This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
In Tennessee in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, six Confederate veterans formed an organization called the Ku Klux Klan for amusement. Shortly after, local Klan groups began popping up all over the South and quickly became synonymous with hate and terror. Klan activity began to taper off in the late 1800s, but shortly after World War I began, a new Klan emerged and flourished nationwide, boasting around five million members at its height in the early 1920s.
Avery Downing, former superintendent of Waco ISD, recalls the prominence of the Klan in Northeast Texas in the early 1900s:
"The Ku Klux Klan problem was an extremely sensitive and explosive issue in my county, very muchly so. And my family was anti-Ku Klux Klan from the word go, absolutely. And you have to understand that that meant considerable criticism from many, many, many others in the community because Ku Klux Klan had quite a following."
Downing describes an encounter his uncle had with the Klan while in high school:
"My uncle and one of his classmates were debaters, and they loved to debate the question of Ku Klux Klan. And one night in a small church north of Hallsville, a Ku Klux Klan assembly of some sort of a service or ceremony in this small church. And my uncle and his friend went out there and defrocked one of the leading Ku Klux Klan members—and he was the pastor of the Methodist church in north Marshall—and caused quite a furor."
Waco native Helen Geltemeyer remembers the Ku Klux Klan in Waco in the late 1920s and a meeting she went to with her mother and sister:
"Well, they met quite a bit out on Speight Street. That was one of their biggest main—I mean biggest meeting place. And my family decided to go in that Model T car out there to find out what they were going to do. I'd say that's way out at like—I guess Twenty-eight [Street] or Thirtieth [Street] and Speight—way out, we called it. That was a highway to go to Temple—the Temple highway. But here they were out all on this field. And we got out to run down there to see what they were going to do, and they had already lit those sticks and marching and doing little things together. And Allene and I were standing there and saw Mr. Russell."
Interviewer: "Which was the neighbor across the street from you?"
"Amen—who ran the store. And we yelled, ‘Oh, hi, Mr. Russell!' We saw his feet. We knew him by his feet. We couldn't tell otherwise. (laughs) And Mama grabbed us and ran us to the car and went home because she said we were going to get her in trouble. So we didn't get to stay to see what was on, but they didn't have any murder or anything that I remember. Otherwise, that'd have been vivid in my mind."
The Great Depression severely hampered the Klan, but it was not the end, for desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement resulted in a third resurgence of the Klan. Today, membership in Klan chapters is estimated between five and eight thousand, with the majority of members in the South.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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