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Chapter 57: the Ku-Klux Klan

After Congress had overthrown President Johnson's plan and had completed the formal reconstruction of the insurrectionary States according to its own views, the political disabilities of the late Confederates deprived them of suffrage and placed the political control of these States in a new party, composed of Southern Union men, Northern men who at the end of the war settled in the South, and the negroes.

Politicians of the Republican Party hoped through this combination to keep the Southern States Republican on national issues and secure the rights of complete citizenship to the new voters.

The negroes were generally very ignorant and not wisely led, and even if they had been the wisest of rulers the opposition of the whites to being ruled by their late slaves would have been naturally very fierce.

The opposition, as yet powerless at the polls, was greatly strengthened by the course, hostile to Congress, which President Johnson had pursued, and early in 1868 began to show itself in the operations here and there of certain secret organizations. The primary object of these associations was undoubtedly political, in some places avowed to be in opposition to the Union Leagues, that favored strong national control in the South, leagues which not only took form in Northern [375] cities but also had prototypes in the South among the Unionists and negroes.

The ex-Confederate General Forrest even claimed for the former a “benevolent and defensive” purpose. The benevolence was to be mutual aid; the defensive, ostensibly to prevent Union leagues, composed mostly of negroes, from disturbing the peace. Whatever the origin of the associations, when full grown they became a monster terrible beyond question. The oath of perpetual secrecy with the penalty of death attached to its violation, of implicit obedience to a chief or chiefs, the guarding of secrets by the obligation to slay a betrayer, and the oath of every chief to obey without hesitation the orders of some “inner circle,” constituted societies which in some parts of the South came to rival the Nihilistic assassins of Russia or the inner chamber of the old Spanish Inquisition. From the numerous cases of murder and outrage perpetrated upon negroes and those who befriended them during the days of reconstruction, which were reported to my officers and were by them recorded with the different circumstances attending them, it is now clear that the main object from first to last was somehow to regain and maintain over the negro that ascendency which slavery gave, and which was being lost by emancipation, education, and suffrage.

The opposition to negro education made itself felt everywhere in a combination not to allow the freedmen any room or building in which a school might be taught. In 1865, 1866, and 1867 mobs of the baser classes at intervals and in all parts of the South occasionally burned school buildings and churches used as schools, flogged teachers or drove them away, and in a number of instances murdered them. But the better [376] portion of the communities had not been engaged in these acts, and there was no evidence that respectable Confederate soldiers were involved in these enterprises.

Our work of establishing schools went steadily on. Early in 1868, however, was the first appearance in my Bureau school reports of an offensive secret organization. It was from Charlestown, W. Va. Our workers received a note from the “Ku-Klux Klan.” Not a white family there after that could be found willing to board the excellent lady teachers. At Frostburg a male teacher was threatened with violence, the Klan having sent him notes, ordering him to depart. Loyal West Virginians, however, stood by him and he did not go. In Maryland, also, one teacher was warned and forced to leave. The Klan signed their rough document which was placed in his hand, “Ku-Klux Klan.” The face of the envelope was covered with scrawls; among these were the words: “Death! Death!” By a similar method a teacher at Hawkinsville, Ga. (a colored man), was dealt with by menace and afterwards seriously wounded. The Georgia superintendent wrote that for the last three months, April, May, and June, 1868, there had been more bitterness exhibited toward all men engaged in the work of education than ever before; and there were few but had received threats, both anonymous and open. Several freedmen had abandoned their fields from fear.

The cry from Alabama was even more alarming. People from a distance could not comprehend the feeling; schoolhouses were burned, and those left standing were in danger; teachers were hated and maltreated, two being driven from their work. “The [377] truth is,” they cried, “we are in the midst of a reign of terror.”

But Louisiana exceeded; Miss Jordan's school at Gretna was entered by ruffians; the walls of her room were covered with obscene pictures and language, and threats against the teacher posted; she was insulted on the ferry and in the streets, and even annoyed in such a small way as to be required to pay twice as much ferriage as the teachers in the white schools. In Markville, the Ku-Klux Klan made more open demonstrations, but always by night. They posted their documents around the town, so terrifying the colored people that they did not dare leave their homes after dark. The night schools had to be closed. At Mary and Sabine parish; at Cherryville and Rapides parish; at Washington and Opelousas; at St. Landry parish, and elsewhere in a similar way by visitations and threats the schools were shut up and the teachers driven off.

In Texas, both at Georgetown and Circleville, the schools were similarly closed out; at the latter place the school edifice was burned to the ground.

Mrs. Baldwin, the teacher at Bowling Green, Ky., was a Christian lady of agreeable manners and unusual culture, but not one of the twenty-seven loyal families of the place dared incur the odium of giving her a home. The Regulators had made themselves felt; men, professing to be gentlemen, insulted her upon the streets. Vile books and pictures were sent to her by mail; and, as a last resort, she was threatened with assassination if she was found in the city at the expiration of five days. Many other schools had to be maintained under military guard; five school buildings in Kentucky were burned about that time. [378]

Of course such conduct, bad as it seemed for the community, could not properly be charged to any of the people beyond those who were guilty of the barbarous acts, or those who, in their blindness of prejudice, sustained them. It became evident in studying the letters and communications which reached me, usually cautiously written, so as not to anger the whites around them if they should happen to be published, that in the early summer of 1868, the former irregular and local hostility to freedmen's schools had taken on a new strength. It involved in its meshes Unionists and well-to-do industrious negroes, as well as teachers and scholars. Further examples will illustrate the procedure: On May 16th, L. S. Frost, a white teacher in Tennessee, was taken at night from his room by a mob of disguised young men and carried to a field near by, men choking and beating him all the way; they were flourishing their pistols over his head, and threatening to kill him instantly if he did not cease resisting. They made him promise to leave town the next morning. They then blackened his face and portions of his body with a composition of spirits of turpentine, lampblack, and tar, and released him. About a dozen persons were engaged in the outrage, some of whom were recognized by Mr. Frost.

John Dunlap, a teacher educated in Ohio, was in July, 1868, in charge of a colored school at Shelbyville, Tenn. On Independence Day, about ten o'clock at night, a body of Ku-Klux, some fifty strong, masked, armed with pistols and bearing an emblem resembling the bleeding heart of a man, were paraded in front of his house. When he presented himself, they gave him commands which he resisted. They fired through his window, made him surrender his pistol, caused him to [379] mount, and escorted him to the public square. Then they seized and secured a prominent colored man, James Franklin. Proceeding with the regularity of soldiers, a captain commanding, they marched their victims across the Duck River, where, dismounting, with something like a leathern thong or strap they first flogged Franklin, each man giving him five blows. After that, taking Dunlap to another place, with the same parade, they performed the same operation, badly lacerating his body. After directing him to leave the city the next day, they released him. Dunlap not at once complying with their demand, they served upon him a formal notice, sent in the form of an unstamped letter through the post office, ordering him to leave by July 15th, or he would be burned to death. Dunlap thereupon went to Nashville and remained two months. Then he came back. He was visited again after his return, but was now prepared with a guard. While the Ku-Klux were hallooing that they “wanted Dunlap and fried meat” and were approaching his residence, the guard fired upon them. The band retreated and did not appear in Shelbyville again.

A school building was burned at Carthage, Tenn., by incendiaries; and at Somerville, Saulsbury, Pocahontas, and in numerous other country places the schools were completely broken up by insults and shameful outrages perpetrated upon the teachers.

The outcropping of cruelties in portions of Louisiana showed by the persons who were chosen as victims that the effort of the secret organization was particularly political. On July 28, 1868, William Cooper, a white Unionist, came to our agent in the parish of Franklin. He was severely wounded, having been shot in his own house near Girard Station; a freedman [380] named Prince was killed in the same parish, and all the teachers were so terrified by such demonstrations as to stop teaching.

In the preceding April a good teacher, Frank Sinclair, had been slain in Ouachita, and other helpers there were so put in jeopardy of their lives that they could only teach secretly in the cabins.

At many points in the State were these “bands of desperadoes formed in secret organization, styling themselves the Ku-Klux Klan.” They shot and hung colored men. Their lifeless bodies were found, but the secrets were so well kept that no guilty parties could be discovered. In some places negroes were taken out and whipped (as a rule by night) and there was no clew to the perpetrators. Even United States agents dared not hold a public meeting in that region-a gathering at night of negroes at any place would be regarded with suspicion by the whites and result in outrage and suffering to the blacks.

The aspect of society in Arkansas in the summer and fall of 1868 presented similar combined secret planning and movement. Lawlessness, rowdyism, and depredations in some parts of the State for a while ran riot. Union men were driven from their homes and freedmen subjected to the grossest maltreatment. In Crittenden county, Mr. E. G. Barker, our Bureau agent, was shot and severely wounded, August 12, 1868. An attempt to assassinate him at Hamburg, Ashley county, two years before had failed to end his life, but the wounds received had caused him the loss of an arm.

The secret bodies had different names in different localities. They appeared as “Regulators,” “White Caps,” “Pale faces,” “Knights of the white Camellia,” [381] and “Ku-Klux” or “Ku-Klux Klan.” General Forrest testified before the Congressional Committee that his estimate of their numbers in Tennessee alone exceeded 40,000.

The latter part of the year 1868, before the election of General Grant for his first term, these murderous secret societies reached their greatest activity. Even the country hamlets in the neighborhood of Chattanooga, which city always after the war abounded in Union men and late Union soldiers, were boldly visited by this strange horde. They came upon one commodious schoolhouse in the country and burned it to the ground; but the persistent teacher, a colored youth, though threatened by the Ku-Klux Klan with violence and death if he did not yield to their commands, made himself a brush arbor and there continued his school to the end of the term. Before the November election (the freedmen's first national suffrage) the Ku-Klux, armed and masked as usual, at night paraded the streets of several cities, and filled the freedmen with terror. Similar detachments boldly roamed over large districts of country outside of the cities.

At Rock Spring, Ky., the Ku-Klux, estimated fifty strong, came at ten o'clock at night, seized the teacher, James Davis, a native of the place, an able and respected colored man, and ordered him to leave the country. His fine school building was reduced to ashes.

On October 21, 1868, a host of these “Regulators” set upon a negro assembly at Cadiz, which a Bureau messenger, Mr. P. S. Reeves, was visiting and addressing. The Regulators stoned the building and dispersed the negroes. Some of the rush shouted after Mr. Reeves: “Kill the scalawag!” “Shoot the Yankee [382] ” This was done while he was finding his way to the hotel. He halted and faced them. They then “surrounded him, thrust their pistols into his face, beat him, kicked him,” and after abusing him for a while ordered him to run for his life. This time, by what he called a quick walk, he reached the hotel. A larger mob surrounded the public house and could only be appeased by his promise to leave town the next morning.

After the election, for a time, the excessive wrath abated. From my point of observation, the two months of 1868 that followed the Presidential election and the first six in the next year, 1869, were quite free from the Ku-Klux raids.

During the last half of 1869, however, there was a quickening of the secret pulse. In the northern part of Alabama, along the border between Alabama and Tennessee, now and then there was “trouble between the races.” “But,” said our representative, “this is attributed to incursions of Ku-Klux coming from Tennessee where, in remote localities, the organization is kept up for political effect, rather than for the bitter strife of former years.” But Tennessee herself was at this time comparatively clear of any active operations of the Ku-Klux Klan. From Kentucky, however, a teacher who had a remarkably good school about ten miles from Bowling Green wrote: “The Ku-Klux Klan came one night and told me if I did not break up my school they would kill me.” The teacher obeyed. He reported that the white people said that this action by the Ku-Klux was had because “the niggers there were getting too smart.”

North Carolina, that had made such good progress in every way under our systematic work, began in [383] some of its counties to be infested during the latter half of 1869. “There was for a time a suspension of schools in a number of districts.” Our inspector wrote that it was “owing to the influence of certain lawless bands.” Teachers became frightened, and, under the threats of violence printed on placards and put upon doors and fence posts, it was deemed best to obey the dread-inspiring foes that, many or few, were magnified by excited imaginations into multitudes. The marauders went in bands, always masked, usually in small squads, each squad having from five to ten in number. One of our best North Carolina workers near the close of this bitter year, 1869, had in his communication from his district, consisting of Rowan, Iredell, Davie, and Yadkin counties, these sad words: “Our situation is now more painful than it has ever been since we took up this notable cause of the freedmen. I mind my own business as closely as I can, but know no safety of life or property.”

South Carolina showed some eruptions of the same nature as late as December 24, 1869. A gentleman of good standing was building a large school structure at Newberry, S. C., for the education of the children of the freed people. He was visited by armed men and driven from the hotel where he was boarding, and a young lady teacher at the same place, sent by the Methodists from Vermont, was subjected to the meanest sort of insults and persecutions.

Georgia, too, in this time of comparative quiet, furnished some instances of the action of the secret bands. In about half of the State “Ku-Klux Klans,” armed, disguised, roaming through country districts, committed their atrocious outrages. The teacher, R. H. Gladding, was by them driven from Greensboro. The [384] gentleman who boarded him, because he had harbored him, was taken from his house at night and unmercifully scourged. Abram Colby (colored) about this time being a member elect of the legislature, was beaten nearly to death. At Maxey's Station, Oglethorpe county, P. H. Gillen, a white man, was dealt with in the same way and forced to leave. My agent thus witnessed: “I have also found outrages of a similar character committed in this month (December, 1869) in the southern part of the State. These murders and outrages are committed by organized gangs, generally in the night, and the civil authorities seem to be unable to prevent them.”

Texas, at this period, presented a better field. Order had generally been secured, yet Major McCleery, our State superintendent of education, while extending and inspecting his schools, had to say: “Sometimes we were driven out of places on our mission becoming known. Frequently we had to do our business in secret and travel in disguise.” His clerk was twice ambushed by the Regulators and fired upon, and his messenger several times assaulted for serving “the Yankee.” Threatening letters were sent, bricks were thrown through the windows, dead cats were dropped into cisterns, and other such petty annoyances frequently took place to worry him. Yet with the courage and perseverance of a hero, he kept on, and “planted many flourishing schools.” The pros and cons of Texas society were shown at Gonzales. A Hungarian teacher of good ability and character was set upon by a small night detachment of six of these Regulators, well disguised and armed with revolvers. They beat him, they took him to the river and immersed him, with threats of drowning. The postmaster, a truly brave [385] Southern man, successfully came to his relief, and the white citizens of Gonzales assembled and passed resolutions against the outrage, and promised the utmost aid and support to the town officers for the discovery, apprehension, and punishment of the offenders. Such affairs, thus ending, became stepping-stones to progress.

Tennessee in its middle and western sections was the leader in this Ku-Klux business. The most heinous crimes occurred just before an election. Gradually the friends of order and good government in those very much disturbed sections came to the front and were outspoken in their condemnation of the whippings, lynchings, and assassinations, and all such infamous secret proceedings; so that even when the Regulators were for a time apparently very strong, reaction in the best Southern circles had set in against them before the close of 1869.

During 1870, there were few localities which were kept in ferment by these unscrupulous secret organizations. By procuring the support of good citizens all over the South and,when necessary, action by the army to arrest outlaws, our schools whenever temporarily closed were soon reopened and steady progress made.

Colonel Beecher, in his June report from Alabama, spoke of bad feeling in a few counties. There were threats to burn school structures, but by vigilance the dreaded calamity was everywhere prevented. But in northwestern Louisiana there was still trouble enough. McCleery, the superintendent from Texas, and those aiding him, had many narrow escapes. While traveling on duty through Winn parish, a band like those so often described waylaid him and drove him to refuge in a swamp, where, by staying all night and making a [386] twenty-five-mile detour, he managed to escape from their clutches. The negroes, he said, never recovered from the election murders of 1868. His accounts, in keeping with that of a Louisiana State committee, showed that there had been in nine parishes two hundred and twenty-seven (227) freedmen and Union white men (freedmen mostly) killed outright, and sixtyeight (68) wounded by gun shots or maltreated; that is, this was the number officially discovered and sworn to, but there were very many who had disappeared whose fate was not known. McCleery added: “All this has had a terrible effect on these (colored) people, unnerving and discouraging them in all respects.”

The masked outlaws had spread terror from Winn county to the Texas border; they had burned the courthouse and records of Winn, and stopped the courts; they promised to kill our agent there if he opened a school, and the teacher sent thither was never heard from again, probably drowned in the bayou.

Lieutenant Butts, of the army, who was murdered by the same masked band about election time, had been buried near where he fell. McCleery could get no aid to move his body eight months after the event, so cowed were the citizens, white and black, by the terror that the Ku-Klux had inspired.

July 11, 1870, is the date memorable at Cross Plains, Ala., for a later specimen of Ku-Klux raid. It is the one that Senator Wilson recorded in his “Rise and fall of the slave power,” “Tony Cliff, Berry Harris, Caesar Frederick, and William Hall,” colored men, and the “white schoolmaster, William C. Luke,” all for some insignificant charge, raised against them, were in the hands of civil authorities; they were taken from them by force and murdered by a detachment of the [387] Ku-Klux Klan. Though nobody was indicted by the grand jury in this case, yet the stir and opprobrium of this dastardly crime, like that in the case of the colored Baptist preacher, Elias Hill, who had been dreadfully abused and scourged in the Carolinas, made themselves so widely felt, that the organized outlawry became less apparent from that time on.

However, there were some disturbances, accompanied by crime in places, as in three counties of Mississippi, the accounts of which came to my headquarters during the spring of 1871. The school, six miles east of Okolona, was closed by order of the Ku-Klux outlaws. The information was sent us on April 5th. All schools in Monroe county, over sixty in number, were also ordered to be closed by the same authority. Notices were served upon Northern men to leave the State. The schoolhouse at Meridian was burned. It was built by the Government.

Reports came in of Warren Tyler, foully murdered at Meridian; of Aaron Moore banished and his house destroyed; of Mayor Sturgis driven from Meridian; of the father of Wesley Lee, pursued and finally assassinated; of teachers (April 21st) at Rouses Mills, Monroe county, and at Aberdeen, driven off from their schools by the Ku-Klux; of a colored man named Durham slain April 23d; of Tom Hornburger, a freedman, literally shot to pieces April 24th; the same night a schoolhouse burned, where a colored girl was teaching; of a postmaster at Aberdeen, a Southern Republican, ordered to change his politics; at Athens, Mississippi, of Alex Page, colored, (March 29) taken out of his house and hanged; near Hood's Church, of another freedman shot and killed, about twelve miles from a station of some of our troops. [388]

A Ku-Klux letter of notification ran: “We can inform you that we are the law itself, and that an order from these headquarters is supreme above all others.”

I closed an itemized account in a letter to the Secretary of War in these words: “I therefore report them to enable you or the President to act officially, hoping that you may be able to cleanse at least three counties, Monroe, Lowndes, and Noxubee, and that part of Lauderdale especially infested by the outlaws, in the way that your extensive war experience has taught you.”

Reviewing the operations of those secret, unscrupulous organizations popularly known as “Ku-Klux Klans,” in connection with the freedmen's education, after an interval of forty years, my conclusions are as expressed in the following language:

The operations of the Ku-Klux Klan were directed principally against the negroes, and those who were supposed to especially lend them countenance, by murders, whippings, and other acts of violence, to inspire them with such terror as to render unavailable their newly conferred political privileges.

But the hostility to education was rather incidental than otherwise. The grand object of the “Solid South,” so called, was to prevent what was denominated “negro domination.” The secret societies turned their machinery against Union Southerners to silence or convert them; against “carpet baggers” (which included the Northern teachers of colored schools) to banish them; and against all negroes to so intimidate and terrorize them that they would not dare to vote except as their new masters directed. All my officers and agents were naturally involved in the dangers and sufferings of their wards. [389]

After Grant became President, United States military action against the Ku-Klux was very prompt and had much to do with causing the cessation of their outrages. But the end sought by those cruel associations had been obtained, first by their action and later by the counting of the ballots against the blacks. Negro voting, negro office holding, and negro domination were put under an effectual ban. But in spite of all the cruelties and hindrances the education of the freedmen has been rapidly developed and steadily advanced, till all the States have a reasonably good basis for free schools and the foundation of a system of universal education.

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