Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Ku Klux Klan in the Adirondacks

We recently received a note from a reader about the Ku Klux Klan presence in the Adirondack region. A Wilmington (Essex County) woman had the following story to tell. She believes it dates from the 1930s –

My mom had told me how when she was a little girl the kkk had burned a house down just up a ways on the Whiteface Memorial Highway, and had run the family out of town.

This kind of activity was pretty typical at the turn of the century, even in the north, and we suspect it actually happened in the mid to late 1920s. Recent studies, such as that conducted by the Washington Bureau of Cox Newspapers in July 2006, conclude that racial expulsions occurred beyond just the states of the deep south and included such places as Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Indiana. In what the Cox study’s authors called “the most extreme examples of a widespread pattern” black populations in 14 counties in eight states along the Mason-Dixon line “seemed to vanish” in a series of ethnic cleansings from 1864 to 1923. Newspaper reports, government accounts and family histories were used to collaborate results from computer analysis of post-bellum census records.

The results illuminate a forgotten aspect of the history of American race.“Today, one of the physical legacies of these attacks is an archipelago of white or virtually all-white counties along the Mason-Dixon Line and into the Midwest,” the Cox study concluded, “Blacks remain all but absent from these counties, even when neighboring counties have sizable black populations.”

While no evidence has yet surfaced that the expulsions were coordinated nationally or regionally by governments or racists groups like the KKK, the racial purges were well-organized locally. Of the fourteen most oppressive cases involving murder, torture, theft and other violent white vigilante activities, only three resulted in any charges being pressed against whites. In Forsyth County, Georgia, county land deeds and tax records indicate that land owned by African-Americans “was appropriated by whites after the expulsion and was never returned.”

The removal of African Americans was sometimes prompted “when whites, angry about a particular crime, lynched someone and then ordered the black population to leave,” the Cox study concluded, “But in at least three counties, whites simply decided they did not want to live near blacks.”

Newspaper accounts detail what happened: “For nearly 15 hours, ending about noon today,” a Pierce City, Missouri newspaper reported in 1901, “this town of 3,000 people has been in the hand of a mob of armed whites, determined to drive every Negro from its precincts.”

Later whites celebrated the removals with marketing brochures such as that produced by the Boone County Arkansas Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s-era that assured potential investors a new residents that the county was free of “mosquitoes or Negroes.” A brochure from ComancheCounty in northern Texas assured readers that the county population was “entirely and absolutely ALL WHITE; there is not a Negro in the county, and the chances are there will not be any for many years to come.” You’ll remember the same type of Anti-semetic advertiseing for Taylor’s on Schroon Lake we wrote about some time ago.

The 12 counties with “the most extreme examples of expulsions” according to the Cox Newspapers study include:

Washington County, Ind.,where blacks were driven out between 1864 and 1867, apparently by whites alarmed that the Emancipation Proclamation could allow blacks to vote and become full citizens. Two black men who did not leave were killed.

Comanche County, Texas, where in 1886 the murder of a white farm wife led white vigilantes to lynch a black farmhand and threaten all blacks with death if they did not leave.

Polk County, Tenn.,where in 1894 whites fearful of losing railroad construction jobs to black laborers attacked the black workers’ camp. No blacks were killed, but all fled.

Lawrence County, Mo.,where in 1901 the rape and murder of a white woman spawned horrific violence by whites. One black man was lynched, and two others killed when a mob of about 1,000 attacked the black section of Pierce City. Most blacks fled the county.

Sharp County, Ark.,where in 1906 notices were posted ordering blacks to leave the county and by late December there was “scarcely a Negro left” and “the community is better off without them,” a local newspaper reported.

Marshall County, Ky.,where in 1908 vigilantes led by a local doctor posted notices telling blacks to leave. More than 100 armed and hooded men picked about a dozen people at random and tortured them. An elderly black man and his 2-year-old grandchild were killed.

Boone County
, Ark.,
where in 1905 whites in Harrison, uneasy about the arrival of black construction crews, turned on the black population after a black man broke into a white family’s home, apparently to keep warm. Blacks were whipped and driven out of town. After a black man was convicted of raping a white woman in 1909, the rest of the county’s blacks fled in fear.

Forsyth County, Ga.,where in 1912 the rape and murder of a white woman led to the hangings of three black men and spawned a months-long campaign by night riders who dynamited houses and burned churches to drive about 1,000 blacks from the county.

Dawson County, Ga.,where in 1912 vigilante efforts to drive away blacks spilled over from nearby Forsyth County.

Unicoi County, Tenn., where in 1918 whites rounded up about 60 blacks in Erwin and forced them to watch as they burned the body of a black man who had been shot while abducting a white girl. The mob then herded the town’s black residents to the train station and forced them to leave.

Vermillion County, Ind.,where in 1923 the then politically powerful Ku Klux Klan drove the expulsion of blacks from the mining town of Blanford after a white girl said she was assaulted by a black man.

Mitchell County, N.C., where in 1923 whites were upset by the arrival of blacks to work in the mines. When a white woman was raped by an escaped black convict, a furious mob loaded black laborers, on freight cars and sent them packing.

According to the 2000 census, African Americans continue to be mostly absent from these counties. A large number of them continue to be places which have retained reputations as being anti-black and are prone to racial violence.

We’ve done some newspaper research and can’t seem to locate the Wilmington example – we’d be interested in hearing from others who remember this event or others like it. In the meantime – here’s another intersting article from the July 20, 1928 Plattsburgh Sentinel.

LUZERNE – Members of the Ku Klux Klan met on the Luzerne-Lake George Highway a few nights ago and erected a large cabin to replace a member’s home which was burned to the ground about three weeks ago, shortly after a Klan meeting had been held on his property. The volunteer builders ended the rally by burning a cross.

Is this building still standing?

Suggested Reading

Another of our regular readers pointed us to a book that focuses primarily on the Massena NY area Saul Friedman‘s The Incident at Massena: The Blood Libel in America.

The FBI and the KKK: A Critical History reveals the longstanding connection between the Klan and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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