger than the white folks, because they’re free, and the Ku Klux, what us call white caps, puts them in the place they belongs.
“I gets chased by them white caps once, just before us leave massa. That am when I’s about thirteen year old. I’s about a mile off the place without the pass and it am the rule them days, all colored folks must have the pass to show where they belongs and where they going. I has no business to be off the place without the pass. ‘Twas a gal.. sure, damn it. Us walks down the road about a mile and am setting behind some bushes, off the plantation. Us see them white caps coming down the road on horseback and us ain’t much scared, because us think they can’t see us behind them bushes. But that leader say, ‘Whoa,’ and they could look down on us, because they on horseback. Well, gosh for mighty! There us am and can’t move then us so scared. One of them white caps says, ‘What you doing, nigger?’ ‘Just setting here,’ I tell him. ‘Yous better start running, because us going try catch you,’ they says.
“Us two niggers am down that road before them words am out of he mouth. They lets the horses canter behind we’uns and us try to run faster. Finally us gets home and that’s the last time I goes off without the pass.”
Sam Kilgore, Fort Worth, TX 8Mr. Kilgore is speaking of his time in Williams County, Tennessee after the war.:
“Before we moved to Texas the Ku Kluxers done burn my mammy’s house and she lost everything. There was about $100 in greenbacks in that house and a three hundred pound hog in the pen what die from the heat. We done run to Massa Rodger’s house. The riders get so bad they come most any time and run the colored folks off for no cause, just to be ornery and plunder the home. But one day I seed Massa Rodgers take a dozen guns out his wagon and he and some white men digs a ditch round the cotton field close to the road. Couple nights after that the riders come and when they gets near that ditch a volley am fired and lots of them drops off their horses. That ended the Klux trouble in that section.”
Nancy King, Marshall, TX:
“My brother-in-law, Sam Pitman, tells us how he put one by the Ku Kluxers. Him and some niggers was out one night and the Kluxers chases them on horses. They run down a narrow road and tied four strands of grapevine across the road, about breast high to a horse. The Kluxers come galloping down that road and when the horses hit that grapevine, it throwed them every which way and broke some their arms. Sam used to laugh and tell how them Kluxers cussed them niggers.”
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.||⇡||Ms. Babino is originally from Carenco, Louisiana. Since Louisiana did not participate in the Slave Narratives project, this is a rare interview, as it would have been impossible unless Ms. Babino hadn’t have moved to Texas.|
|5.||⇡||This is a strange, reoccuring theme with many Ku Klux visits. It won’t be the last we hear of it. Usually, their little trick was quickly sussed out. Also of note is the mention of Manassas – typically it was Shiloh.|
|6.||⇡||The interviewer was likely saying that the orphanage moved to Little Rock to escape the Klan.|
|7.||⇡||It’s clear from Mr. Harper’s testimony, as well as that of many others, that the Klan was responsible for more than a few lynchings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the lynchings happened before anyone bothered to keep track of them. Most lynching databases begin their count in the 1870s or even 1880s.|
|8.||⇡||Mr. Kilgore is speaking of his time in Williams County, Tennessee after the war.|