NOTE: This story appeared in the Nov. 3 edition of The Free Press, but was mistakenly not posted online.
The words Ku Klux Klan are synonymous with Civil War-era and Civil Rights-era racial hatred, violence and terrorism, especially in the South.
But those were the first and third waves, set 100 years apart in American history. The second wave was a nationwide movement, which took on the same white hooded costumes and lingo as the first, and there wasn’t a single county in Minnesota that didn’t have a presence.
In fact, St. James and Fairmont had two of the largest factions in the state, and both cities have KKK robes and numerous newspaper articles in their historical society collections to prove it.
Besides the sheer presence of the group this far north, author and historian Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle said the mission and purpose of the 1920s KKK also aren’t widely understood today. She herself learned a great deal while researching her recently released book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota,” published by The History Press.
“The second wave was more of a political movement,” said Hatle, a history teacher in Minneapolis. “In Minnesota, we just didn’t have many black people.”
Who was the KKK?
The politically conservative Klan was opposed to unions, Catholics, immigrants and alcohol. They were pro-white and in favor of protesting the groundswell of change that the “roaring ‘20s” was bringing about.
The second wave is responsible for introducing cross burning as a symbol of intimidation and a representation of its pro-Christian message. Lighting one was often accompanied with prayers and hymns.
The Klan was also fairly successful during that era, she said. They had large membership numbers and were able to get members into political offices, such as on school boards and commissions.
“There was a lot of change that was going on in the 1920s with the automobile and people moving to the cities,” she said. “They wanted to keep the immigrant population down. They were very anti-Catholic and (opposed to people) who were seen as not being good American citizens.”
Area historical societies said, for the most part, the Klan gathered to socialize.
Wilma Wolner, director of the Watonwan County Historical Society, said the county’s KKK chapter seemed to have one main purpose: “partying.”
“They did burn a cross in St. James,” Wolner said. “(But mostly) it was a social club.”
The Midwest’s last KKK grand dragon was the mayor of St. James, Clyde E. McNaught. He was a World War I veteran, a Mason and a doctor in St. James who opened a 12-bed hospital. Tom Anderson, president of the Watonwan County Historical Society-St. James Chapter, said the local sheriff also was a KKK member.
Anderson said he started digging more into the county’s KKK history when a resident donated a white robe that had been in their family. (The regalia is on display at the Watonwan County Historical Society-St. James Chapter.) He said he too learned that the second wave was more politically and socially motivated, not violent.
“It was kind of a little bit different organization then,” he said. “It was more of a patriotic organization that kind of sprang out of World War I. … A lot of folks are going into this with a present-day attitude (about KKK violence and terrorism), and it really at the time probably wasn’t that.”
21,000 attend KKK event
The St. James chapter also was connected with Fairmont’s, which had a big delegation. In July 1926, 21,000 people attended a Klan celebration at Interlaken Park, which is about twice the size of the city’s current population.
The Fairmont Sentinel reported there wasn’t a single instance of disorderly conduct or trace of alcohol observed.
A passage in Hatle’s book states: “Also at the July weekend, there was a ‘living cross’ at the event composed of 250 robed Klansmen, each holding a red torch. The voices of several hundred Klanswomen, set aside from the crowd a quarter of a mile away, could be heard singing to the crowd in perfect pitch and harmony to their large audience.”
Mankato also had a KKK presence, with passages in the book indicating cross-burnings and Klan initiation ceremonies. Mankato Daily Free Press reports seemed supportive of the KKK presence, stating the group advocated the tenants of Christianity, white supremacy, protection of “pure womanhood” and the upholding of the Constitution of the United States, Hatle said.
Jessica Potter, executive director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society, said she has touched every artifact in the society’s collection, and there are no KKK photos or artifacts. When she first learned of the KKK presence here, she said she was surprised.
“You look them up today and you say, ‘They did what?’” Potter said, adding that, at the time, the group truly believed they were promoting what was right and just.
The broader context of the era shows there were actually numerous fraternal organizations, not just the KKK, Potter said. Just like the rest of the country, groups such as the Odd Fellows and numerous others were very popular during the 1920s era in southern Minnesota, brought about by Women’s Suffrage, urbanization, the “Jazz Age,” prohibition and other societal changes.
“Secret societies go back to before the turn of the century and long before that,” she said. “It’s just a different generation, and it’s how that generation thought they should act. … It’s a very different time, and it was a very active part of culture.”
Book began with Duluth memorial
Hatle’s interest in the KKK was piqued when she was writing an editorial in advance of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, which was dedicated to the memory of three black men who were beaten, tortured and hanged in downtown Duluth for a crime they didn’t commit. In Hatle’s research of the June 15, 1920, event, she came across photographs of floats from Klan parades in Minnesota, and it led her down a rabbit hole.
She conducted a great deal of research at historical societies and in newspapers for an article for Minnesota History Magazine, and then numerous families began contacting her saying they had ancestors who were KKK members and offered their stories.
That’s when Hatle knew she had a book in the works.
“If newspapers put anything in (about the Klan), that usually meant they supported it,” Hatle said.
The KKK’s presence in Minnesota was predominately from 1920-1925, but it existed until about 1930, with the Great Depression putting a period on the second-wave movement.
“The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota” can be purchased at historypress.net and amazon.com.