The Lincoln Klavern held its meetings in a mansion.
The house at Seventh and Washington streets had been home to Nebraska’s first governor and the clubhouse of the Country Club of Lincoln, before the Klan bought the building in the 1920s, making room for a live-in caretaker, plenty of meeting rooms and a basement Klavern Kanteen, serving coffee and sandwiches, chili and pop, near-beer and cigars.
“One of the neatest and cleanest Kanteens imaginable,” a brochure for Lincoln Klan No. 11 declared.
You could see the 18-foot-high electric cross glowing on its rooftop for miles, historian Jim McKee wrote in a 2010 newspaper column.
McKee wrote about the Klan Dining Room at the State Fairgrounds and the office the group had leased on 11th Street, where the white-hooded group published brochures promoting its philosophy and motto “Here Today-Here Yesterday-Here Forever.”
I spent a few days in February reading about the reach of the KKK in Lincoln — and across Nebraska — during its heyday.
Klansman following a hearse in Chadron. Parading on horseback through Scottsbluff, American flags aloft. Thousands celebrating freedom at a Fourth of July fireworks display in Lincoln.
I thought about writing about the parades and the meetings and the picnics in Epworth Park, the matter-of-fact newspaper headlines: “Ku Klux Meeting At City Auditorium,” “Imperial Wizard Unable to Come,” “Klan Women Gather Here.”
But I was writing a series of columns for Black History Month and the Klan was, purely and shamefully, white history.
And we should learn from it.
It was a New Wave Klan when it rose in the early 20th century, a second iteration of the original hate group that had risen in the South during Reconstruction.
A terrible wave that led to the beatings and lynchings of African Americans in the 1920s.
The height of Klan presence in Nebraska — and Lincoln — coincided with my grandparents’ youth, and I wondered if they had stood on O Street with the crowds of onlookers to watch the parade of robed and hooded klansmen carrying signs and crosses.
Or if they had seen the Ku Klux Klan posters in storefronts calling for “Lovers of Law and Order, Peace, Justice and Morality” to join them in their patriotic fight against immigrants, Catholics and the “American way of life.”
Or if they had read the newspaper stories and had sympathy for the so-called “secret organization of Protestant, white, gentile Americans, ready to uphold the Constitution.”
I thought about Anna and Oliver Burckhardt, too, leading members of Lincoln’s African American community in those days, an artist and a minister who lived five blocks from the Klavern on Washington Street, and what it would have been like to sit on their front porch and see that cross lighting the night.
I thought about John Johnson and his portraits of black life in Lincoln, picnics in the park and families on front porches, babies in baptism gowns and young men in shiny new shoes.
And about what drove such hate, wrapped in stars and stripes and law and order.
All the excitement in the old clippings. “This is the first women’s klan regular convention to be held in Nebraska … the Klavern auditorium is finished in white and has 2,000 seats, all of which were filled at the Friday evening session.”
And: “The parade and fireworks display Tuesday evening were encouraging, klansmen said, because of the number of people who were sufficiently interested in the organization to attend.”
“Cars of klansmen had been arriving in Epworth Park all morning ...”
“The Klan is so big and so widely spread, no one can kill it.”
The stories spoke of Americanism. Patriotism. Modesty. Law and Order.
A mirror of the news today. Fear of immigrants and religions that aren’t our own.
And words like these in the Journal Star, spoken at a legislative hearing just last week: “I love my race more than any other race.”
Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @TheRealCLK