Monday, December 28, 2015

Rudolph Renfrow: A Black Life That Mattered

Back in the 1920s, the phrase "black lives matter" had not yet been invented, but Rudolph Renfrow (1907-72) and his fellow students at Hampton Institute might well have applied it to their 1927 protests and strike: although their complaints were not directed at white police officers who killed unarmed black men as the phrase today emphasizes, Hampton's African American students accused the school's white administrators of caving to segregationist sentiments, of tolerating ineffective teachers (many of whom were white and some even members of the KKK), and of demanding from students blind obedience instead of reasoning with them like adults—as though black lives did not matter.  Later, while living in the District of Columbia, Rudolph joined with another group of protesters intent on expanding work opportunities for African Americans.  The New Negro Alliance aimed its protests at white-owned businesses in black neighborhoods that refused to hire black employees.  Here, too, racism had decided that black lives did not matter. Neither of Rudolph's efforts was immediately successful, but he and his collaborators had importantly pioneered a course that their more well-known successors followed decades later to try to bring economic and social equality to African Americans. In these ways, Rudolph Renfrow, like his sisters, lived a life that mattered.
Rudolph Renfrow (3d row, 3d from left), 1927 Hampton Normal Student Protest Committee  (The Crisis 35[Jan 1928]).
Like Alice and Evanel Renfrow, Rudolph Renfrow was born in Red Wing, MN, but grew up and went to school in Grinnell, following his older sisters into South School, then on to Center School and Grinnell High School. But for reasons unknown, at this point Rudolph's schooling took a sharp turn that distinguished him from his siblings: in 1923 he enrolled at the Hampton Institute Academy where he seems to have done very well, completing his studies by specializing in brick-laying, one of the trades that represented well the original ambitions of the school and its founder.
Francis Benjamin Johnston, "Students in a Bricklaying Class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Lot 11051
It was, therefore, somewhat ironic that Rudolph became part of the committee of students responsible for the 1927 student strike at Hampton. Several of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities  experienced student turmoil in the 1920s, a reflection in part of the coming of age of a new generation of African Americans. According to Raymond Wolters, the difficulties at Hampton arose because "Hampton was no longer a school for docile elementary students but for young men and women who could think for themselves." Protests at Hampton challenged the paternalistic presumptions of the school, the authority of the institution's mostly white officers and trustees, and the way in which Hampton's officials colluded with Virginia's segregationist policies and politics. In this way, Rudolph Renfrow and his fellow protest committee members anticipated the protests and political change of the 1960s.
Robert G. Ogden Auditorium, Hampton Institute (ca. 1923)
The difficulties at Hampton began in February, 1925 with a performance of the Denishawn Dance Troupe at Hampton's Ogden Hall. The two-thousand-seat auditorium was packed, with the result that some late arrivals had to take any seat that was free, without regard to the implicitly segregated seating that had long prevailed for events at Ogden. One late-comer, Mrs. Grace Copeland, wife of the editor of the Newport News Daily Press, was obliged to sit in the "Colored section." Afterwards she complained to her husband, Walter Scott Copeland, and he soon published an editorial condemning Hampton for practicing "social equality between the White and negro race." More than that, Copeland, contextualizing the dance performance, worried about "Beautiful White women in the nude [the dancers, presumably] with nigger youths gazing at them...[while] the flower of our [white] womanhood [was] seated next to Blacks." The inevitable result, Copeland wrote, was "racial amalgamation."

Copeland's editorial obliged the Hampton Principal, Dr. James E. Gregg, to respond. A white man like his predecessors at Hampton, Gregg had done much to transform what had been little more than a boarding school into a genuine college.  Nevertheless, Gregg proved unequal to the challenges that Copeland raised. Attempting to stem Copeland's outrage, Gregg sent the paper a mealy-mouthed reply in which he rejected Copeland's worries about racial amalgamation. But, rather than rebuke Copeland, Gregg attempted to side-step criticism without directly confronting the basic issue. "Hampton's policies," Gregg wrote, "certainly do not encourage social mingling of the races...," although implicitly they did: Hampton had long mixed black and white instructors, and the school's few white students occupied no special place distinct from their African American parallels. In any case, Gregg's remarks were insufficient to appease racists like Copeland and his growing entourage of racial purists. Worse, Gregg's reply had simultaneously offended Hampton students who saw in his comments evidence of caving to racial prejudice.

The increasingly loud public conversation (fueled in part by Copeland's allies, including the "Anglo-Saxon Club" of Virginia) led the Virginia legislature in 1926 to approve the Public Assemblages Act (so-called Massenburg bill), which demanded racial segregation at all public events in the state of Virginia. Gregg and the trustees, noting that the law pertained only to public events, opted to make all performances at Hampton private, admission being limited to Hampton personnel and invited guests. This decision spared Hampton from public debate and its unwanted consequences on white donations, and might, the authorities reasoned, allow the controversy to die down. Gregg and the mostly-white board of trustees saw this course as a middle road, but to many Hampton alumni and students,  Gregg's decision reeked of defeat and concession to racism.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
W. E. B. Du Bois, who was monitoring developments at Hampton and reporting on them in The Crisis, also took issue with Gregg's approach. Instead of trying to avoid answering Copeland about whether or not Hampton practiced equality among the races, as Gregg had, Du Bois argued that Gregg should have taken the challenge head-on: "Yes, we do practice social equality at Hampton," Du Bois suggested that Gregg should have said. "We always have and we always shall. How else can teacher and taught meet but as equals?" Du Bois contended that the result of such equality was not intermarriage, as Copeland and his Virginia supporters feared, but rather "fine friendships, real knowledge of human souls, high living and high thinking." Du Bois concluded by reminding readers that what he wrote was "what James E. Gregg ought to say to the Daily Press. We are waiting for him to say it," Du Bois wrote, "and, to be perfectly frank, we expect to wait a long, long time." In other words, Du Bois, too, thought that Gregg had lost currency with his constituency, both within and outside the institution.

Consequently, when on October 8, 1927 a seemingly small disagreement broke out on the Hampton campus, the controversy almost immediately exploded into a full-scale student strike. Like many other institutions at the time, including many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hampton had in place very restrictive rules that implied that Hampton's students were more like children than college-age adults. Regulations allowed school officials to enter student rooms at any time of day or night; required that students "bathe at least twice a week"; prohibited "rowing, sailing, and bicycle riding on Sundays," and so on. Other rules pertained to dating, in the main restricting occasions when men and women students might be alone.  Increasingly, students found these rules demeaning. Therefore, when the projectionists refused to turn off the lights for the October 8 showing of a film on campus—presumably fearing what young men and women might do in the dark—students responded angrily.
Two of the dormitories at Hampton Institute (photo ca. 1922)
The next day was Sunday, and tradition at Hampton had long demanded that at the Sunday evening chapel service students would sing the spirituals that their slave ancestors had sung. But on this Sunday, October 9, 1927, the day after the movie fiasco, the "singing of plantation songs" stopped—not a single student joined the song leader, silently demonstrating student dissatisfaction with campus governance. The song boycott incensed Principal Gregg, who had brought to chapel guests specially for the songs. In retaliation, therefore, Gregg convened a meeting of all students Monday morning, and excoriated them for their misbehavior, demanding that students immediately give evidence of "loyalty and cooperation."

The result was the opposite of what Gregg had hoped. Immediately after being dismissed by Gregg, students gathered in an impromptu mass meeting, elected a committee of student leaders (one of whom was Rudolph Renfrow, recently graduated from the academy), authorized an immediate strike, and prepared a petition to the administration. Most items in the petition repeated earlier complaints about the failings of instructors at Hampton, some of whom had not even graduated from high school, much less college, and many of whom were white and in some cases apparently even members of the Ku Klux Klan. More than that, however, the petition sought for students more of a say in their own lives—about how late they might be permitted to study, for instance—as well as having the administration pay attention to student complaints and recommendations.  To that end, the petition demanded that the administration recognize and consult with the Student Council, and, when denying student requests, "give students reasons why their requests are not granted."
Hampton Strike Committee (The Crisis 34[1927]:346. Check mark indicates Rudolph Renfrow.
Gregg met with the student committee, but refused to take any actions until the strike was ended. Students understood him to say that no students would be punished, but as soon as the strike was called off, Gregg once again summoned all students to a meeting, announced a temporary closing of the school and a series of punishments. According to Edward Graham's study of the strike, all students who had been absent from class on Monday were put on probation (to be removed only after giving evidence "of satisfactory conduct and right spirit"); four members of the strike committee were judged "guilty of insubordination or inciting others to insubordination," and were dismissed immediately; the remaining members of the student committee were suspended for the rest of the year. Furthermore, once school reopened, all returning students were required to sign a pledge: "I hereby promise to do my part to carry on the work of the Institute in loyalty, obedience and cooperation."
Pittsburgh Courier, October 29, 1927
When school resumed on October 25—missing some two hundred students who had begun the year at Hampton—Gregg felt vindicated in his handling of the dispute. In comments to trustees and the public, he emphasized the petty, everyday character of student complaints and behaviors he found disproportionate to the case. In fact, however, race was certainly part of the strike subtext, even if little in the student demands specifically identified race as an issue. As at other HBUCs at the time, African American students increasingly saw in the white leadership of these schools evidence of the same mentality that had created and sustained slavery—an expectation of unquestioning obedience.  At Hampton, for instance, Principal Gregg—a white man who in the events of 1925 had kowtowed to bigots like Walter Copeland—demanded of student activists loyalty and obedience, without any attempt to treat his African American students as equals, like some of the instructors against whom students had lodged protest.
Grinnell Herald, May 24, 1927
Rudolph Renfrow was evidently not among the students most seriously affected by Gregg's penalties—lists of those expelled or suspended do not mention him, even though his name and photograph appeared in The Crisis with the others credited with organizing the strike. Having graduated from the academy as valedictorian in spring 1927, Renfrow might have been immune to Gregg's punishments. Or perhaps there was some other explanation for his name being left off the list of students who were dismissed or suspended. Even without this dramatic punishment, Rudolph's experience at Hampton had clearly primed him for further agitation in behalf of equality for African Americans.

When his name next appears in the records, Rudolph was resident in Washington, D. C. The 1936 city directory identifies him as a salesman for Investors Syndicate (since absorbed by Ameriprise Financial) and living at 143 W Street NW. Sometime before the 1937 directory was published, Rudolph evidently married Lillianette, a beautician (I have not succeeded yet in finding a record of this marriage or of their apparent divorce; Lillianette died in Philadelphia in December, 1991) and moved to 654 Girard Street NW with his bride; the 1940 census had the pair living at 1413 Half Street, an area now under development because of its proximity to the Washington Nationals stadium.

Well before that, Rudolph had cast his lot with another attempt to rectify racial injustice.  In 1934 Addison Scurlock photographed Rudolph with the other young men and women who comprised the New Negro Alliance.  The Alliance had its beginning in 1933 when John Aubrey Davis boycotted a white-owned hamburger shop in a DC black neighborhood. Picketing and boycotting the place, Davis complained about the shop having fired black employees, replacing them with whites. Davis contended that if the business made money off black consumers, it ought to hire black employees. His pickets and protest signs worked, and within two days the black employees were rehired.
Addison Scurlock, "New Negro Alliance" (1934), Archives Center, National Museum of American History, 0618.1/0201 (Rudolph Renfrow in 2nd row, fourth from left)
The success of Davis's actions led to the organization of the New Negro Alliance, headed by a group of mostly middle class African Americans, including the black attorney, Belford Lawson. Using slogans like "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" and "Jobs for Negroes," the alliance mounted campaigns against some of the district's biggest employers, including several grocery chains with numerous outlets throughout the District. But after some early victories, the alliance encountered more resistance, losing campaigns against People's Drug Stores and the Safeway grocery chain. When President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate employment discrimination, the alliance lost its original mandate, and the organization disappeared.
****
How Rudolph Renfrow became involved with the New Negro Alliance or exactly what role he played there is not clear; careful examination of the Alliance's newspaper, New Negro Opinion, which was not available to me for this blog post, might shed more light on the details. We may imagine that Rudolph's experience at Hampton had encouraged him to see the black-white divide more clearly, and to sense the inequality implicit in white-dominated organizations. But this is little more than a guess. What is clear is that, by working for Investors Syndicate, a business that permitted the poorest Americans to accumulate financial resources through small weekly or monthly investments (instead of demanding large deposits), Rudolph was able to work within and for the black community. Apparently the arrangement proved satisfactory on all sides. Even during the Great Depression, Investors Syndicate did not fail a single client. Meanwhile, Rudolph also seems to have prospered.

After a brief spell in the U.S. Army at the close of World War II (Rudolph enlisted in 1943), Rudolph resumed work for Investors Syndicate, but relocated to New York. In 1960 he married again, this time taking as his wife a 38-year-old Canadian, Evelyn Theobalds. The pair settled in a seaside district (3 Outer Drive) of South Norwalk, CT and there raised a son, Lee, who was still only a boy when Rudolph died suddenly at home, April 27, 1972: he was only 64. A service in his memory was held in Norwalk, but Rudolph's body was then sent back to Grinnell where on May 3, 1972, he was buried next to his parents in Hazelwood Cemetery. His wife and son remained in Norwalk for a couple of years before Evelyn decided to return to British Columbia with her son, taking up residence in Summerland, about 230 miles east of Vancouver.  There she died and was buried late in 1988 in Oliver, B. C.
Rudolph Renfrow's gravestone, Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, IA (2015 photo)
Rudolph Renfrow seems not to have left behind such an obviously outstanding memory as his sisters'. Unlike Helen, he is not remembered by a school named after him, nor does a scholarship bear his name as one bears Evanel's. And, although married and father of a son, he lies with his natal family, half a continent away from his wife and son.

Yet, as I have tried to show, in many ways Rudolph achieved no less than his sisters. As an African American man, he stood up when it was difficult, and resisted racial bigotry and white privilege.  Even while still a youth at Hampton, he opposed imperious white men who tried to bend him to obedience. As a young man in the District of Columbia, Rudolph again stood up with his fellow African Americans, demanding that they get fair treatment from the white men who controlled so many businesses in black neighborhoods. Perhaps like the unnamed correspondent whose report on the events at Hampton W. E. B. Du Bois published in The Crisis, Rudolph could say "Through my own observations and experiences...I have become keenly aware of the state of hypocrisy, racial prejudice, and backwardness into which Hampton has fallen. I myself have suffered keenly and racial antipathy has grown within me." But if Rudolph felt this way, he did not rest content with these feelings, but instead committed himself to trying to change the world he found, and all of us are therefore in his debt.







Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Suffer the little children..."

The death of an infant or young child still happens with sufficient frequency to remind us of the poignancy of life too soon extinguished. But in the last years of the nineteenth and first years of the twentieth century, when science had only just begun to grasp the causes of serious illness, infant and childhood mortality was even more common, leaving behind a trail of sadness and family disruption. Evidence of childhood death is easily found in Grinnell:  Babyland, situated along the southern edge of Hazelwood Cemetery, is home to numerous infant and child burials; elsewhere in the cemetery one finds plenty more gravestones remembering children, their memorials usually positioned among the graves of parents and siblings. All deaths of children bring the same piercing sorrow, but especially sad are the several gravestones that recall children who died in Grinnell, but whose families then moved on, creating new lives and new memories elsewhere. In this post we'll look at a few of these more lonesome child graves and tell their stories.
Gravestone of Mabel Ruth Lambirth (1912-1918), Hazelwood Cemetery (2015 photograph)
In West Hazelwood there stands a fairly plain stone onto which are etched both the image of a lamb and an inscription devoted to Ruth Lambirth, who died in 1918 at the age of five. The gravestone communicates nothing about the circumstances of the little girl's early demise, but the official record identified cause of death as influenza, a pestilence that swept across the Plains in 1918. This was the same illness—sometimes called the "Spanish Flu"—that burned through Chicago that autumn, carrying off the biological mother of the twins whom B. J. and Mabel Ricker adopted that year. As with others infected by the virus, Mabel Ruth went quickly: the death certificate reported that Dr. P. E. Somers had first treated her on November 4; six days later she was dead.
Notice (including mistaken family name) from Grinnell Herald, November 12, 1918
Although Iowa's encounter with influenza was not so virulent as Chicago's, records kept by the Iowa State Board of Health prove that 1918 was an especially deadly year for Iowans who contracted the flu. About twenty percent of all Iowa deaths that year were attributed to flu—more than three times as many as cancer deaths. By contrast, the next year influenza deaths dropped significantly, accounting for fewer than half as many deaths as cancer whose mortality held steady.

Ruth's death, therefore, was not an isolated case, but merely one of many that made the year 1918 stand out for families touched by the virus. At the same time, Ruth's encounter with the flu was different: state records reveal that October had been by far the most dangerous month, during which almost 43,000 cases of flu were reported across Iowa. By contrast, in November state authorities counted only thirteen cases of influenza, one of which killed Ruth Lambirth.
Data on Diseases in Iowa, Second Half of 1918, Report of the State Board of Health for the Biennial Period Ending June 30, 1920 (Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1921), p. 19.
Perhaps her parents did not at first realize that their daughter's death had come after the murderous wave had subsided. But if they did, that realization could only have deepened their sadness.

However much the family mourned Ruth's death, her lonely gravestone points to an important postscript: if elsewhere in Hazelwood one meets whole families metaphorically gathered together in adjacent graves, Ruth's stone stands alone, her family having survived the flu and moved on, abandoning her and her memorial. Who were these people, and where did they go?

The Lambirths, as it turns out, moved a great deal in their lifetimes. Joseph Elmer Lambirth, Ruth's father, was born in 1884 in Metcalf County, KY where young Elmer, as he was casually known, grew up. In 1909 he married Lillie Davis of Center, KY, and the following year the couple welcomed their first child, Roland. By 1911 the family was settled in Illinois where Elmer rented farmland and where in 1912 a second child arrived: Mabel Ruth, whom the family called by her middle name. Within a few years, the Lambirths moved again, this time settling in Iowa. No later than 1916 they were living in Poweshiek County where Elmer rented a farm in Chester township from John and Zella Matzen. The Lambirths continued to work this farm after the Matzens sold it to B. J. Ricker in 1920, and remained Ricker's tenants until 1923, when they decided to move again, this time to a farm in Jackson Township (near Montezuma) where federal census officials found them still in 1930. In the meantime, a third child—Lucille—was born.
B. J. Ricker farm, Chester Township, 1921 Atlas of Poweshiek County
In January, 1931, however, the Lambirths confronted tragedy once again when Elmer's brother, Virgil, and his sister-in-law, Laura, were murdered by a man who had worked for both Elmer and Virgil on their farms. According to the Montezuma newspaper, Clarence Brewer arrived at the farm six-and-a-half miles southeast of Montezuma, shot Virgil twice in the forehead, entered the house and shot Mrs. Lambirth (who lingered a while before she, too, died), then turned the gun on himself. Elmer was called to the scene soon after the shootings, but could offer no explanation for the murders. All that he and Lillie could do was to welcome their orphaned nephew Ralph into their home where the 1940 census found him on the Mahaska County farm to which Elmer had moved some years earlier.
Montezuma Republican January 22, 1931
Elmer continued to live near Barnes City until he fell ill, and entered hospital in Oskaloosa in October, 1965, dying a few days later. Lillie Lambirth lived another fifteen years, and died at age 90 in the Grinnell hospital. Her obituary remembered her living children and her nephew, Ralph, and noted that her husband and one daughter, Ruth, had preceded her in death.
Gravestone of Lillie and Elmer Lambirth, Barnes City cemetery
However, despite the fact that Ruth's body lay in Grinnell, neither Lillie, who died just a few blocks from Hazelwood, nor Elmer was buried at Hazelwood with their little girl who had died so many years before. Ruth's gravestone was destined to stand among graves of people she never knew.
***
Although influenza dominated childhood mortality in 1918, other diseases were more deadly to an earlier generation of children. For some time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was diphtheria that struck down more children than any other illness.  Often misdiagnosed as membranous croup because of the thick mucus visible in the victim's throat, diphtheria in that era was poorly understood, its causative agent having only been identified in 1882. The deadly swath that diphtheria cut through Iowa's young population and the low level of public understanding of the disease help explain why the 1891 report of the Iowa Board of Health devoted so much attention to it. According to data published that year, in the 1890s Iowa suffered more than 3,000 cases of diphtheria annually, over 600 of them resulting in death. One of those 1891 deaths came to the family of Newton Cessna.
Gravestone for Olive Ruby Cessna (1885-1891), Hazelwood Cemetery (2015 photo)
Newton William Cessna was born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania in 1857, but with his family moved to Scott County, Iowa the following year. Raised as a farmer, Cessna himself farmed for some years, tilling 160 acres in section 33 of Chester township, north of Grinnell. In 1882 he married a Muscatine woman, Nancy Skiles, and the couple had three children: Myrtle Pearl, born November, 1884; Olive Ruby, December, 1886; and Maude Opal, November, 1887.
Section 33, Chester Township, 1896 Atlas of Poweshiek County
Tragedy arrived at the Cessna family suddenly and unexpectedly in late June, 1891 when Ruby (as they called their second daughter) abruptly took ill, her condition quickly deteriorating; within a week the little girl was dead. The Grinnell Herald briefly took note of Ruby's death, providing few details and extending condolences to the family.
Grinnell Herald July 3, 1891
For unknown reasons, Ruby's death did not enter the official register until 1894, but Poweshiek county death records report that Ruby, age 5 and one-half, had died of diphtheria July 1st, that she had been ill only one week, and had been victimized by what her doctor—E. B. Wiley of Grinnell—called "blood poison," evidently alluding to the toxins generated by diphtheria. Her parents buried her beneath a log-like gravestone, adorned with a dove.

Nothing survives to explain how the Cessna family dealt with Ruby's death. Perhaps Newton and Nancy Cessna, like some other parents of their era, anticipated the fragility of their children's well-being by delaying the naming  of  newborns. The 1885 Iowa census reveals that the first-born Cessna daughter (later known as Pearl), born November 15, 1884, was still unnamed when the census official inventoried the family early in January, almost two months later. The record for Ruby's own birth in December, 1886, shows a similar reluctance to assign a name: the document identifies her only by gender and surname. So perhaps the Cessnas were alert to the dangers of childhood illness.
"Iowa, County Births, 1880-1935," database, Family Search (http://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XVHZ-DRW)
As is now well-known, diphtheria is very contagious, so quarantine is essential, but this precaution  was poorly practiced in nineteenth-century rural Iowa. Poweshiek County death records, for example, report that Charles P. Case, age 1 year, 10 months, died of diphtheria September 12, 1880; three days later his older brother, Henry W., just a few days short of four years old and undoubtedly infected by his younger brother, also succumbed to diphtheria, delivering a one-two gut punch to their parents, who had to bury two children in the same week.

The parents of Ruby Cessna did not confront the same terror as was visited upon the Case family. That first-born daughter, Pearl, and her younger sister, Maude, both survived the dangers of diphtheria and other childhood maladies. Nevertheless, their dad, who had been reasonably successful as a farmer, by 1895 decided to move into Grinnell, and the family soon thereafter took up residence at 921 Summer Street. Newton Cessna became meat manager for Grinnell Provision Company, and, to judge by his report to the 1915 census officials, he did very well, earning over $4000 in 1914. But Nancy Cessna was not well, and in 1917 the family—including the two unmarried daughters, both of whom were teachers in their late twenties—moved to California where they hoped the climate would be kinder to Mrs. Cessna. For some years the senior Cessnas lived near Pearl, who in 1921 had married Francis Kellogg, a fellow high school teacher in Eureka. Later, the elder Cessnas moved to Pasadena, close to their other daughter, Maude, who had married Chauncey Traver, a doctor at the Patton State Hospital for the Insane.

And so Newton and Nancy Cessna lived out their lives in California, as did their daughters. Years after having left behind the grave of Ruby Cessna in Hazelwood Cemetery, Nancy died in California, and was interred at Mountain View Cemetery, Altadina, CA in 1934; her husband lived well into his nineties before his 1952 death when he was buried by his wife. Ruby's grave remained far away.
Gravestone of Newton and Nancy Cessna, Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California
Despite everything that had followed Ruby's 1891 death, the Cessna daughters did not forget Grinnell. A small item in an October, 1956 issue of the Grinnell Herald Register reported that Pearl Cessna Kellogg and Maude Cessna Traver had recently donated to the Grinnell Historical Museum their mother's wedding dress, several girls' dresses, and a child's book published around 1890. No doubt each of the three Cessna girls, including Ruby, had worn these dresses and had perhaps also handled this book; perhaps as girls growing up in Grinnell, they had tried on their mother's wedding dress, imagining their own futures. Now these legacies provide only mute, indirect testimony to the family's life here and to Ruby Cessna's early death.
***
If the influenza epidemic of 1918 passed quickly, diphtheria did not depart Grinnell quickly or quietly. As the first waves of the twentieth century washed over central Iowa, the disease continued to inflict loss upon Grinnell families. That history is not visible in the gravestone assigned to Lester Arnold Learned, who, the Grinnell Herald reported in its October 12, 1906 issue, had died from diphtheria. The gravestone, decorated with a small lamb at rest, recalls the boy who died that October, just short of his seventh birthday. An epigraph below the date of death quotes from the W. A. Ogden hymn: "I am Jesus' little lamb, Happy all day long I am." An inscription above the lamb reads, "Our Little Brother."
Gravestone for Lester Arnold Learned (1899-1906), Hazelwood Cemetery
Lester's mother, Lorena Shoffner, had been born in nearby Kellogg, but for reasons unknown had made her way to Miles City, Montana, where she met Grant Learned. The couple married in 1882, and soon began to welcome children to their Montana home: two daughters were born before Lester's 1899 birth, after which a third daughter arrived in 1903. In these years, Miles City could boast a population of fewer than 1000, but the town was a well-known destination for cattle drives, and the beef industry was crucial to the local economy.

What brought Grant and Lorena Learned to Iowa is unknown; perhaps they came east because of Lorena's family in Kellogg, but the 1905 Iowa census has them living not in Kellogg, but in Grinnell at 1138 Elm Street. In Montana Grant had been known as a "stockman," so he probably pursued similar work around Grinnell, but neither the 1905 nor 1908 city directories recalls him, and by 1909 he was back in Miles City, Montana.
Notice from the Grinnell Herald, October 12, 1906
The brief sojourn in Grinnell—arriving no earlier than 1903 and remaining no longer than 1908—offers little evidence of how the family dealt with Lester's 1906 death, but the family's return to Montana seems to have been accompanied by considerable domestic trouble. The 1910 census found Lorena and her three remaining children back in Miles City; the census-taker described Lorena as "widow," but I could find no confirmation of Grant's death. Furthermore, when Lorena remarried in 1912, the marriage certificate reported her as "married and divorced." What does this conflicting evidence mean? Had the death of Lester played some part in moving the family back to Montana and perhaps also in breaking up the marriage?

Unless Lorena or her husband left behind some explanation, we will never know the answer to these questions. Like the Lambirths and Cessnas, the Learned family continued their itineracy after Grinnell, which ended up constituting only a brief chapter in lives for the most part lived out elsewhere. Consequently, the gravestone of Lester Learned, like those of Ruth Lambirth and Ruby Cessna, occupies a lonely spot in Hazelwood cemetery, comforted by the presence of no other member of the family. Parents and surviving children had moved on, leaving Grinnell and its memories visible only in the rear-view mirror.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mr. Tibbs's Shoe Shine...

If you have your hair done at Headquarters on Grinnell's 4th Avenue, you may notice an unusual chair by the front window. Sometimes decorated with luxuriant greenery, the metal-wire outline sits higher than the average chair, and is punctuated with a wire-drawn heart in the seat back. Below the seat one can see a place for two feet, elevated enough to allow someone on the stool before it to clean and polish shoes. This attractive and unusual piece of furniture was the worksite of James Tibbs (1890-1941), another member of the small enclave of African Americans who made Grinnell home. The decorative heart offers an ironic reminder of the last days of Jim Tibbs, who worked a series of menial jobs in his lifetime, but spent his last years shining shoes for Grinnell men, some of whom apparently rode him hard and unfairly joked at his expense. Long after Tibbs's death, the chair remains to remind us of this hard-working man and his part in the history of twentieth-century Grinnell.
James Tibbs's Shoe Shine Chair (courtesy of Susie Kinney, Headquarters)
James Oscar Tibbs—later known as both Oscar and Jim—was born February 3, 1890 in Columbia, MO, the eldest of the three children of James and Amanda Tibbs. Still living in Columbia at the time of the 1900 census, young James was then ten and enrolled in school. His father reported his work title as "laborer," although in what industry the record does not say. By 1910 Jim was living out of the family household, boarding with another African American family in Columbia and working as a "table waiter" at a private home. When in 1917 he registered for the draft, Tibbs was living in Des Moines where he was employed as a porter at a Des Moines barber shop—"Ryan and Gloffe" is what the registration form reads, but there was no such barber shop in any Des Moines directory from these years. Tibbs must have meant "Grothe and Ryan," who, according to the 1916 Des Moines city directory, operated their barber shop in the basement of 210 5th Street. At this time Tibbs was a boarder at 750 10th Street in Des Moines.
Extract from Tibbs's registration for the US draft, June 5, 1917
US Army records indicate that Tibbs enlisted in July, 1918, serving as a private first-class until his discharge in June, 1919. Almost immediately—July, 1919—back in Des Moines and by then 28 years old, Tibbs married Mary Redrick, 25-year-old daughter of Grinnell's Robert and Mary Redrick. How the two met we do not know, nor is it evident why they chose Marshalltown to marry. The registrar there described Tibbs as "brown" but his bride as "black," and left only a question mark in that part of the form that asked after the groom's occupation.

The newlyweds moved into the bride's family home at 721 Center Street, Grinnell, and, according to the 1920 city directory, Tibbs began work in Grinnell as a "laborer on city streets." No later than 1923, Jim was shining shoes in Grinnell, but by 1925 the family had relocated, living at 1008 Sixth Avenue, Cedar Rapids, where Mamie (as Mary now called herself) cared for two young children born in Grinnell: Harold Daniel, born August 14, 1920, and Albert (Sylvester Alfred), born April 22, 1923. In 1926 (May 16) Mamie gave birth to her first daughter, Janet Winona (or Winona Janet or Jeanette as she was later known), so the Tibbs family was growing. Three more children later joined the household: two daughters, Shirley (1929) and Roberta (1932), and another son (Edward, b. 1933), these last two born back in Grinnell. The 1940 census (I could not find the family in the 1930 census) found James, Mamie and their six children (along with Mamie's brother, Robert) back in Grinnell at 608 Third Avenue, not far from the former Redrick home on Center Street. Sometime in the 1940s the family moved to 712 Elm in Grinnell.
Interior of Cedar Rapids Interurban station in 1947 (http://www.crandic.com/CompanyHistory/SwingSway/index.htm)
During their sojourn in Cedar Rapids the family moved often and James worked a number of different jobs: city directories variously report James as working for "Sinclair" or as "janitor at interurban [train] station." Cedar Rapids in these years boasted several Sinclair gas stations, and James might have worked at one of them. But the T. M. Sinclair Company was a big pork and beef packer at the corner of Third and Sixteenth Avenue, and had a much larger work force than all the gas stations combined, so it seems likely that Tibbs was employed there.
Advertisement for Sanitary Barber Shop on 4th Avenue (Scarlet and Black Sep 19, 1931)
But when did he begin to shine shoes? Newspaper advertisements announced that Tibbs shined shoes at Grinnell's Sanitary Barber Shop already in 1923. The Sanitary Barber Shop had long been known in Grinnell, having occupied several locations downtown. In March 1925 it relocated yet again, this time occupying a building in the 800 block of Fourth Avenue. Its long-time proprietor, L. L. Grooms, had had as many as three fellow-barbers, including Jay Parrot, who continued the business after Grooms's 1942 death. How or exactly when these men came to include Tibbs in their business we do not know.
Scarlet & Black March 9, 1923
Ads for Tibbs's shoe shine disappeared late in 1923, no doubt as a consequence of the family's move to Cedar Rapids. Notices of Tibbs's shoe shine did not reappear until 1931, when the college newspaper regularly carried advertisements that announced, "It's really—fine to get a SHINE from JIM TIBBS At the Sanitary Shop," by then occupying space on Fourth Avenue. The barber shop continued to publish its own ads in the paper, without mentioning Tibbs, a fact that implies that Jim operated his shoe shine on an independent basis, perhaps paying rent or a percentage of receipts to Grooms and Parrot.

Tibbs's advertisements continued to appear in the 1932 editions of the Scarlet and Black, but thereafter disappeared, whether because Tibbs no longer needed them, had quit shining shoes, or for some other, unknown reason.
Grinnell Herald-Register January 9, 1941, p. 1
Only in January, 1941 did the newspaper public read again about Jim Tibbs: a brief front-page story in the Grinnell Herald-Register reported his death at Chicago's Edward Hines, Jr. hospital. According to the article, Tibbs, not yet 51 years old, had been a patient at Hines for two months and had been in poor health for more than a year, which means that Tibbs had certainly quit shining shoes no later than 1940, and perhaps earlier.
Gravestone for James Tibbs, Hazelwood Cemetery
No formal obituary was ever printed, and records of Grinnell's two mortuaries of the time preserve no details of Tibbs's funeral and burial. However, an editorial in the January 13, 1941 Herald-Register offered some consoling words. Acknowledging the humble status of the shoe shine, the newspaper nevertheless admitted that "Jim Tibbs worked hard all his life." "He was the father of a nice family," the article continued, and "he filled his niche in the world the best he could...." The editorial went on to praise Tibbs for his military service and the honor he did to the flag each Memorial day, and concluded somewhat ponderously, "Let all men speak well of a brother who did not find life's pathway easy and who trod it bravely."

Despite these niceties, the newspaper could not refrain from acknowledging that "The boys used to make a lot of fun of Jim. He was the butt of innumerable practical jokes and he didn't like it very well. He used to get mad, and the madder he got, the faster came the jokes...." The editorial imagined that, deep down, Tibbs "would have missed the rough joking if it had stopped," but the words ring false seventy-five years later, and point awkwardly to the injustice cruelly visited upon the man.
Grinnell Herald-Register May 16, 1996, p. 1
Little more was said about Jim Tibbs until one day in 1996 owners of the Headquarters got to work cleaning out the basement of their shop at 804 Fourth Avenue, the long-time home of the Sanitary Barber Shop. Along with old signs and the abandoned barber's pole, the Kinney's discovered Jim Tibbs's shoe shine chair, barely visible in the right-hand corner of the newspaper photo. The chair was soon reinstalled upstairs where Jim Tibbs had long tended it, and the heart embedded in the chair continues to remind customers of the man who for so many years bent down before his white customers to polish their shoes, even if they made jokes at his expense.



Friday, November 6, 2015

The Greek Who Never Went Home....

Most of the immigrants who lived in Grinnell early in the twentieth century had come either from Canada or from western and northern Europe. But as the railroads prospered and Grinnell added some industries that required more labor, the migrant influx changed, reflecting the changes taking place all across the country as increasing numbers of US-bound immigrants came from the Mediterranean and Mexico. Consequently, for example, most of the men who worked in Grinnell as section hands for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad were Mexican. But the May 17, 1910 issue of the Grinnell Herald carried the sad news about a section hand who was not Mexican, and who was seriously injured.  The paper reported that Socrates Perras (the paper spelled it Perees), a Greek, was working on the tracks, and, having stepped out of the way of a passing freight train, had inadvertently stepped between two cars that were being switched on the next track. He was knocked down and thrown under the cars, his chest crushed and his back broken. Evidently still conscious, Perras was rushed to hospital where he soon died, far from his Greek home and family. The story of how Grinnell responded to this tragedy is often confusing, but simultaneously revealing about the town's encounter with an unfamiliar culture.
Grinnell Herald May 17, 1910, p. 1
***
Socrates Perras had arrived at Ellis Island in early May, 1907 aboard the S.S. Roma, which had sailed out of Naples in late April with a full complement of immigrants, many of whom were Greek. Responding to officials who compiled the passenger list, Perras gave his age then as 30, but his death record reports his age as 47, meaning that he was born around 1863, and therefore must have been 44 or so when he immigrated.  Perhaps he thought that providing officials a younger age would help him find work in America, or perhaps the immigration official misheard him—we'll never know.

The ship's manifesto reported the man's home as "St. Dimitri," or Agios Demetrios; as you might expect, toponyms like that are legion in Greece, so it is hard to say with confidence exactly where Perras originated. He traveled to America with two other men from St. Dimitri, and all claimed to be headed to Chicago, intending to stay with their friend, Gust Macris, and with Perras's uncle, Panogliotis Factoris (?), both of whom were said to be living at 1320 Portland Avenue, Chicago. No such address survives in today's Chicago, but Perras and friends might have confused Chicago with Chicago Heights, which was a destination for many immigrants around 1900 and which today still has a 1320 Portland Avenue. In fact, the 1910 US census did find a Gust Macris living at 1312 Portland Avenue, Chicago Heights, immediately next door to 1320 (where the census registered another group of Greek immigrants), so this is certainly where Perras was headed.
S. S. Roma (undated photograph)
How he ended up in Grinnell is unknown, but it seems likely that Perras acquired the railroad job in Chicago, where the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad had offices at the LaSalle Street Station. At the time of his death, Perras had probably only recently reached Grinnell, because his name does not appear in the 1910 Grinnell census nor in the 1910 city directory. Moreover, at the time of the accident, the Grinnell Herald admitted that the dead man was "little known," with the result that no pallbearers could be found—not even among railroad employees, several of whom had been called to testify at the inquest that investigated the accident.  Therefore, several businessmen (the grocer W. T. Moyle , the shoe company man, C. J. Card, the dentist, Dr. A. J. Brock, and three others) "dropped their work long enough" to serve at the "simple funeral."
Lasalle Street Station (ca. 1904), Chicago, Home of Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (photo courtesy of http://rrshs.org/)










































The funeral was indeed simple. Although two local clergymen—Rev. G. E. White (a Congregational missionary in Turkey but back in Grinnell for the funeral of his father), and Rev. Elias Handy, pastor of the Methodist Church—volunteered to conduct services, "their friendly offers were declined," the paper reported (in a maddeningly perfect example of why the passive voice is obfuscating). Certainly the dead man did not decline the offer, but who did is left unsaid.

The stated reason for declining the help of the volunteer clergy is also confusing: the newspaper explained the situation by saying that the "dead man was a Catholic, and Catholic services, if any, were required." "For this reason," the report concluded, "burial was made without religious service."
St. Columbanus Catholic Church, Main Street and Washington Avenue (photo ca. 1913)
However, if Perras was a Catholic, he could certainly have obtained a Catholic burial. Although Catholics had yet to gain a strong foothold in Grinnell (only about 5% of the town's population then identified as Catholic), a Catholic parish had existed in Grinnell for almost thirty years by the time that Perras suffered his accident; in 1910 the Rev. James Curtin was priest, and had been priest at St. Columbanus since 1897. So, although  there might have been some difficulty in reaching the priest, the problem could not have been so great as to deprive a dead Catholic of a proper burial.

Almost certainly, however, Perras was not Catholic, but rather Greek Orthodox, and there were no Orthodox priests in Grinnell—a circumstance that might truly have caused a difficulty for arranging funeral rites. In 1910 Greeks were practically unknown in Grinnell, although within a few years, a small clutch of Greeks had taken up residence in town. The 1915 Iowa census, for example, found Peter Staffanou, a Greek immigrant and co-owner of a confectionary at 825 4th Avenue (later known as Candyland); with his brother Theodore and his candy store co-owner, James Joris (another Greek), Staffanou lived at 927 West Street. Two more Greeks, Peter Marcopolos and Tom Koserar, operated a shoe-shine in town in 1915, but none of these men (all but Koserar were still single in 1915) lived in 1910 Grinnell. Staffanou, for example, told the census-taker that he had arrived in the US in 1910, but had been in Iowa only two years, meaning that he had arrived in 1913. At the time of Perras's death, therefore, Grinnell still had not made much acquaintance with Greeks.

But there was at least one Greek in 1910 Grinnell: Charles Plagakis, whom the newspaper mentioned as having given evidence at the inquest. Born in Greece in the 1880s, Plagakis had entered the United States in 1909 and found his way to Grinnell where, according to the 1910 US census, he was working as a salesman in some place called "candy kitchen"—probably what later became Staffanou's Candyland. In January 1910 in Perry, Iowa Plagakis had married a Greek girl, Stella Lonebesi, who had immigrated from Greece at about the same time as her new husband; the pair, along with a boarder who was apparently Charles's brother, James, resided at 828 Main Street in 1910.

Plagakis later left Grinnell, settling in Chicago. But in 1910 he appears to have played a central role in assisting Grinnell authorities with the death of Socrates Perras, perhaps explaining in his best English that Perras was "Catholic," and therefore not eligible to be buried by Protestant pastors. Mediation in behalf of an unknown countryman could only go so far,  however: Plagakis did not volunteer as a pallbearer, for example, nor, apparently, was he in a position to underwrite burial costs.

In any event, Perras was buried two days after the accident in Hazelwood Cemetery, not in potter's field, where the unknown and impoverished were usually put to rest, but rather on the slope that bends down to Arbor Lake. Did someone buy him a grave plot, one wonders? If so, evidently not much money changed hands, because no gravestone was erected in the man's memory.
Grave marker (?) of Socrates Perras, Hazelwood Cemetery
Visitors to this part of the cemetery today can find numerous grave markers spilling down the hill, along with a small cement slab, sunken now a bit below grade, half-way down the incline. Like some other gravestones of the era, the cement marker was modest both in cost and appearance. Nevertheless, many of these same cement markers reveal a simple identification of the deceased—a name and date imprinted on the cement before it hardened. The marker over the plot in which Socrates Perras was buried, however, remains anonymous, and no doubt escapes the notice of all but the most curious.
Modest cement gravestone for "infant son of J. F. Ferson, Dec 26 (?), 1921" (2015 photograph)
Cemetery records indicate that as many as ten bodies are buried in this fifteen-by-twenty plot, but only two markers identify those interred there—one recalls Alexander Kline, who died in November, 1909, and the other remembers Merrill James Quire, an infant who died in July, 1910; the rest, some buried before Perras, others afterward, are not remembered by any marker whatsoever. Why Perras ended up with this unlikely collection of the unremembered dead is unclear.

In this way the story of Socrates Perras's brief sojourn in Grinnell came to an end. Only a staccato epilogue played out later that summer in Chicago: in early August the Cook County Probate Court appointed John F. Devine to collect and administer the property left behind by Perras, who had died intestate. Devine reported that he had gathered "property and effects [belonging to Perras] in said County, the value of which does not exceed the sum of Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000)." It seems unlikely that Perras had accumulated so enormous a sum in his brief time in America, so perhaps the number employed was chosen arbitrarily. However, as other Cook County intestate declarations indicate, it could have been a much smaller sum ($500, for example, in some other cases), so Perras evidently had accumulated a large treasury, even if the total was not so stupendous as $10,000.

What Devine did with the money I could not determine, although one may hope that the funds found their way back to St. Dimitri and the widow and six children that Perras had left behind. Sadly, none of that surplus was available to fund a gravestone in Hazelwood, where Socrates Perras still slumbers anonymously, far from his native Greece.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ku Klux Klan in Grinnell?

Grinnell has long taken justifiable pride in its abolitionist past, even if the city was never fully free of racial discrimination. Consequently, reports in the early 1920s about the appearance in town of the Ku Klux Klan proved shocking. The Klan, founded on the heels of the Civil War but languishing in the first years of the twentieth century, had revived during World War I. The immense popularity of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation had helped galvanize the Klan, which began to hire recruiters who gradually built outposts of the KKK throughout the country, including parts of the Midwest. As a secret organization, the Klan was hard to trace, which only made more unnerving those moments when evidence of the Klan surfaced unexpectedly, as it did one night in 1923 on the grassy terrain of the Grinnell Country Club.

Grinnell Herald October 23, 1923, p. 1
The original KKK had appeared in 1865 as a reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Intent upon guaranteeing white supremacy and what Klan spokesmen called the protection of (white) womanhood, the original Klan had prospered throughout the South. Often operating as vigilantes, Klansmen terrorized black Americans, and were responsible for numerous lynchings, especially throughout the deep South.

Federal legislation in the 1870s put a serious crimp in Klan activity, although vigilantism against African Americans continued. Iowa witnessed relatively few lynchings—one of the deeds commonly associated with the KKK—when compared to the totals of other states. Moreover, Iowa's lynchings mostly victimized whites rather than African Americans.

None of these lynchings had taken place in Grinnell, so it must have been a surprise to readers of the January 18, 1907 Grinnell Herald to find an editorial taken from the Charles City Intelligencer: "A Wise Note from Charles City." The article offered a reproving account of the lynching earlier that month of James Cullen, a white man accused of having murdered his wife and step-son. A crowd of about 400 had taken Cullen from the Floyd County jail and had promptly hanged him from the Main Street bridge over the Cedar River. The editorial objected to vigilantism, here not obviously attributable to the Klan, but the hanging must have stirred anxiety and uncomfortable memories among Grinnell's mostly liberal elite.
Main Street Bridge, Charles City (http://www.usgwarchives.net/ia/floyd/postcards/mainbr.jpg)
(image changed on recommendation of Beth's comment below 5/4/2016)
Nevertheless, few echoes of the KKK were heard in Grinnell before the 1923 report of the country club burning cross. The first, rather mysterious sign of the Klan's presence in Grinnell was reported on the front page of the Grinnell Herald, October 23, 1923. According to the article, on the evening of Friday, October 19th, a burning cross had been discovered on the fairway of hole number 4 at the country club, adjacent to the tracks of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railroad. Although the cross only burned for about twenty minutes, a "galaxy of automobiles assembled in the immediate neighborhood" (exactly where, one wonders?) to witness the unusual event, but none of those present admitted to having seen anyone set up the cross. The newspaper went on to claim that, according to unnamed informants, "a local organization [of the Ku Klux Klan had been] formed in Grinnell two weeks ago last night" (i.e., October 8, 1923), and, in a wry conclusion, the newspaper offered "a year's [free] subscription to the person who will hand in a list of the members to be printed as is customary in an account of the formation of a new order." No such list was ever printed, but suspicion about the Klan's presence remained firmly embedded in popular consciousness.

The next summer (June 6, 1924) the Herald published a short article on a meeting of the KKK in nearby Gilman. Apparently an Ohio representative—one of the Klan's official, paid recruiters who were part of the Klan's "second wave" in the 1920s—addressed "quite a good-sized crowd" in Gilman's park, explaining the "aims and objects of the Klan." "A delegation of knights [KKK members] in their robes was present, and formed a circle around the speaker's stand," the paper continued. Afterwards, those wishing to join the Klan were invited to meet off-site with officials; the Herald remarked that "we understand [that] quite a few were sworn into the order."

Reports like these appeared occasionally in the press, all with the same vagueness that unsettled those opposed to the Klan. For example, in late October 1922, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette published a short piece on what even the headline admitted was a rumor—an organizing meeting of a local chapter of the KKK in nearby Nevada, Iowa. The newspaper reported that "Despite the fact that no definite information is obtainable the rumor [of the meeting] generally is accepted as true."
Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette October 28, 1922
Unsurprisingly, the Des Moines African American newspaper, Iowa Bystander, paid the most attention to the Klan's revived fortunes. What can only be called a screaming headline in the paper's November 20, 1920 issue alerted readers to the Klan's "invasion" of the North. The article itself, however, referred mainly to parades and demonstrations throughout the South. 
The Iowa Bystander November 20, 1920, p. 1
Nevertheless, the article quoted a letter from the Klan's Grand Kleagle that expressed the intention of opening new chapters of the Klan in New York, Maine, Illinois, Missouri, and California. The Bystander concluded by quoting an official from the NAACP: "The Ku Klux Klan is the most dangerous tendency in American life today and ought to be stamped out...."
The Bystander August 11, 1921, p. 1
But the paper had no news about the Klan's success in Iowa until the following summer.  An article in the August 11, 1921 edition of The Bystander quoted the Des Moines Chief of Police to the effect that the KKK had apparently organized a chapter in the city. "The mere organization of the Ku Klux," Chief Saunders said, "will not interest the police. But if any of them try to take the law into their own hands, then they'd better look out for the police." The paper went on to declare that the Iowa Attorney General was also keeping a close eye on the situation.
 
****
Consequently, it appears that only episodic reports of the Klan's success in 1920s Iowa made it into print. And, so far as I could discover, no further mention of the Klan appeared in Grinnell's newspapers. It is surprising, therefore, to note that at about this same time the college newspaper found several occasions to mention the Klan. In its January 6, 1923 issue, for example, the Scarlet and Black offered editorial criticism of something called "The Oracle," apparently a group of college upper-classmen, including "the huskiest and most hard-boiled athletes," who attempted to "regulate the morality and enforcement of traditions at Grinnell College." The S&B likened the group to the Klan, which, like the Oracle, kept its membership secret and felt free to enforce ("in the dead of night") its opinions upon people who had no voice in choosing them.

The following week (January 13) the college newspaper included yet another article that referenced the Klan.  This time the paper directly attacked the Klan, borrowing from an article written by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, co-editors of the literary magazine, The Smart Set. Mencken and Nathan had apparently defended the Klan as "typically American," but had also criticized the Klan's opponents as being two-faced, often supporting the very ideas for which they criticized the Klan. "The fundamental cause...of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan," the paper opined,  "is the weakness of human passions: envy, jealousy, and anger." In this view, the Klan fed off the desires of men who wanted to punish others with what they themselves could not do.
Scarlet and Black January 13, 1923
The newspaper concluded by expressing the hope that "Careful introspection and action governed by the results of this introspection will kill the Klan, if men still retain a sense of honor."

Little more was said about the Klan until the following autumn, when, according to the S&B (September 19, 1923), a freshman student used the KKK outfit as a costume for his performance during initiation rites. About a month later (October 31, 1923) the college paper reported on a "stunt" performed at Homecoming by students dressed to represent Klan members, hooded in white robes. Everyone seemed to think the stunt very humorous.
***
What explains this spate of local attention—some serious, some not so serious—to the KKK? For one thing, the Klan's revival in the 1920s was certainly real, and may well have resulted in a chapter right here in Grinnell. But even if Grinnell did not have its own KKK, the increased visibility of the Klan nationwide surely made the Klan more familiar to Grinnellians, both on and off the campus. Like many other towns in Iowa, Grinnell had been host to showings of Birth of a Nation, the film that had helped revive the fortunes and reputation of the KKK. Grinnellians, therefore, were familiar with the peculiar costume of the Klan's members and knew something about the vigilantism that the organization advocated. The burning cross at the Country Club had perhaps most forcefully brought home to Grinnell the reality of the Klan's revival, but long before that fiery cross was planted on the Country Club grass, Grinnellians were familiar with the Klan.

Over the long haul, however, the KKK seems to have had little impact in Grinnell. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the subject almost completely disappeared from local newspapers. Nationwide the Klan's fortunes ebbed with the outbreak of the Great Depression, but in Iowa, where the agricultural depression was already in evidence by 1924, the Klan may have suffered reverses even sooner, leaving towns like Grinnell only lightly affected by the post-World War I KKK recovery.