Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Ku Klux Klan and the Redneck Mafia in the twenties

The Ballston Klan No. 6 gathered on their field
The Ku Klux Klan probably arrived in Northern Virginia in 1921, but the organization didn’t rise into prominence until March 1922 when four hundred members marched from Chain Bridge to Falls Church passing through Clarendon, Ballston, Cherrydale, and Rosslyn. The marchers carried signs saying “We are for upholding the law”. According to one report, Northern Virginia had about 60,000 KKK members in the twenties, which may have been as much as two-thirds of the state membership, with the largest regional chapter being the Ballston Klan No. 6. The Ballston chapter held regular parades with its own marching band, sponsored a youth baseball team, and owned a field for cross burnings and other ceremonies at the current site of Ballston Mall. Of course this was the second coming of the Klan, which had risen from the ashes of the Civil War in the south avenge perceived wrongs such as equal rights to blacks. The first KKK was a terrorist organization enforcing racial codes in the rural south, but the second KKK was an urban fraternal organization obsessed with preserving its own brand of Americanism. The new KKK worked to minimize the influence of the newer white ethnics of Catholic and Jewish faiths while continuing to fret about blacks attempting to gain equality. Beyond this, the Klan worked for moral causes, threatening bootleggers, gamblers, and home wreckers.

Virginia passed liquor prohibition in 1916, one year before Washington DC, and four years before the federal law. The Klan aligned with the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Temperance Union to pass the law and worked to enforce it when they perceived local law enforcement as too lax. The division over prohibition created splits in the community between “wets” and “drys” that translated into the Democratic Party. In many parts of Virginia, this split caused an internal civil war among Democrats, but in Northern Virginia, the Klan seemed to ally more readily with the Republicans. Locally, the Democrats were more liberal and included more ethnic whites whereas the Republicans tended to be conservative Protestants, which more closely aligned with the Klansmen.

By 1922 the Klan had gained significant membership in Northern Virginia, which Goblins (the title for recruiters) brought in by a practiced script and salesmen practices. The strategy that helped the Klan thrive was to split the initiation fee among many stakeholders and the Goblins making a similar living to any well-paid salesmen. One Goblin in DC sued the Klan for $15,000 owed to him for his recruiting activities, which gives us a sense of the amount of money the Goblins earned. However, the problem with broad incentivized recruiting is an organization may get large numbers, but it will inevitably recruit undesirable members. By the early twenties, the Klan had become a large organization made up of a broad array of people that included men involved for fraternal reasons as well as thugs joining for less noble reasons.

In many cases, Klan members tried to use their connections as a cover for crimes or would overtly invoke the KKK name to intimidate blacks, Jews, or Catholics. For example, on September 1922, a man named Frank Fields went to the home of a young black girl and claimed he was a member of the KKK before he attacked her. The article was not clear on the nature of the attack, but implied it was a sexual assault. What preceeded the attack is also unclear; it may have been simply drunkenness, thuggery, intimidation, or revenge. Frank Fields was involved in bootlegging and had been arrested for shooting at another man on North Pitt St. near King St. in Alexandria. As was customary for the Klan when a member was put in the spotlight, the KKK wrote a letter to Frank Ball, the Commonwealth Attorney, denying Fields membership in the Klan. However, it is hard to believe Frank Fields wasn’t a member because his brother, Howard, was running for Sheriff at the time against AC Clements with the vociferous backing for the KKK. Howard Fields and Clements would have a decade long rivalry rooted in prohibition in which Klan and other drys perceived Clements as being weak on gambling and prohibition, but Fields, at least superficially, supported prohibition.

They also accused Frank Ball of being intentionally laggard on prosecuting gambling, but Ball struck back saying the Klansmen were cowards because they make unsubstantiated charges. Ball was a liberal on segregation and would go to have a distinguished political career and ultimately represent Arlington in the desegregation of the schools. Ball summoned the Klan to appear in front of a grand jury to show proof of their charge, but when the Klan members gave testimony; the grand jury could find no proof that county officials were culpable. However, the Klan regularly sent members and associates out to case gin joints or gambling rackets and in one case this amateur detective work paid off because police busted a gambling ring at the Hilltop Country Club in Arlington. Police raided the country club and found gamblers including the lookout George Mater from Bladensburg – a known thug and bootlegger.

Meanwhile in Alexandria in late 1922, the Klan had enough with bootleggers and gamblers, so they hung placards across the city so residents would wake on Monday morning to a warning, "We are here because certain conditions demand out presence. We know within the city of Alexandria the bootlegging traffic is increasing to alarming proportions. The authorities are apparently unable to cope with this deplorable situation."  The signs alerted residents that the Klan would be collecting evidence on bootleggers and gamblers to turn over to police. The newspaper noted that many Alexandrians snickered at the signs not believing the KKK had the strength or reach to put a dent in the thriving illicit industries. However, the Klan paid for a Private Investigator to mingle with bootleggers and pinpoint the speakeasies. In 1923, the Private Investigator held a party with a bunch of his new bootlegger friends, but it was sting for police to arrive and arrest them. That same month, police raided two speakeasies, the Majestic Lunchroom on King St, arresting Peyton Ballenger, and the Black Cat on South Union, arresting Leroy Beach based on evidence gathered by Klansmen.

Despite this crusade on behalf of the drys, the local KKK officials grew increasingly worried about the public perception of them as a violent organization. In March 1923, they felt the need to tell county authorities that they would help prosecute “people who make threats in the name of the KKK” and reminding them that “any communication of our order, is written on official stationary and signed by some officer of the organization.” Clearly the organization was doing well in publicity, but at the street level many perceived the organization as a group of thugs. While street level violence undoubtedly occurred under the banner of the KKK, the Northern Virginia chapters engaged in intimidation too subtle for newspapers to pick up. For example, the Ballston Klan would organize parades through the county in cars laden with food and clothing for the needy. Conveniently, many of these needy folks were Catholic, blacks, and Jews that the organization railed against in their rallies. Imagine the terror of being a black family visited by a parade of Klansmen dropping off food and clothing. While the act gained positive press, it was clearly intended to frighten foes without the messiness of violence.

Klan distributing baskets

The strength of the KKK grew into Election Day 1923 when they successfully elected Howard Fields for Sheriff. Fields had served before, but AC Clements had defeated him in the prior election. Fields alleged that Clements had beaten him organizing bootleggers and gamblers, which Clements denied. It is pretty clear that Fields was a member of the Klan because the chair of his election committee was Howard Bitting who would go on to be the leader of the Ballston Klan in the thirties. Clements was allied with Frank Ball and was Catholic, which was the ultimate disqualifier for public office in the eyes of the Klan. Fields was a true believer and allegedly promised to bring a second heaven to Arlington, but he regularly pulled strings for fellow Klansmen such as EE Naylor, whom he helped get out of a ticket for an expired auto tag. The Klan was so excited to have one of theirs leading law enforcement in the county that they had an impromptu parade across the county including 75 cars with the two leads boasting 8-feet tall crosses lit up.

Strangely, a few days later a group of men dressed in KKK regalia passed a saw to two inmates in the Arlington jail so they could cut the bars and escape. One escapee was Earl Blundon who was a lifelong criminal involved in burglary, bootlegging, and other crimes. Arlington police searched for him, getting so many tips from fellow bootleggers that police wondered if he had made enemies with other Arlington criminals. Perhaps Blundon had become allied with another group of bootleggers and the other criminals wanted him out of the picture.

In the case of Frank Fields and Earl Blundon, the two threads that tie them together are bootlegging and the Klan. Could the Klan (or a faction within it) been involved in illegal activities? The evidence is thin, but persistent as we will see. In other parts of the country, local Klan chapters would The involvement of the Klan in bootlegging It was never clear whether the KKK really aided in the escape, but they may have had motivation in a desire the ultimately embarrass the outgoing Sheriff Clements. However, this was the first instance of a coming trend in the KKK being tied to bootleggers. In Western North Carolina, Klan membership meant protection for bootlegging activities and ensured rival blacks or Catholics would be exposed. In 1923, a minister in Mississippi complained that any bootlegger with $10 could join. Just as many people discovered during prohibition, the money in bootlegging was too good even for prohibition supporters.

Arlington Klan attending a funeral in the Bon Air neighborhood

In September 1924 the involvement of the Klan in bootlegging became more evident. That day three Alexandrians, CM (or TM in some articles) Hughes of 719 Gibbon St., Ward Stuart of 513 S. Washington St., and Andrew Pettit 717 Duke St., set out to DC with a truck intending to load it up with fruit jars of illegal booze. As they returned over the Highway Bridge (now the Key Bridge), they stopped to get soft drink at a store just on the Arlington side when police noticed their payload and tried to arrest them. One of the deputies jumped on the floorboards to stop the truck, but Hughes thrust a pistol in his face. Luckily the deputy was able to push the gun away before it fired. Then Ward Stuart pulled his sidearm and held officers at bay until they could speed away. Alexandria police arrested the trio later that day and Arlington police came to get them. On his way to the station, Hughes accused the deputies of roughing him up as they interrogated him trying to learn the location of the liquor he smuggled. Arlington deputies claimed that Hughes was beaten out of self-defense because he continued to resist after his arrest. Ward Stuart asserted that the incident started on a country road in Arlington when police started shooting at them and the trio didn’t know who they were.

Other members of the Alexandria Klan were involved in illegal activities such as Ernest Crump who, prior to prohibition, ran a saloon primarily serving blacks. Police busted him in 1904 and 1906 for running illegal gambling and liquor operations. When Crump died in 1925, both the Alexandria and Arlington Klan came out to hold a ceremony for him. People like Crump, Ward Stuart, and CM Hughes either lived dual lives as hardcore prohibitionists and bootleggers or the Klan permitted bootlegging among members only. It would be impossible for the Klan to be unaware of the activities of a bootlegger like Ward Stuart who was known as a tough bootlegger who worked his racket with his brother Richard. He lived on South Washington St. nominally working in jobs such as mechanic and painter, but earning most of his living through crime. As police closed in to arrest him after the incident in Arlington, he awoke from a slumber and drew his pistol before he realized it was the police. His brother, Richard, spent time in prison for hijacking at gunpoint a black man’s car full of whiskey along Route 1, perhaps enforcing the bootlegging turf of the Klan

Obviously, the evidence is slim that the Klan in Northern Virginia engaged in bootlegging, but given the organization’s history of doing it in other areas plus the events I’ve written about point towards the possibility. By the late twenties, internal splits and corruption would cripple the KKK and the national membership would go from the millions in the mid-twenties to the thousands a decade late. In Arlington, the Klan formed in the twenties would continue until at least until 1944 sponsoring a youth baseball team and meeting every Thursday at 8pm at the Ballston Firemen’s Hall. Of course, the KKK would emerge again in the 1960s, but as a fringe organization of extremely violent anti-civil rights whites.

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