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 (
(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.


  1. Your picture of the Charles City bridge is the wrong one connected to the lynching. This is the correct bridge

    The bridge you have pictured was built in 1909 and the 'old' bridge was floated down river several blocks were it became known as St. Mary's Bridge.

  2. Thanks for the informative look at the KKK in Iowa