“Do you remember the Ku Klux Klan,” asked the Federal Writers Project interviewer. “What were your experiences with them?”
During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration, established as part of the New Deal, sent writers all over the country to collect first person accounts from typical Americans. While much of their early work focused upon regional folklore, toward the end of the 1930s, the focus changed to hearing from former slaves.
Over the course of three years, 2,300 interviews had been conducted and compiled into a multi-volume series. Most of the formerly enslaved subjects were asked similar questions, including the above questions about the KKK.
Their answers varied wildly. Some could remember almost nothing about them, while others told long stories about the organization. Most of them said at least a few lines.
For the next couple of months, we’ll take a weekly look into exactly what the former slaves had to say about the Klan. Each of the former-slave states (except Louisiana, which did not participate) will be represented in at least one post. Due to the volume from some of the states, a few will be presented over several posts.
When I first undertook this project, I already had some experience with slave narratives. In the relative few that were posted on This Cruel War, most at least mentioned the Klan. When delving deeper into the narratives, reading nearly all of the 2,300, what surprised me was the diversity of replies.
A good many, like Isaac Martin of Texas, said that he “heard tell of the Ku Klux, but I ain’t never seed them.” For the most part, I’ve not included these mentions. Most formerly enslaved people had at least heard of the Klan, and many gave nearly identical statements.
Just Like a Wild Hog
What I was interested in was people who had a more intimate experience with them.
“If the Negro wanted to vote,” recalled Tom Holland of Madisonville, Texax, “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.”
Mr. Holland’s testimony echoes many – they heard of someone having a bad experience with the Klan. While he may not admit to having been directly effected, even these rumors were enough to remain in his memory.
Others, like Ann Ulrich Evans of Missouri had harrowing personal encounters with the KKK:
“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.”
Many, like Alec Bostwick of Georgia, were merely children during the Klan days: “When the Ku Kluxers come through, us children thought the devil was after us for sure.”
Other children, such as Maggie Stenhouse, who was born a slave in South Carolina, had more personal run-ins with the Klan:
“The Ku Klux come, pulled off his robe and door face, hung it up on a nail in the room, and said, ‘Where’s that Jim Jesus?’ He pulled him out the room. The crowd run off. Mama took the three little children but forgot me and run off too. They beat papa till they thought he was dead and throwed him in a fence corner. He was beat nearly to death, just cut all to pieces. He crawled to my bed and woke me up and back to the steps. I thought he was dead—bled to death—on the steps. Mama come back to leave and found he was alive. She doctored him up and he lived thirty years after that. We left that morning.”
Ghosts of Soldiers
Of the re-occuring themes running through the slave narratives, perhaps the most often repeated is the one of the nightly visits of the Klan. Henry Garry of Birmingham, Alabama tells a fairly typical story:
“My daddy went over to where he setting on his horse at the well. Then he say, ‘Nigger get a bucket and draw me some cool water.’ Daddy got a bucket, fill it up and hand it to him. Cap’n, would you believe it? That man just lift that bucket to his mouth and never stop till it empty. Did he have enough? He just smack his mouth and call for more. Just like that, he didn’t stop till he drunk three buckets full. They he just wipe his mouth and say, ‘Lordy, that sure was good. It was the first drink of water I’ve had since I was killed at the battle of Shiloh.’”
Most of the formerly enslaved people saw threw it. “The Ku Klux made the niggers think they could drink a well full of water,” recalled Adeline Crump of North Carolina. “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.”
Going to Texas
While the story of the water is still well known today, one that I hadn’t come across was the often-related tale of how former slaves took revenge upon the Klan.
James Henry Stith of Arkansas:
“The Negroes were naturally afraid of the Ku Klux but they finally got to the place where they were determined to break it up. They didn’t have no ropes, but they would take grapevines and tie them across the road about breast high when a man would be on horseback. The Ku Klux would run against these vines and be knocked off their horses into the road and then the bushwhackers would shoot them. When Ku Klux was killed in this manner, it was never admitted; but it was said that they had gone to Texas. There was several of them went to Texas one night.”
Some believed this direct action had a lasting effect upon the Klan, at least locally. “The Ku Klux got to having trouble,” remembered Mose King of Arkansas. “They would put vines across the narrow roads. The horses run in and fell flat. The Ku Klux had to quit on that account.”
But it was not only Arkansas that witnessed this direct action. Kentucky also joined the fray, as told by Mandy Cooper:
“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.”
Texas, too, saw this as a victory – Nancy King recalled:
“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.”
Talking too Much and Making Trouble
Though a small minority, a number of former slaves seemed to support the Klan.
“After the war was over, freedom come, and with it the excitement of white folks coming down here and having us believe us just as good as white folks,” related Cureton Milling of South Carolina. “I have lived to see it was all a mistake. Then come the Ku Klux and scared some sense into my color.”
Like Mr. Milling, James Bolton of Georgia saw the Klan as a more or less good thing:
“Most of the niggers the Ku Kluxers got after wasn’t on no farm, but was just roaming around talking too much and making trouble. They had to take them in hand two or three times before some of them fool free niggers could be learned to behave theyselfs! But them Ku Kluxers kept on after them till they learned they just got to be good if they expects to stay round here.”
The account by John Crawford of Texas perhaps explains the reason a few former slaves supported the Klan. “The Ku Klux made a lot of devilment round-about that county,” he admits.” 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.”
His was hardly the only account of avoiding the Klan by keeping quiet, by remaining slaves in nearly all but name. While the support for the Klan was certainly sincere, it clearly came at the cost of their freedom. They supported the Klan because the Klan did not bother them. The Klan did not bother them because they learned how to remain invisible.
F.H. Brown of Arkansas seemed to understand this:
“Sometimes they would just persuade them not to vote. A Negro like my father, they would say to him, ‘Now, Brown, you are too good to get messed up. Them other niggers around here ain’t worth nothing, but you are, and we don’t want to see you get hurt. So you stay away from the polls tomorrow.’
“And tomorrow, my father would stay away, under the circumstances. They had to depend on the white people for counsel. They didn’t know what to do themselves. The other niggers they would threaten them and tell them if they came out they would kill them.”
Coming Up Next…
All of these stories, and many more will be posted over the next couple of months. It’s important for the sake of history to relate all of the various recollections of the Klan. From the remembrances of the horrors, to the willing support, all of the available narratives will be included.
Though most of the posts will feature compilations of accounts, we’ll start next week with the narrative of Brawley Gilmore, a former slave from Union, South Carolina. Mr. Gilmore recalls that the days of the Ku Klux Klan were “the awfulest days I ever seen.”