Terrorism and Heritage from the First Klan to the Second

Endorsed by S-USIH and SHGAPE

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Gilded Age & Progressive Era; Public History and Memory


In the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, white Americans increasingly embraced a mythic vision of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, justifying terrorist violence as tragic but necessary in a moment of social disorder. The consequences of this collaborative historical revision are well known—the creation of the second Klan as a “monument” to the first relied on a heroic image of Klansmen that was not entirely rooted in sectional fervor. The three papers on this panel investigate the process of constructing this Klan myth, and in particular how its authors manipulated historical evidence to rehabilitate the Klan’s reputation. Katherine Lennard examines how material traces of terrorism shaped the stories that both critics and supporters told about the Klan. The capture and display of Kluxers’ costumes during Reconstruction allowed federal officials to provide proof of the threat the Klan posed to peace in the South, but decades later, the Reconstruction Klan’s defenders flipped that narrative by using the public display of these very garments to justify its violence. Bradley Proctor explores another aspect of the memory of the Klan, the more refined discourse of academic scholarship as the Dunning or Columbia school of Reconstruction took shape. Proctor examines how some members of this generation of young scholars had had personal or familial connections to men in the Klan during Reconstruction. As they began their professional historical work, they courted other former Klan participants and interviewed them extensively. Informants’ colorful recollections and the materials they provided helped legitimize the Jim Crow South and insulate it from outside criticism. Finally, Michael W. Fitzgerald examines one particular extended family and the professional exploitation of their earlier Klan-connected history. New evidence allows a close examination of the wealthy Pickens family of Alabama, and how less prosperous in-laws used that prominent familial heritage to advantage. The women highlighted cultural activities, from building Confederate statues to actual stage performances of plantation-themed material, dialect performances, and stories extolling the old South and their own warm relationship to their former domestics. One brother-in-law utilized his youthful involvement with terrorists more directly, writing a later book extolling Klan violence as justified, despite his private misgivings when the events actually occurred. All these individuals were demonstrably, directly connected with the Reconstruction Klan, and their behavior shows in granular detail how rooted the second Klan was in the memory and public depiction of the first. Each of these cases calls attention to the ethical stakes of historical interpretation, through case studies showing how the Klan’s defenders weaponized anecdotal and material evidence to support a dangerous narrative. Scholars have spent much energy in recent decades examining the plantation myth, the efforts to defend the Jim Crow system through a manufactured past of southern gentility and honor. The public exploitation and naturalization of a terrorist legacy deserves similar scrutiny. The repeated revival of the Klan into our present moment suggests that better understanding of the cultural and intellectual antecedents of its foundational myths are still an urgent matter.

Papers Presented

The Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan, the Dunning School, and the Professionalization of History

Modern historians of Reconstruction have consistently criticized the racist history written by the early historians called the Dunning School. Their analysis, however, has been mostly historiographic. The Dunning School was not an abstract collection of ideas, but a connected network of specific people. Several of its most prominent members had family ties to or childhood experiences with men who had participated in the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. When they began researching the Civil War and Reconstruction, these men did not confine themselves to written accounts at objective distance. They used their personal connections to hold interviews with or have private correspondence with an even wider network of violent white supremacists. Through these connections, the men in the Dunning School also began collecting and curating collections of documents, using them to establish the most significant archival collections of southern history. These institutions, like most of the universities in which Dunning School scholars taught, were segregated, denying opportunities for similar educational journeys to the victims of white supremacy. Thus racism of the Dunning School was manifested in multiple ways: familial connections to perpetrators of violence during Reconstruction in the Klan; historical work that celebrated white supremacy; and institutional work that excluded Black scholars. This paper will explore the personal and professional connections that the men of the Dunning School had with men who had been in the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction in an effort to reckon with the implications of the legacy of their multifaceted racism on the historical profession today.

Presented By
Bradley D. Proctor, The Evergreen State College

From the First Klan toward the Second: Terror and Public Discourse

The cultural discourse surrounding Jim Crow had numerous antecedents, among them literal Reconstruction terrorism. The newspaperman Eyre Damer’s profusely documented life offers a window. This troublesome orphan served as an apprentice at the Eutaw Whig newspaper. His Klan associates undertook riots and murders, and at the time their indiscriminate ferocity troubled him. Fleeing Federal prosecution, he then embarked upon a long career in Democratic journalism. With the vogue of Thomas Dixon’s novels, he turned his youthful experiences to literary advantage. Damer’s history, When the Ku Klux Rode, manifested his sanitized public recollection. Historians mostly ignored this celebratory tract, but new manuscript sources illuminate its meaning. He was an eyewitness, so the teenaged Damer knew better than his later whitewashed version; his transition to the new Klan discourse occurs before our eyes. Damer kept writing in this vein, including the sketch of a play extolling a specific local Klan assassination, treating it in ironic terms. While this transpired, Damer’s female relations by marriage, themselves with prior Klan connections, engaged in parallel cultural enterprises. They erected Confederate statues and were UDC activists; one performed dialect material and wrote plantation-themed stories, achieving some public notice. Historians frequently write on such cultural topics without being able to trace their full antecedents. Here, the politics of Klan memory become concrete in the extended Pickens family, kin of one of Alabama’s prominent founders. Their lives trace the transition from Reconstruction terrorism into public discourse during the Progressive era.

Presented By
Michael W. Fitzgerald, St. Olaf College

Relics of Reconstruction: Material Culture and the Rehabilitation of the Ku Klux Klan

This paper explores how a shift in the display and interpretation of extant garments worn by members of the Reconstruction Klan contributed to the popular rehabilitation of the Klan’s image at the turn of the twentieth century. During Reconstruction, federal authorities used garments confiscated from arrested Kluxers to challenge those who denied its existence. In Congressional hearings and Northern newspapers alike, the strange appearance of Klan costume demonstrated the sinister threat that homegrown terrorists posed to federal authority and the national peace. Just a few decades later, the apparent meaning of these garments was no longer so clear. By the turn-of-the-century, historians and cultural producers used the appearance and construction of Kluxers’ garments to support their defense of Klan violence. They referenced the aesthetic and material qualities of these garments in support of two distinct claims: either that the Klan was a joke played on foolish Freedmen, or that Klansmen were heroic men forced into violent actions under extreme circumstances. At the same time, historical societies and museums from Alabama to New York displayed Klan garments alongside narratives defending the Klan, further fueling national interest in the Reconstruction Klan and paving the way for the popularity of its 1915 revival. Often portrayed as outright fabulists, the turn-of-the-century champions of the Reconstruction Klan’s legacy were instead shrewd in their deployment of authentic material evidence to support a dubious interpretation of historical events.

Presented By
Katherine Lennard, Boston University

Session Participants

Chair: Elaine S. Frantz, Kent State university
Elaine Frantz (Parsons) is a historian of violence, gender and race in the long Nineteenth Century. She is a Professor of History at Kent State University and holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Frantz is the author of two books: Ku-Klux :The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and Manhood Lost: Drunken Men and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). She has published articles in journals including the Journal of American History, the Journal of Southern History, Reviews in American History and the Journal of Social History. She is on the editorial board for the Journal of the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and American Nineteenth-Century History. Her work has been featured in Slate magazine, Vox, Back Story radio, CSPAN and other popular media. Frantz also actively collaborates with people who are incarcerated. She is a member of the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, and was part of a collective which edited and produced the book, Life Sentences: Writings from an American Prison (Belt Press, 2019). She is now collaborating with this group on future publications, as well as writing her own book about private and state violence in Pittsburgh.

Commentator: Bertis English, Alabama State University
Bertis D. English received his Ph. D. from Auburn University in 2006. He is a history professor, former associate dean and acting dean at Alabama State University in Montgomery. From 2015 to 2021 he edited the International Journal of Africana Studies and presently serves as associate editor of the Journal of Race and Policy. English sits on the board for the National Council for Black Studies, is president of the Harper Councill Trenholm Sr. Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and twice was president of the Southern Conference on African American Studies. In 2020 the University of Alabama Press published his book, Civil Wars, Civil Beings, and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Black Belt: A History of Perry County.

Presenter: Michael W. Fitzgerald, St. Olaf College
Professor Michael W. Fitzgerald, of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is a seasoned scholar of emancipation in its varied aspects. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1977, and his doctorate from that same institution in 1986. He has written four books dealing substantially with African American politics and Reconstruction: The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change during Reconstruction (1989), Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Mobile, 1860-1890 (2002), Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South (2007), and Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South (2017). He has written numerous articles in the field as well, several specifically on racial violence.

The current proposal grows out of this body of work and its extension into the topic of the Ku Klux Klan specifically. Fitzgerald’s current (co-authored) book project examines the prominent Pickens family of central Alabama, and their century of well-documented involvement with enslavement, racial subordination, and specifically with the Ku Klux Klan. Along with co-author Sarah Silkey of Lycoming College, Fitzgerald received a generous grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, and with this assistance this work is approaching completion. The current paper proposal will be the first public presentation by Fitzgerald on the Pickens project, and of this unique inside account of one family’s Klan involvement.

Presenter: Katherine Lennard, Boston University
Dr. Katherine J. Lennard is the inaugural Abbott Lowell Cummings Fellow in American Material Culture at Boston University. Her research approaches the history of race in nineteenth and early twentieth century American life through methods of material culture studies, with a particular focus on the history of dress. This presentation is drawn from her monograph-in-progress, Manufacturing the Ku Klux Klan: Robes, Race, and the Birth of an Icon, 1866-1939 (under contract with UNC Press) which explores the material history of Klan regalia, one of the nation’s most infamous symbols of racial violence.

Dr. Lennard holds a PhD in American Culture from The University of Michigan (2017), an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2009), and a BFA in Costume Design from The Theatre School of DePaul University (2004). Prior to assuming her position at BU, she spent three years as a Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University. Her work has benefitted from the generous support from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Mellon Foundation, as well as the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities and Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Presenter: Bradley D. Proctor, The Evergreen State College
Bradley D. Proctor, originally from St. Louis, Missouri, received a bachelor’s degree from Bates College in 2004, and a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2013. He was a Cassius Marcellus Clay postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, and since 2017 has been a member of the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

His current book project, Armed and Unknown Men: the Ku Klux Klan and the Making of White Supremacy during Reconstruction in the Carolinas, drawn from his dissertation, is a social history of the men who joined the Klan in North and South Carolina and the roughly three hundred and fifty victims they attacked there. It is also an intellectual history of the competing ideas that ordinary Americans held about how race should function after emancipation.