Quakers & The Klan: The Real Thing, Not The Rumor
There’s a report out there today from hackers claiming to be part of the “Anonymous” network, naming a batch of current American politicians as secret Ku Klux Klan members.
The list’s credibility is unclear, and without solid confirmation we won’t repost any of the names from it here. But whether or not anyone on the list in fact has ties to the KKK, what is beyond doubt is that the spirit of the Klan is still very much alive and active in American society. It rarely shows up in the old robes nowadays; it has found more sophisticated (and effective) means of manifestation, especially via politics.
And while the Klan is back in the news, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a major chapter in Ku Klux Klan history that involves many Quakers. This one is real, solid, and verified — yet Quaker historians have been almost totally silent about it:
Say Hello to Friend Daisy Douglass Barr, Quaker pastor, and “Queen” of the Indiana Women’s Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.
(If thee is tempted to snicker, don’t. The Klan was a very big deal in the 1920s; it made Barr famous and rich. Not to mention its racism and violence, which she evidently ignored.)
There’s a fine substantial article about Friend Barr and her eye-popping career online here, by a Hoosier historian, Steven Taylor. Don’t miss it.
I’ve borrowed some info and old photos from it. And another scholar, Leonard J. Moore, has added substantially to what we know in his book, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928.
Moore builds on the fact that the membership list of the Indiana Klan was preserved (most others were lost or destroyed); and the Hoosier Klan was the nation’s biggest and most powerful in its 1920s heyday.
Moore’s analysis of the KKK list for Wayne County — home of the city of Richmond, numerous Quakers, and the Quaker Earlham College — offers a startling (to modern Friends) disclosure:
The religious affiliations of the Klansmen also closely approximated the city’s Protestant spectrum . . . . The large, traditionally evangelical denominations (Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterian) were strongly represented, but so too were the equally consequential German (Lutheran and United Brethren) and Quaker churches. (Emphasis added.)
That is, Indiana Quakers were just as likely to join the 1920s Indiana Klan as members of other churches; and many did.
Daisy Douglass Barr was their star. She served as pastor in at least two prominent Friends churches, and preached in many more, over many years.
She also used her notoriety and her Klan office to make money. The profit came mainly from selling Klan women’s robes and other paraphernalia. When the Indiana Klan could boast several hundred thousand members, and draw tens of thousands to its (white) family-friendly mass rallies, the paraphernalia business was good; nay, it was a goldmine.
By and large, according to Moore, the 1920s Indiana Klan, while committed to white supremacy, was not much into the racial terrorism of the group’s original Reconstruction-era incarnation.
Well, “not much” is a relative term. On August 7, 1930, one of the iconic lynchings of the era occurred in Marion, Indiana, near Daisy Barr’s birthplace. Two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were dragged from jail and left hanging from a tree, surrounded by a festive mob numbered at 5000, unashamed of the camera’s eye. Despite the thousands of eyewitnesses, no one was ever prosecuted for the lynchings; a grand jury refused to issue any indictments.
Did I mention that Marion was home then to a large Friends Church? Still is.
Despite such savage incidents, it is still fair to say that even more than race, the Klan’s main “theme” was “Americanism.” That’s what its Indiana Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, who was a political kingmaker for several years, droned on about ad nauseam in his speeches. For that matter, it was even stressed above race in the Klan’s “Kreed”:
Further, its “Qualifying Interrogatories for new applicants,” #5 asked:
“Do you esteem the United states of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?”
Quaker Daisy Barr was all in on this. To quote historian Taylor:
In July 1923, Barr — the only woman on the program — addressed the assembled Grand Dragons of the Klan in Asheville, North Carolina, where she read a poem she’d written. Starting out in first-person, Barr spoke about my “all-seeing” eye and revelations and “the love of Christ.” Chillingly, it becomes clear that the “I” of the poem is “the Spirit of Righteousness”:
“They call me the Ku Klux Klan.
I am more than the uncouth robe and hood
With which I am clothed.
YEA, I AM THE SOUL OF AMERICA.”
Hostility to “new” immigrants (those not from northern, Protestant Europe, along with anti-semitism) was integral to this “Americanism.” It is a cry that echoes to this day.
So while no one should overlook the racial, religious and ethnic aspects here, there is yet another which is central to both “Americanism” (in most Klan versions) and to KKK history, namely: making money. For the KKK, when it had a mass membership, took in truckloads of money; and its officials seemed unable to stop quarreling over it, or accusing each other of stealing it.
Daisy Barr wasn’t accused of theft; just good old-fashioned American profiteering. Which there’s little doubt she actively engaged in.
The Greenfield Reporter (at left) put the question baldly, and the answer was more or less yes, though exact figures are not available.
For several years in the 1920s, the Klan and head man, D.C. Stephenson, ran Indiana, and lived high on the hog. But then in 1925 Stephenson, 34, who had an eye for younger women, was arrested and tried for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, age 28. He was convicted, spent years in jail, and with his fall, down went the Indiana Klan as a major organization.
Daisy Barr went on til 1938, when she was killed in a car wreck. Her funeral was, unsurprisingly, held in a Friends meeting.
While the rise and fall of the Indiana Klan (and in the rest of the U.S.) in the 1920s is an epic and gripping story, well worth reading more about, it’s not so much my subject here. Instead I see it more as a parable that has all too much current resonance. For, whether in white robes or (more likely) not; whether put through the Klan’s laughably ridiculous initiation rites (or more likely not), the Klan agenda of unremitting hostility to new immigrants, especially of color; plus its devotion to the Obama-era edition of repackaged and “sanitized” white supremacy; and its focus on one political party, all are very much still with us.
And that is not all. There is in it as well a big chunk of unfinished business for American Quakers: how and why did so many Indiana Friends, custodians of some of the most honored shrines of antislavery witness, and many of whom had relatives lost or wounded in the Civil War to end slavery, get drawn into this openly racist, anti-immigrant group? And what do we need to learn now from this dreadful history then?
We won’t learn much from Quaker historians; they are still essentially silent about it. The most detailed treatment I’ve yet seen of this episode was not a historical study but a novel for teenage readers, called Mim and the Klan, by Cynthia Stanley Russell. In it a young Quaker girl stumbles across the fact that her aged grandparents were part of it, and starts digging out why. In one (fictional, but likely “authentic”) passage, her grandmother sums it up:
“It was a social activity to belong to the Klan in Indiana. There were picnics and rallies for America.
We had just come out of World War I when everybody needed to be highly patriotic to weather the war together. And the Klan preached Americanism–put the flag on your window and so forth. And some people didn’t see the dark side of the Klan because they didn’t want to.”
Another way to put this is: these Indiana Quaker Klan members were not aliens or monsters; they were otherwise respectable, even “good” people; and they are our spiritual forebears (as well as many living Quakers’ relatives).
Some may prefer to send all this down the memory hole, and pretend it did not happen. But it did, with echoes that still reverberate. Their story, even that of Daisy Douglass Barr, is connected to ours. How? And what does it mean?
And we need no “Anonymous” hackers collective to bring it to light; merely an end to denial.
PS. For some additional reading, look into these titles:
Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (1991); Shawn Lay, ed., The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (1992); Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (1991); Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan: Race and Gender in the 1920s (1991); Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994).
And a 1916 Klan Handbook is reproduced in full online here.