UVA and the History of Race: When the KKK Flourished in Charlottesville

UVA and the History of Race: When the KKK Flourished in Charlottesville

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The President’s Commission on Slavery and the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series.

 

In February 1915, the promotional campaign for D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster film, “Birth of a Nation,” culminated in a special viewing at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. A Virginian and University of Virginia School of Law alumnus, Wilson was familiar with the message portrayed by the film; it was adapted from “The Clansman” and “The Leopard’s Spots,” books written by Wilson’s friend and classmate from his time in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, Thomas Dixon Jr.

Steeped in the mythology of the “Lost Cause,” the film “Birth of a Nation” traces the Civil War era through the competing views of a Northern abolitionist family and a South Carolina planter family. The film reaches a crescendo after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and feverishly depicts the imagined “failure” of Reconstruction, particularly the election of black Congressmen. The film mocks formerly enslaved African Americans as inferior, less than human, lazy and incapable of self-governance or citizenship.

“Birth of a Nation” concluded by metaphorically reuniting white Northerners and Southerners, and thereby the nation, through a reclamation of white rule and civilization led by the Ku Klux Klan. One of the film’s title cards captured the idea succinctly: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”

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“Birth of a Nation,” a racist 1915 film, helped revitalize national interest in the Ku Klux Klan. Two chapters formed in Charlottesville in subsequent years.

After that White House screening, Wilson reportedly commented that the movie was “writing history as lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Many white Americans appear to have agreed. The Klan’s membership surged in the years after the film’s release – the mass reorganization of the Klan became more national, and chapters throughout the nation embraced the regalia featured in the movie. By 1924, membership nationwide had spiked to possibly as many as 4 million people.

Charlottesville and the University of Virginia were enthusiastic participants in the national resurgence of public and celebratory white supremacy and the KKK.1 In fact, the local embrace of the KKK – and with it, white supremacy and Lost Cause mythologizing – was already well underway within a year of “Birth of a Nation’s” release. In 1916, the Daily Progress reported that the children parading in costume on Halloween included: “a gay battalion of Ku Klux Klan came thundering down from the heights of the Midway, recalling other days. Many a dusky denizen of ‘bottom’ was seen to shrink instinctively back into the shadows of Preston Avenue.”2 In 1924, the Daily Progress, commending a local revival of the film, would term it the “greatest spectacle” and “the greatest picture of the age.”3

This resurgence was not just in rhetoric or symbolic marches; it had real and violent consequences for African Americans in the Charlottesville area. For example, W.T. Clements, an African American man, was arrested and held under suspicion of “attempting to incite a rebellion among negroes of this section” just six months after the film debuted in town. 4 Two days later, local African American men Hampton Cosby and Richard Jones were caught by a police officer in the act of stealing a ham. In the ensuing struggle, Cosby allegedly struck the white police officer repeatedly on the head with a stone, killing him. Both were arrested within hours, along with John Anderson, an African American man who just happened to be in the house where Cosby was arrested.5

A day later, the newspaper’s account changed, now claiming that the officer first shot Jones in the leg, then Cosby knocked the officer down with a brick, took his gun, and shot him in the stomach. Within four days, the paper was describing the incident in fevered terms, with the deceased police officer whose life was “snatched away by murder most foul” and was “done to death while in the discharge of his duty by two negro housebreakers, who are now on trial for the dastardly crime.”6

Only five days after the incident, Jones and Cosby were already on trial. A mob of hundreds gathered at the courthouse in response to a rising “spirit of riot and lynching” in Charlottesville. The lynch mob of “some hundreds in the principal throng, many having masks over their faces,” moved on the courthouse, but were met and stopped by the police. A second lynch mob also formed near where the incident had occurred and joined the other at the courthouse. That mob included “a large delegation from the student body at the University … in the grand march to seize the men and carry out a spectacular lynching at a tree selected near the place of the killing.”7 Newspapers reported that both mobs included more than 1,000 people.

About six months after “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, a mob of hundreds, including UVA students, gathered outside the courthouse as two black men were charged with killing a white police officer. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Jones and Cosby were temporarily removed to Richmond until the mob dispersed and the trial resumed.8 The two men were quickly found guilty by a jury of white men and electrocuted at Richmond just over two months after they were arrested.9

Meanwhile, nationwide, the KKK continued to expand as new chapters formed and membership in the white supremacist organization swelled.

In March 1921, the Virginia state Klan sent a letter directly to UVA President Edwin Alderman pledging $1,000 to UVA’s Centennial Endowment Fund. Alderman publicly “expressed the hearty thanks of the University” for what he termed the Klan’s “generosity and good will” for the pledge gift. 10

A few months later, the Daily Progress reported that “the spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest hovered over Charlottesville recently, and the fiery cross, symbolic of the Invisible Empire and of the unconquered and unconquerable blood of America, cast an eerie sheen upon a legion of white robed Virginians as they stood upon hallowed ground and renewed the faith of their fathers.”

In a midnight ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s grave that month, “hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men met … and sealed the pledge of chivalry and patriotism with the deepest crimson of red American blood.”11

Within a month, the newly formed local Klan chapter posted bulletins across town warning that “law and order must prevail at Charlottesville, Va.” and “All undesirables must leave town.”

The Daily Progress further reported that the Klan bulletins included an invitation to “native-born white Americans” to join if they believed in “White Supremacy.”12

The Klan also held a public address at the courthouse on July 20, 1921, delivered by a Klan promoter from Atlanta.

The following year, the Klan’s popularity among white leaders in the area was evident, as the paper reported the group’s appearance at the Oakwood Cemetery funeral service for the Albemarle County sheriff.

According to the Richmond Planet, “six white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan suddenly appeared … scaled a high rock wall and forming the figure of a cross, marched in the newly-made grave bearing a large cross of red flowers,” which they placed on the grave.”13

By 1922, the KKK had at least two chapters locally. The second, known as “VA. Klan No. 5,” was at UVA. This UVA chapter had likely been in existence for at least a year, if not longer, when it threatened to separate from the national organization.

The 1921 edition of the student yearbook, “Corks and Curls,” even included an image of the KKK on the ride as the frontispiece for the student organizations section.14

In August 1922, the Grand Dragon of the state Klan came to Charlottesville and delivered a speech advocating “rigid preservation of white supremacy. The destinies of America shall remain with the white race; they shall never be entrusted to the black, the brown, or the yellow, or to the unclean hands of hybrids and mongrels.”In reporting on the speech, the Daily Progress added that “Charlottesville Klan is not the largest in Virginia, but it numbers among its members many of our able and influential citizens.”15

By the early 1920s, with close to 60 local chapters statewide, visible Klan activity was part of the fabric of life in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

In April and June 1924, another traveling KKK speaker, an attorney from St. Louis, lectured at the courthouse downtown.16 On a Friday night in May 1924, the Klan burned a large cross atop Montalto; the fire lasted two hours and was visible for miles.

Organized Klan activities in the Charlottesville area at that time included a gathering at Thomas Jefferson’s grave near Monticello, at the bottom of this image, and a cross burning on Montalto, at top. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The next day, the KKK paraded in full regalia from Belmont down Main Street to the Midway atop the African American Vinegar Hill neighborhood, with thousands lining the sidewalks.

That evening, Charlottesville resident Thomas Lafayette Rosser Jr. noted that as the town prepared for a celebration of Confederate veterans and the “unveiling of the Lee statue…the Klu Klux had a parade” and “some students pelted them with eggs.”

The egging did not represent opposition to the KKK, as “the students put handkerchiefs over their faces and called themselves ‘Klu Klux’s’ and had a snake dance down Main Street, stopping street cars and all traffic.”17

In the same month, the local KKK demonstrated in Crozet, Keswick and Scottsville. All three events included cross burnings. The local paper remarked that “the hooded order is quite active here.”18

The KKK’s activities locally, supported by many whites, were explicitly about promoting and enforcing white supremacy. In late June 1924, as reported in the Daily Progress, “fifty klansmen, only about six of them masked,” set off “heavy explosions from three bombs” and then burned a large cross on a Saturday night “near the colored church just west of Mechum’s River,” which may have been Mount Salem Church near Crozet, Virginia.

Although the Klan was technically a secret organization, local membership was clearly an open secret – no masks or hoods were necessary. The paper additionally indicated that the Klan’s “action is commended by the people” of the area and “the good citizens of that part of the county.”19

Many students at UVA supported the Klan’s white supremacist ideology. Law student William Saunders Gibson argued that “if there is in America one college of pure Anglo-Saxon heritage, it is the University of Virginia.”

Gibson drew on the “Anglo-Saxon conservatism” of Jefferson and Wilson as proof that: “in the University of Virginia, the Anglo-Saxon boy can find his true soil.”20

The organization continued to be quite active for a few more years, participating in national KKK events in distant cities as well as appearing publicly at local revivals while still putting on parades and cross burnings.21

Klan membership and influence started to decline in Virginia after 1930, thanks to organizational in-fighting and white Virginian elite disdain for the Klan’s mob violence. As one scholar noted, the Klan “threatened paternalistic notions of noblesse oblige that formed the foundation of Virginia’s claim to friendly race relations.”

In short, elites considered the Klan crass and embarrassing.”22 Broad white Virginian support for white supremacy, though, would live on for decades at UVA and in the surrounding area.

 

Editor’s note: In 2017, President Emerita Teresa A. Sullivan estimated the 1921 pledge from the Virginia state Klan would be worth about $12,400 in today’s dollars, and announced that she would allocate $12,500 from private sources to a fund managed by the UVA Health Foundation to assist victims with a gesture of financial support in their recovery from the violence of Aug. 11-12, 2017.

 

Kirt von Daacke is an assistant dean and professor in the University of Virginia undergraduate College of Arts & Sciences. He co-chairs both the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation. Ashley Schmidt is the PCUAS program officer.

 

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Notes

1. Thanks to the Charlottesville Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces for their research and historical timeline published as an appendix to their report, which first published details about Klan activity in the area 1917-1924 (see appendix which starts on p. 71 of document): https://www.charlottesville.org/home/showdocument?id=49037 

2. “Hallowe’en Is Duly Observed.” Daily Progress, Wednesday November 1, 1916, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2108782/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2108783/2719.5/2701.5/4/1/0

3. “At the Theatres,” Daily Progress, January 24, 1924, p. 1, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2589088/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2589089/1560/1956/4/1/1  and “Avoid the Crowd,” Daily Progress, January 25, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2589097/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2589098/1117/1613.5/3/1/0

4. “Held Under Suspicion,” Daily Progress, April 10, 1917, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2109812/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2109813/1585.5/2671/4/1/0

5. “Sub Policeman Is Murdered,” Daily Progress, Friday April 13, 1917, p. 1, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2109833/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2109834/5345/1218.5/3/1/0 and “Raise Fund for Officer Thomas’ Widow” Daily Progress, Monday April 16, 1917, p. 1, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2109851/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2109852/4370/2286.5/3/1/0 and advertisement, p. 3, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2119725/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2119728/5153.5/2738/2/1/0

6. “Cosby Shot Thomas,” Daily Progress, Saturday April 14, 1917, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2109842/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2109843/1516/1562.5/3/1/0

7. “Lynching Party Is Dispersed,” Daily Progress, Tuesday April 17, 1917, pp. 1 and 8, http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2109858/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2109859/5314.5/3041/3/1/0

8. “Judge Scatters Mob,” Baltimore Sun, Wednesday, April 18, 1917, p. 6.

9. “Men Die In Electric Chair,” Daily Progress, June 20, 1917, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2110265/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2110266/5348/4961.5/3/1/0

10. “J.P. Morgan, the Ku Klux Klan And Youngest Descendant of Thomas Jefferson Contribute to U. of Va. Fund,” Alexandria Gazette, Wednesday, March 23, 1921, p. 2; and “Ku Klux Klan Gives a Thousand Dollars to Gymnasium Fund,”  College Topics, March 25, 1921, p. 1-2.

11. “Ku Klux Klan Organized Here,” Daily Progress, Tuesday June 28, 1921, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2119582/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2119583/4557.5/1559/3/1/0

12. “Ku Klux Klan Issues ‘Warning’,” Daily Progress, July 19, 1921, p. 1. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2119725/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2119726/5244/3480.5/3/1/0

13. “Ku Klux Klan at Thomas Funeral,” Richmond Planet, February 18, 1922, p. 1. https://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=RP19220218.1.1&srpos=1&e=--1922---1922--en-20-RP-1-byDA-txt-txIN-Charlottesville------

14. “U. of VA. Klan No. 5,” Daily Progress, November 6, 1922, p.  1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2123262/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2123263/3474/3101.5/3/1/0

15. “Ku Klux Klan: Grand Dragon of State Visits Charlottesville,” Daily Progress, August 23, 1922, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2122694/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2122695/4367/1723/3/1/1 and p. 3 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2122694/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2122697/5752/3804.5/3/1/0

16. “Klan Speaker Here Last Night,” Daily Progress, April 26, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2589938/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2589939/1657/3566/3/1/0 and “Klan Speaker Well Received,” Daily Progress, June 9, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590289/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590290/3005/2741/3/1/0

17. Thomas L. Rosser Jr. letter to his daughter Barbara, May 24, 1924, University of Virginia, Special Collections, MSS 1171-g, -h, -j, Box 7.

18. “Cross Burned on Patterson’s Mountain,” Daily Progress, May 17, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590109/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590110/4654.5/4386.5/3/1/0; “Klan Parade Drew Big Crowd,” Daily Progress, May 19, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590120/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590121/3732.5/1708/3/1/0; and “Klan Burns Crosses at Several Places,” Daily Progress, June 2, 1924, p. 1 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590230/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590231/4978/1196.5/4/1/0; and “Flaming Cross Seen Last Night,” Daily Progress, June 4, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590247/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590248/3823/4552/4/1/0

19. “Klan Burns Cross Near Mechums River,” Daily Progress, June 23, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590407/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590408/5128/3823.5/4/1/0 and “Klan Visits Keswick Church,” Daily Progress, August 23, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590912/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590913/1119.5/4242.5/4/1/0 and “Klan Visits Fife Chapel,” Daily Progress, August 30, 1924, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2590968/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2590969/2591.5/1111.5/4/1/0

20. M. S. Gibson. “Why the Anglo-Saxon boy should go to the University of Virginia,” circa 1924, Accession #14545, Special Collections Dept., University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

21. “Ku Klux Klansmen Pour into Capital for Demonstration,” Daily Progress, August 7, 1925, p.1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2594859/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2594860/5404.5/4537/3/1/0; “Klan to Parade at 8 Tonight,” Daily Progress, August 22, 1925, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2595010/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2595011/4588/1570.5/3/1/0; “Klan Parade a Big Success,” Daily Progress, August 24, 1925, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2595027/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2595028/3701.5/4086/3/1/0; “Burning Klan Cross Draws Large Crowd,” Daily Progress, June 16, 1926, p. 1 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2598916/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2598917/2955/4088.5/4/1/0; “Ku Klux Klan Attend Revival,” Daily Progress, June 29, 1926, p. 1 and 9 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2599043/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2599044/4321/1283.5/4/1/0; and “Klan Attends Revival Service,” Daily Progress, July 2, 1926, p. 1 and 3 http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2599079/view#openLayer/uva-lib:2599080/4717.5/1301/4/1/0

22. Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002, quoted in “Ku Klux Klan in Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/ku_klux_klan_in_virginia#start_entry

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