Sailors on the John R. Manta, Hatteras grounds, 1925.
A view forward from the quarterdeck of the 2-masted whaling schooner John R. Manta, out of New Bedford, Mass., on the Hatteras grounds, 1925. The photographer, William H. Tripp, was a guest of the vessel’s master and principal owner, Antone J. Mandly.
I am at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I’ve come to look at the field diaries of a Smithsonian biologist named Remington Kellogg. In the 1920s he visited and studied a bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island, N.C. that I am researching.
I am at the Moorland-Spingard Research Center in the Founders Library at Howard University, in Washington, DC. In the papers of a New England abolitionist, I find a file of Civil War letters written by an African-American woman named Mary Ann Starkey.
On this day I explore the side galleries, not the reading room, and in one of them I find a new exhibit dedicated to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and take refuge there.
While my collards are cooking, I am thinking about my Great-aunt Irene. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister. She was born in Core Creek, in Carteret County, N.C., in 1919. She and her brothers and sisters grew up on a remote little farm next to the salt marsh, but Irene looks beautiful and glamorous in the family’s old black and white photographs.
When I found the KKK papers, I was relatively young and my career as a historian was just getting started. I incorporated what I learned into a few pages in my first book and I also wrote a personal essay about how my new knowledge of the Klan had changed the way I saw my home in eastern North Carolina.
According to the KKK papers, things began to change in 1967. Attendance at Klan rallies plummeted. Many white people walked away from the fiery cross never to return. SHP agents began to report that state Klan leaders were finding it difficult to convince local people to lease them land for rallies.
While the Klan’s public rallies and cross burnings brought to mind a county fair or a church revival, the soul of the Ku Klux Klan revealed itself most plainly later in the night, after the children’s games had finished and the burning cross extinguished.
A sign of the KKK’s public acceptance was that many Klansmen no longer hid behind their cloaks. Klan membership was often an open secret, sometimes widely known and even boasted. Klan activists posted signs in local businesses and public streets announcing recruitment rallies and advertised them in the local newspapers, such as the Greenville Daily Reflector and the Kinston Daily News.
In the 1960s, Eastern North Carolina was still primarily an agricultural economy, even more so than it is today. At the time, the people of the Hooded Order realized that tens of thousands of white, middle-class farm owners, tenant farmers and small town merchants were struggling to hold onto their land, their homes and their businesses.
An SBI report dated July 26, 1966 gave a flavor of what those public Klan rallies were like. I expected them to sound far more sinister. But that wasn’t it at all. That afternoon a large crowd massed in a field near Chocowinity, a small town in Beaufort County. In most ways, the occasion resembled a county fair or church revival.
The Ku Klux Klan lived in our shadows long before the 1960s, but the Hooded Order had usually been a tiny fringe group. But not always: the Klan had played central roles in the state's political life in the Reconstruction Era and again in the late 1910s and '20s. Another, lesser Klan heyday occurred in the early 1950s.
The recent events in Charlottesville led me to remember a day 25 years ago, when I stumbled upon a stunning collection of government documents on the Ku Klux Klan's activities in eastern N.C. in the 1960s.
My family and I are driving across New York and Massachusetts. For my biography of Abraham Galloway, I am visiting the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Mass. and the Rare and Special Collections Library at Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y.