Klansmen march on Washington in 1925, a year after they held their biggest-ever Northeast "Klonvocation" in Hamilton.
|1924: Hatred wore a hood in Jersey|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|The Ku Klux Klan rolled into Hamilton Township riding in buses and Model T's, wearing their full regalia of white robes and pointed hoods, singing hymns and preaching hate.
They were 10,000 strong, and as they paraded down the rural roads of Yardville and Hamilton Square and Mercerville they got a scattering of boos and angry glares, but also quite a few cheers. Some farmers' wives even brought pitchers of ice water to refresh the thirsty marchers who called themselves the Knights of the Invisible Empire.
From there, it was directly to Springdale Park off South Broad Street for a day of lectures, initiations, 500 baptisms and two Klan weddings. Church and family was one theme of the day. So was "100 percent Americanism, the superiority of the white man and the evils of race mixing.
It was Labor Day, 1924, and the Klan was no longer a silly bunch of bedsheet-wearers who inspired only laughs. It was a force to be reckoned with in New Jersey and across the United States.
As the Klan proved with its "Klonvocation" in Hamilton the largest KKK gathering ever held in the Northeast Jerseyans were flocking by the thousands to take the Klan oath. But why?
"It was a reaction against modernism in all its forms in the 1920s," said Bernard Bush, an East Windsor historian who is researching the sordid story of the Jersey Klan.
"If you were a white Protestant in New Jersey at that time, you might feel disoriented and want to join an organization like the Klan," Bush continued. "There's a tremendous influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Blacks are moving north and starting to gain a measure of civil rights.
There's the influence of movies, mdern standards of morality. There are flappers and a lot of drinking."
"The Klan was really a movement to just tell the 20th century: stop."
The Ku Klux Klan originated as a band of night riders who roamed the post-Civil War South
to terrorize freed slaves. It was defunct when a Methodist reverend from Atlanta, William
Simmons, revived it in 1915 as a fraternal group devoted to white supremacy. The silent movie "Birth of a Nation" featuring Klansmen as heroes probably inspired him.
Within six years, Simmons' fledgling order was taken over by a Dallas dentist named Hiram W. Evans, who combined the Klan's race-baiting message with a genius for organization. He declared himself Imperial Wizard and got busy spreading out of the South by promoting Klan chapters, or "klaverns," for the Midwest and Northeast.
It was possible to see the Klan as a typically American institution in a nation of joiners. Like the Masons and Odd Fellows, it had its secret handshakes, its passwords ("Kigy,'' for instance, meant, "Klansman, I greet you") and initiation rites. But mixed with the fraternalism and family
values was sheer hatred.
"True Americanism," Evans believed, excluded half the country: "savage" African-Americans; Catholics who owed "a higher allegiance to Rome;" "absolutely unblendable" Jews; and the "hordes of inferior immigrants who are largely responsible for the political prostitution that is now a curse to our country."
In New Jersey, the Klan enrolled 60,000 members at its peak, more than in Alabama, Louisiana or Tennessee. It set up its first klavern in Newark in 1921, then spread to Hoboken, Camden, the Shore towns, Trenton and 80 other communities.
Leaders in polyglot Trenton, where Mayor Frederick Donnelly was an Irish-American and the German-American Roeblings dominated industry, wanted no part of the Klan.
"I will not permit race war in this city and I will use every means to have the members sent to jail," said Public Safety Commissioner George LaBarre.
But the small towns around Trenton were more hospitable places for Klan activity. The police chief of Hightstown, Carlton Conover, was a member. So was Bishop Alma White, of the Pillar of Fire Church in Bound Brook.
The Klan had enough money from membership dues that it could buy its own resort, Springdale Park, where it held occasional small rallies.
There was never serious Klan violence in New Jersey, but the KKK did use intimidation tactics, usually against fellow white Protestants who it thought guilty of immorality or drinking. Crosses were burned in Princeton, Allentown, Lawrence and in Trenton's Hiltonia section.
A Methodist minister, R. Carl Ziegler of Edgemere Avenue, Trenton, became a rising star as kleagle, or organizer, for Mercer and Warren counties. He gave up preaching to organize the Klan in the Asbury Park area, where it was strong enough to dissuade some Jewish tourists from visiting the beach.
With his youthfulness, go-getter attitude, a wife and two children, Ziegler seemed the perfect model of the "100 percent American" man, and he was a persuasive speaker on how the KKK should be welcomed into church and home.
Incredibly, the Jersey Klan even made itself out to be a friend of blacks. In June 1924, a hooded Klan delegation walked into the Sunday services being held at the St. Phillips Baptist Church in Hamilton and handed a $50 check to the black congregation's building fund.
"We ask you to accept this contribution to encourage Protestant Christianity among Negroes," a klansman told the astonished worshipers.
Still, quite a few Jerseyans were never conned by the Klan. The Rev. Powell Norton, a Baptist minister in Hightstown, spoke out: "The Americanism of (the Klan) is not necessarily the Americanism desired by the rest of us.
"Why should the Italian immigrant leave behind his wonderful Latin heritage when he comes to our shores? As for the Nordic ideals ... it must be remembered that the Indians were here before the Anglo-Saxons."
When the Klan announced plans for a huge Klonvocation featuring members from 11 states,
Trenton turned down their parade permit flat. But Hamilton welcomed the Klan with open arms. The KKK was, after all, an organization “devoted to law and order,” township Judge David Chance fatuously declared.
That was how the Klan came to Hamilton by the thousands on Sept. 1, 1924. Men and women alike, they rode on a parade whose route carefully skirted the edges of Trenton. State troopers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying tear-gas bombs protected them, but aside from some Klan cars that got their tires slashed while parked on the grass, there was no, disorderly conduct.
The day ended with the burning of a 50-foot cross, a spectacular blaze whose effect was ruined when the fire spread to guy wires holding up the cross. Still, the Klan paper, the Imperial Nighthawk, called it "one of spectacular parades ever held" for the KKK.
Less than a year later, however, the Klan suddenly lost its leading light in Trenton.
On July 4, 1925, the Reverend Ziegler went missing, leaving behind his wife and two children. Ziegler wasn't the only one who was missing, either: so was his pretty 22-year-old neighbor, Peggy Roberts, and so were $1,000 in Klan funds.
Peggy Roberts was to be married within a month to an ad man at the Trenton Evening Times. Furious, the jilted fiancee hired a private detective to track her down. It took the sleuth two weeks, but he followed the pair all the way to El Paso, Texas, where he notified authorities and had the 28-year-old Ziegler arrested.
Back to New Jersey came the disgraced minister, where he was thrown in jail on charges of theft and violation of the Mann Act, the law forbidding the transport of women “for immoral purposes."
Shocked Klansmen declined comment on the matter; others involved in the affair were more talkative.
"I loved him," Miss Roberts said. I knew him for three months and when we went away he was willing to sacrifice his wife and children for me."
"They are crazy enough to do anything," muttered Roberts' mother.
The Ziegler incident dealt a heavy blow to the idea of the KKK as a legitimate group in New Jersey. Elsewhere in the country, revulsion was growing against Klan violence and Klan hypocrisy.
Diehard Klansmen remained in Hightstown -- where a state "Klorero," or convention, was held as late as 1928 -- but the organization withered away by decade's end.
The Klan did make a brief resurgence during the racial turmoil of the '60s and '70s. And today, watchdog groups are tracking an alarming amount of white supremacist and hate talk on the Internet. But the Klan as an organized group doesn’t even compare to what it was in the bad old days of the ‘20s.
As for Springdale Park, the place where the Klan once gathered by the thousands to thunder its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant screed, that has passed out of Klan hands too. Now it belongs to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton.