Like a prairie fire, a revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) spread across the nation in the 1920s, enrolling 6 million White, native-born Protestants into its ranks. Promoting “100 Percent Americanism,” “Law and Order,” and the “eternal maintenance of White supremacy,” the Klan grew where the White majority population felt threatened by immigration, modernization, and illegal alcohol.
In the heartland, KKK leaders saw their best chance to “restore America,” so the organization arrived in KCK in early 1921.
The KKK arrived in KCK in early 1921. Led by King Kleagle George T. McCarron, a Missourian. McCarron’s “Kleagles” (Klan membership salesmen) found prospective members in the city’s small businesses, churches, factories, fraternal lodges, shops, union halls, and rail yards. Federal, state, and local government employees signed up, too.
The group became Wyandotte Klan No. 5, Realm of Kansas, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. Chapters also formed in Rosedale (Klan No. 17), still a separate city in 1922, and further west in Bonner Springs (Klan No. 9).
Klan members from both sides of the state line gathered to celebrate their shared ethnic identity and transcend historic divisions of the Kansas-Missouri border, but their history is complicated because Klansmen on the Kansas side organized their city’s largest KKK chapter in part to battle the influence of Kansas City, MO, business and political interests in Wyandotte County affairs.
Kansas City, KS was formed by the 1886 consolidation of Armourdale, Armstrong, Kansas City, Riverview, and Wyandotte, as an attempt to compete with KCMO.
Twenty years later some of the former independent towns regretted the merger.
Old divisions and rivalries prevailed as KCK struggled to form a collective civic identity. The Klan seized on this as an entry point, uniting disparate civic club and neighborhood leaders.
Led by King Kleagle George T. MTheir known activities locally included:
The Klan held rallies, which included cross burnings and initiation ceremonies, drawing upwards of 15,000 regional participants and spectators;
The KCK and KCMO Klans paraded 2,500 strong together down Minnesota Avenue in December 1927;
The Klans celebrated their cross-state community with picnics, concerts, and lectures to entertain crowds of up to 25,000;
The Klan engaged in philanthropy, donating money to widows, Protestant churches and hospitals, and even African American churches and hospitals, although black institutions received much less money and some declined the donations on principle. Considered un-American and un-Christian, Catholic institutions were excluded from Klan charity;
The Klan enforced “Blue Laws” on the Kansas side, prohibiting Sunday retail hours to shut down grocery stores owned by Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, another “un-Christian” church in Klan eyes;
The Klan boycotted businesses deemed disloyal to Kansas City, Kansas, such as those that advertised in the Kansas City Star (which was perceived to bolster the Missouri side) instead of the Kansas City Kansan;
The Klan conducted detective work for the county attorney; Kansas City, Kansas; and the national Klan organization. The Wyandotte County attorney belonged to the Klan, as did numerous other elected officials;
The Klan broke up lovers’ lanes “petting parties”;
The Klan led efforts to remove “smut” magazines from drugstore magazine racks;
The Klan brought the “Birth of a Nation” film epic—set in the post-Civil War era and portraying Klansmen as defenders of White women against Black men—to Kansas City over the objections of African Americans and Union Army veterans, among others;
The Klan threatened to beat the school superintendent if he allowed a racially integrated school pageant;
The Klan threatened to beat and bomb African Americans who moved into majority White neighborhoods;
The Klan vandalized Catholic cemeteries;
The Klan got the Argentine High School dancing instructor fired for teaching “jazz” dancing;
The Klan removed Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry from public library shelves and hid it in a vault because of its negative portrayal of a Protestant clergyman;
In September 1924, Kansas City was selected as the site of the KKK’s second national convention, or “klonvocation” in Klan-speak
The Klan won more than 136 political races in Kansas City, Kansas, climaxing with their capture of City Hall in 1927, when Klansman Don C. McCombs won the mayor’s office. These Klansmen held City Hall for nearly 30 years, even after they were no longer formal members of the Klan itself.
WHO WERE THEY?
Kansas Gov. Henry J. Allen dispatched undercover agents to collect info on Klan members for an ouster lawsuit the state was preparing. The identities of more than 900 KCK men have been identified thanks to Allen’s list, now held at the Library of Congress.
A middle-class profile fit most Kansas City Klansmen. The three most common Klan occupations were small business owner, clerk, and railroad engineer. But there were prominent members, too, including Thomas Y. Baird, co-owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League baseball team.
Unfortunately for the Klan, Kansas officials used legal technicalities to outlaw it. The state’s corporate charter board, which granted businesses permission to operate in Kansas, refused to let the Klan operate as a business. A legislative and court battle proved futile.
The Klan revival would die with the 1920s, as members’ interests drifted to other causes.
– Tim Rives is an author and archivist with the National Archives