The library fields a significant number of requests for copies of area obituaries and other genealogy information.
The library fields a significant number of requests for copies of area obituaries and other genealogy information. When our Head of Adult Services took a telephone call from a woman in Ohio, who told her “I’m not happy with this obituary you sent me,” her first thought was that we had sent the wrong one by mistake.
This obituary, from McPherson in the mid-1920s, was indeed for the right man -- our caller was disputing its contents. It included the usual information about family and employment, and also reported his membership in local clubs and organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan. “I refuse to believe that my grandfather was involved in the KKK!” she exclaimed. “This makes it look like my family was racist.”
A recent series which aired on PBS, “Finding Your Roots,” highlighted the process of discovering the family histories of several Americans. And some of those histories revealed uncomfortable issues from the past. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the creator of the series, stressed that these events must be viewed in the context of their times.
In the case of the Ku Klux Klan in McPherson, for example, the reality is quite different from our imaginations some 90 years later. The Klan experienced a national resurgence during and after World War I, and the Midwest was particularly involved. Although the national organization was racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, Klan misdeeds in McPherson County were minimal and their rhetoric appeared to be focused mainly against Catholics and those citizens in the southern part of the county who were pacifists.
There were Klan chapters in Lindsborg, Marquette and McPherson. Milton Hawkinson, who wrote about McPherson in his memoirs, stated that, “They dominated the elections of city and school board members and even dictated who the preacher should be in certain churches.” He estimated that 80 percent of the businessmen in the northern two-thirds of the county were Klansmen – most joining in fear that their businesses would be affected if they failed to do so.
As was the case in many other small towns and cities, many joined for the excitement of belonging to a secret society. On July 4, 1924, in what was described as one of the largest Klan gatherings in the Midwest, Klansmen held a parade down Main Street in McPherson and a band concert. At night in a field north of town, with over 20,000 people in attendance and the area ablaze with torchlight, they initiated 500 men into the Klan.
By the end of the 1920s, the Klan as a national force had collapsed under the weight of corruption, infighting, political ineffectiveness and general public disgust. Hawkinson wrote that “ . . . a few years after their [the Ku Klux Klan’s] advent, none of the business-men would admit that they ever belonged to such an organization.”
Our caller from Ohio demanded proof that her grandfather had indeed been a member of the Klan. But there was a reason they called it “The Invisible Empire.” Though we struggle with it greatly at times, such is the fabric of our past.
Steve Read is the director of the McPherson Public Library.