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Remembering A Local Ku Klux Klan Resurgence

Judge Charles Orbison, a member of the Indianapolis Klan, address Klansmen and women from Vermont and New Hampshire gathered on the Towne Farm on Towne Hill Road in Montpelier on July 4, 1927.  (Courtesy of Vermont Historical Society)
Judge Charles Orbison, a member of the Indianapolis Klan, address Klansmen and women from Vermont and New Hampshire gathered on the Towne Farm on Towne Hill Road in Montpelier on July 4, 1927. (Courtesy of Vermont Historical Society)

by Dot Helling

CENTRAL VERMONT — There is a very dark continuing chapter in American history, the Ku Klux Klan. Many believe the KKK was a phenomenon restricted to the South, organized in 1866 by a group of Confederate veterans to intimidate recently freed Southern blacks. The KKK fought for white supremacy, becoming heretics who discriminated against, hated and sought to eliminate Blacks, Jews and Roman Catholics. These secret terrorists dressed in white robes with peaked hoods and waved wooden sabre-like crosses. They set fire to homes and businesses, and organized numerous cross burnings, sheet walkings  and hateful gatherings. Many of their actions resulted in hangings and killing minorities they were indoctrinated to abhor.

Since Vermont historically has not had a substantial minority population, it is surprising and upsetting to discover that Vermont indeed has had a KKK presence. To many this reality is horrifying. Most fascinating to me is that many Vermont members joined the KKK as a social club they believed would be fun and would contribute to the community. Once they learned differently, memberships disbanded and the once sizable Vermont KKK became short-lived.

Vermont had its significant Klan presence in the 1920s, estimated to be many thousands at its peak. This was a time of resurgence in Klan activity nationwide. A special commemorative issue of The Bridge, published in October 2005, celebrated 200 years of Montpelier as the Capital of Vermont. Therein The Bridge recognized Maudean Neill, local genealogist and author of “Fiery Crosses in the Green Mountains,” a history of the Klan in Vermont. In her book, Neill states that “…..Montpelier was the scene of several acts against the Catholic population, attributed to the Klan. On July 19, 1924, a cross was burned to embers in the Catholic cemetery. It was considered by Catholics as a wanton insult against the emblem of their church and desecration of their cemetery. The burning of the fiery cross on the church steps of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in the early morning of November 21, 1925, resulted in the arrest of two Montpelier men (who were eventually) released without penalty.”

According to Neill and other historians, the Klan’s active force in Vermont peaked in the mid 1920s. By then, more than 14,000 residents of Chittenden, Washington, Orange and Caledonia counties had paid the $10 initiation fee. The Vermont Klan’s prime target was immigrant nationalities, many of whom were Roman Catholics. Along the Vermont-Quebec border the Klan targeted the French Catholics. Author and poet Wes Herwig states that the Vermont Klan sought to educate Vermonters “to the supposed dangers that these new foreign-born elements posed to the country’s traditional patrimony.” Herwig worked at The Herald, and founded the Randolph Historical Society.

According to Neill and Herwig, for half a decade KKK chapters sprang up throughout Vermont, and their “burning crosses cast shadows across Vermont’s night skies. Its white-robed members marched down city streets and rallied in great throngs in fields and on fairgrounds.”

A number of Neill’s relatives joined the KKK as a social club, believing that the funds they paid to the leaders supported community programs such as purchasing books for the local library. They discovered over time that the leaders were diverting the funds to national activities, and also learned the real purpose of the KKK: to torment and eliminate racial and religious minorities. At that time the KKK focused on promoting white, non-Catholics. In an attempt to rein in Klan activities, the City of Burlington passed an ordinance forbidding the wearing of masks in public. A bill for a similar statewide statute was killed in the Vermont Senate.

Vermont had sizable Klan chapters in Barre, Montpelier and Northfield, including a chapter of females who called themselves “The Women of Northfield.” A statewide meeting, called a Klavern, was held on a Montpelier farm in August 1925. Photographs show groups gathering on the hillsides of Montpelier, including a statewide Klan meeting on Towne Hill on July 4, 1927, followed by a Grand Parade of the Hooded Klansmen through the streets of Montpelier. The meeting leader was called the Klegal. The most fiery gathering in the Montpelier area was reported to be the burning of seven crosses in Hubbard Park. This author wonders, but was unable to confirm, if this burning took place in the area of Hubbard Park now known as the “Seven Fireplaces.” Throughout the five to eight years of the KKK presence in Central Vermont, many crosses were burned throughout the region, often with Klan members singing beneath the burning symbols.

Soon after the 1927 Grand Parade, the Vermont Klan started to collapse. Like Neill’s relatives, many of its members had never been violent but joined for benign reasons. Some joined it as a fraternal and social organization that offered some excitement and a diversion from normal routines like attending church. Due to dissension and financial problems statewide and nationally, many disillusioned members of the Vermont Klan chose to dissociate from national chapter violence. However, there remains a reported surviving underground presence. The Southern Poverty Law Center of Alabama reported two active chapters surviving in Rutland and Hardwick as of 2006. Klan fliers surfaced on the streets of Burlington in 2015. The distributor appeared to target two women of color, including a Black Lives Matter activist. He was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors of disorderly conduct. He defended himself on the grounds of free speech. According to T.J. Donovan, Vermont’s recently elected Attorney General, “when you send a flier that contains the KKK and has a hooded Klansman to a person of color, the message is one of intimidation, of hate and of violence.” The ACLU argued in an amicus brief to the court that the fliers were protected political speech and the charges were dismissed. Around the same time period, KKK members were phone-banking in Central Vermont, including downtown Montpelier. Also, it was rumored that a trailer was discovered in Calais filled with KKK publications following the death of its resident.

The KKK presence in Vermont is a topic many would rather not discuss, let alone acknowledge. Vermont remains a predominantly white state. The continued existence of a Klan influence here signifies a failure to integrate as equals in race, sex and religion. Given the current national climate and recently elected leadership, there is a palatable fear that those who believe in KKK mandates may be empowered by the current national supremacist tone. Our President-elect was endorsed by the KKK. Let’s pray no one acts on this tone to injure others. We must be vigilant and remember the experiences, for instance, of Holocaust victims. As Martin Niemoller, a prominent Protestant pastor and outspoken foe of Hitler once said, and became famous for: “First they came for the Socialists … Then they came for the Trade Unionists … Then they came for the Jews … (in each instance I did not speak out as I was not one of them but … ) Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”