The Klan Last Time- Part 8: Onions and Hyacinths

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.

This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the last in an 8-post series on the Ku Klux Klan in eastern N.C. that began a week ago.

In the essay, which I called “Ordinary Sin,” I wrote about how I felt when I discovered that I passed so frequently by scenes of the Klan’s crimes that I, but apparently few others, remembered.

I’m talking about places where Klansmen burned crosses and torched churches, places where they vandalized schools and dynamited businesses, places where they attempted assassinations and taunted some of our most vulnerable children.

Osha Gray Davidson tells one of my favorite stories in The Best of Enemies. It’s the saga of Klansman C. P. Ellis and militant civil rights activist Ann Atwater and how they became friends and transformed both their lives. I got to know Claiborne (“C.P.”) in Durham, N.C. in the early 1980s. He was a dear man, and a pugnacious saint in my eyes. By then he had become a relentless fighter for social justice and labor rights.

I also wrote about what it was like to discover in the State Records Center that I knew some of the old timers that had been part of the Klan. I described how I struggled to reconcile what I knew about the Klan in the 1960s with my more recent experience of them being kind and caring people.

I quoted Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding: “People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

If I was writing that essay today, I think I would say: if only it was that simple. If only we were onions or hyacinths, and not, as I have found more often, both.

In that essay, I also said that the KKK papers helped teach me a lesson that I needed to learn if I was going to be an historian who sticks so stubbornly to writing about his home.

It is a lesson I have learned many times since then: when it comes to history, you never know what will emerge from the shadows. All I know for sure is that you better not be afraid of the dark.

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