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Ku Klux Klan: Southwest Minnesota’s forgotten past

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In late summer of 1924, over 13,000 people flocked to the Martin County Fairgrounds in Fairmont to watch an historic Minnesota event. After paying a $10 membership fee and $5 for robes, 400 Minnesotans were inducted into the Ku Klux Klan, the organization’s first public naturalization ceremony in the state.

Fairmont was not alone. Large gatherings hosted by the Klan were held in other areas of southwestern Minnesota, according to documents from the History Center at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Early Formations

The Klan formed in the state as early as 1921 in Duluth. A year earlier, three black circus workers were lynched before a crowd of thousands in that very city.

The origins and activity of the Klan in Minnesota has been researched by Nancy Vaillancourt, historian and manager of the Blooming Prairie Public Library. She also co-authored an article in Minnesota History Magazine about these events.

Vaillancourt notes that in the 1920s and after World War 1, returning veterans would have to compete with blacks and immigrants for jobs in the cities. This tension contributed to the success of the group. She also says that since the Klan solicited members from churches and other organized groups, if one member joined, the other members would follow.

“The Klan was very good at using social pressure to get people to join,” Vaillancourt said. “They included entire families and tried to make it a community feeling in the group.”

During the 1920s, Minnesota had 51 chapters of the KKK in 87 cities, according to the book “The KKK in Minnesota.” It had over 30,000 members by 1923, though many were not active.

After forming chapters in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Klan spread quickly to other regions of the state, including southwestern Minnesota.

The Spread to Southwest Minnesota

The southwestern portion of the state had far less blacks than the cities. Chapters of the Klan that formed in this region mainly focused on anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stances, as well as trying to instill religion into public schools.

Many towns were home to Klan members in addition to Fairmont, including Luverne, Pipestone, St. James, Tracy, Windom and Worthington, according to History Center documents.

The Klan would host barbeques and other gatherings in towns. Larger gatherings, known as state “Konklaves,” occurred annually in Owatonna until 1927. Here, the Steele County KKK hosted bands, parades and speakers that were available for the public attend.

The 1927 state Konklave was scheduled to have entertainment from St. James, though it was rained out. St. James was further connected to the Klan, whose sitting mayor served as the Grand Dragon for the Tri-state Realm.

There were also several occurrences of cross burnings across the region. The Luverne Herald reported in August 1923 that a cross was burned in a public park, which may have been a celebration of a 100th member milestone. This also happened in Heron Lake.

Windom was home to its own chapter, with meetings held in the armory. Members of this chapter wanted to help the sheriff keep order in the town. The Windom Reporter ran large print advertisements which urged readers to attend the Konklave. The ad told “Kluxers” to “bring your robes,” and for “others to come and see them.”

Southwest Minnesota was also affected by the politics and hysteria that came with the Klan. The Fairmont Independent claimed that the editor of the Lakefield Standard was a member. 

The Lakefield Standard printed a response to these claims in the July 24, 1924 edition, saying he did not pay any kind of membership fee and “has no intention of spending good money for such purpose.” The response concluded by saying that the newspaper “does not claim to be immune, providing we become convinced of the need of such an organization.”   

Since publishing the article in Minnesota History magazine, Vaillancourt has received Klan items, including items from the Women’s KKK of Olmstead County.

“I believe there has been more openness in acknowledging the Klan’s existence and influence here,” Vaillancourt said. “There is less of a stigma to talk about it.”

The Klan began to lose energy in the Midwest when in 1926, the Indiana Grand Dragon was convicted of murder. Public pressure forced the Klan to disappear in Minnesota by the end of the 1920s. Though there is no longer Klan activity in the state today, Vaillancourt points out that there are still eight active hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Minnesota.

“Groups with dangerous ideas can become popular at any time and place,” Vaillancourt said. “We can learn from the experience of the Klan in the 1920s and hopefully be able to prevent a similar experience in the future.”

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Ku Klux Klan: Southwest Minnesota’s forgotten past