Monday, January 11, 2016

The KKK in Salem County, New Jersey

This past Friday, my mom and I took a trip down to Salem, New Jersey, the old stomping ground of my great-grandmother Katherine Jane Shepherd, her parents Rose and Samuel, and her probable cousins, the Kilsons. There was plenty of interesting information, but definitely the most compelling thing for me was a folder of newspaper clippings related to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Salem County.

New Jersey has a complicated history when it comes to the treatment of African Americans. On the one hand, the state chose to voluntarily end slavery prior to the start of the Civil War, doing so in 1804 via “gradual emancipation.” (This meant enslaved people were not all freed in one fell swoop, but rather granted their freedom if they were born after a certain date and then served as slaves until they were either 21 or 25, depending on whether they were female or male. If they were born enslaved before that date, they died enslaved unless they were personally freed by their owner or purchased their own freedom. Other states in the North passed similar laws with different date and age cut-offs.)

Salem had an active community of abolitionists and the area saw lots of Underground Railroad activity, especially being so close to Philadelphia, where the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” William Still, lived and worked, and also to the border states of Delaware and Maryland where slavery was still in effect. (See here for a primer.) In another vein, in the late 1800s, the New Jersey Legislature passed a law that forbid children from being excluded from school based on the religion, nationality or color, so for a time schools were integrated before this was a national policy.

On the other hand, New Jersey was actually one of the last states to pass an act for the gradual abolition of slavery – the other northern states that did so passed them mostly in the 1780s. Abolitionists faced constant opposition and danger from supporters of slavery.  The law prohibiting the exclusion of students based on race in schools was “poorly enforced,” and schools in Salem segregated almost as soon as they were legally able, after Plessy v. Ferguson made “separate but equal” acceptable in 1896.

And then there was the KKK (and the White Knights, which are also referenced). The below clippings are from Salem County newspapers, and appeared mostly in the 1920s and 30s, when the Kilsons and possibly Katherine's father were living in the area. These were about half of what was available in the clipping files, and I don’t know how representative these are either of the group’s activities or of the paper’s coverage. I’ll leave you to read these with your own thoughts, but I’ll say three things:

1. Racial terrorism is alive and well today. But I can’t imagine what it must have been like to face this particular brand of racial terror when one’s family might have been just 1-2 generations past chattel slavery, when equal protection under the law was even less of a thing than it is now, and when racism was much more overt and publicly acceptable than it is today.

2. I appreciate that there’s a certain level of journalistic or editorial disdain towards these organizations in at least a few of these pieces. (Check out the passive-aggressiveness in the White Knights article from 1967!)

3. Yes, the fact that the free Kiddie Dinners were open to children of “all races and creeds” seemed weird to me, too. But, the Southern Poverty Law Center (which tracks hate groups in the U.S.) lists a Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK) organization in Harrison, Arkansas as trying to put a “kinder, gentler” face on the Klan. While it says they were founded in 1975, and the KKKK that ran the dinners in Salem was doing so in 1931, it seems they had a similar idea.

Anyway, here’s a selection of snippets:


P.S. Shoutout to the Salem County Historical Society, where I accessed these clippings. As always, thanks for your help!

P.P.S. Schooling info from Small Towns, Black Lives by Wendel A. White (2003) and The African-American Experience in Salem County: An Oral History Project, produced by the Salem County Historical Society (2006).

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