|75 years ago, the Ku Klux Klan attracted 583 men here|
|3rd in a 5-part series|
The climax of Rochester's Ku Klux Klan experience came 75 years ago on a festive summer Saturday. Old Glory was flying from almost every store and residence, for it was Flag Day, June 14, 1924. In the city was a crowd the size of which "seldom if ever" had been seen before, according to The Sentinel. People were jammed together along East Ninth and Main streets in front of their autos that were parked two deep.
They were waiting for a night parade promised by the more than 1,000 Klansmen from miles around who were gathered for a rally at Long Beach amusement park on the northeast shore of Lake Manitou. The Klan was out to impress the public with its power and magnificence.
At 9 p.m. the hooded and robed Knights of the Invisible Empire began an elaborate procession led by high Klan officials on horseback, followed by two bands, a few drum corps, orderly ranks of marching Klansmen and floats depicting KKK principles of patriotism, Protestantism and family. The Daily News counted 672 people in the eight-block long parade, which required 13 minutes to pass a given point as it proceeded from Long Beach west on Ninth to Main, then north to the Erie Railroad and back again to the lake.
The presence of so many citizens for this event quite likely reflected the judgment of most of them that whatever else the Klan professed to be, it was entertainment. Certainly it never represented the views of a majority of Fulton County's 17,000 inhabitants.
When one of the Klan's closely-guarded membership lists surfaced earlier in 1924, it was found to contain 583 names. With perhaps another 300 belonging to the Klan's women's auxiliary, the Kamelia, less than 1,000 had signed on to the Klan's racist philosophies. Critics who examined the list mocked the Klan for boasting of its extreme patriotism. It was noted that of the 583 men on the list, only 31 had served in World War I and just 10 were members of the local American Legion Post.
More tolerant succeeding generations may consider 583 a number still too large for acceptance, yet contemporary observers believed that more than half of the 583 were inactive, having signed under duress or to please the recruiter, friend or relative. Never did the Fulton County Klan prove itself capable of influencing the course of local government or other public affairs, nor did it resort to any acts of personal violence against its detractors.
The Ku Klux Klan came to Fulton County the night of September 29, 1923, when an ex-minister from Knox organized the chapter at a meeting attended by 150. It was held at the Academy of Music building, Fifth and Main, the remnant of which just now has been torn down. Even before the meeting Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson's organizers already were at work in the county signing up women and children for the Klan's auxiliaries.
For a meeting place, the local Klan chapter first rented the Moose lodge quarters on the second floor of today's Sentinel building, but in late January, 1924, it was evicted by a 27-13 vote of Moose members. Many of the lodge had opposed the rental from the beginning, considering the Klan undesirable because of its stand against foreign-born citizens; the lodge's national president was a native of Wales.
The Moose was not the only local organization to oppose the Klan's intimidating activities and racist philosophies.
In May, when the United Brethren minister was announced as speaker for the upcoming Memorial Day ceremonies, Civil War veterans of the G. A. R. post called him a Klansman and said they would not attend the event if he spoke. An acceptable substitute, the Grace Methodist pastor, quickly was arranged.
In November, the Klan asked permission to use the high school gymnasium for a rally that would feature visiting Klan notables. The school board refused to grant it. The gym was for school purposes only, trustees said, and anyway it was owned by taxpayers who in the main were opposed to the Klan.
After being turned out by the Moose, the Klan secured a meeting place in May of 1924 by buying one. It was the once-palatial two story Victorian brick residence of the late Dr. A. H. Robbins, purchased from his widow for $5,000.
Local wags began calling it "Night Shirt Hall" from the long white robes the masked Klansmen affected for its parades. The Robbins house was located across from the Grace Methodist Church at Seventh and Jefferson Streets and the site now is a church parking lot. It was from that building that my childhood eyes saw the hooded Klansmen emerge, probably during the Klan's last days of 1928 or 1929.
The Robbins house assumed a sinister aura until the order disbanded near the end of the decade and, becoming vacant, fell into local lore. It remained broodingly dark and mysterious thereafter and for many years schoolchildren habitually ran or walked a bit faster when passing it at night. In 1944 it was converted to use for awhile as the School Door Canteen, an RHS recreation center. Klan paraphernalia found in the house at that time disappeared, but nobody today recalls in what direction.
Those Rochester residents with whom I've spoken and who in 1924 were children, teenagers or young adults have only sketchy memories of the Klan. One recalls watching a march as a child from atop her father's shoulders at Main and 11th Streets and seeing a hooded Klansman unexpectedly wink at her when he passed. Another remembers a cross that was burned on a hill south of the Citizens Cemetery, still another spoke of watching a night Main Street parade when some of the disguised Klansmen yelled greetings at her and her family.
In Kewanna an active Klan group put on regular cross burnings, parades and even staged one shocking incident, all of which were documented more than 20 years ago by remembrances of people who were present. That tale'snext.
Published Nov. 30, 1999
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