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  • The Gleaner

    Henderson history: Klansmen from across Tri-State convened here in 1924

    By Frank Boyett,

    25 days ago

    Henderson’s celebration of Memorial Day a century ago saw up to 20,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan – along with families and supporters − from across the Tri-State area gather at the old fairgrounds on South Green Street.

    An advertisement in the May 25, 1924, Gleaner said 500 would be inducted but coverage in the May 31 edition noted only 300 were initiated into the “mystic realm.” The first of multiple KKK parades here occurred May 11, 1922; Police Chief Ben McKinney estimated 600 to 700 Klansmen were in that parade. The Gleaner counted 183 marching from Central Park to Union Station.

    So, while I can’t accept at face value the Klan’s estimate of 20,000 attending the 1924 event, it was certainly a lot.

    The Gleaner reported “all concede that their celebration drew to the fairgrounds the largest crowd in its history.”

    That’s why I’m writing about it. I know this is the third time since mid-April that I’ve written about the KKK and I hope y’all don’t think I’m trying to shove this ugly piece of local history down your throats.

    But I want you to understand why the Klan became such a powerful political force in the 1920s, and why it played such a big role in local history. The forces that gave rise to the Klan are still with us today, and if we're going to deal with them in any meaningful way, we've got to try to understand them. Those forces, I believe, included racism, religious bigotry, and fear of change.

    The KKK didn’t see it that way at all, of course. They saw what they were doing as a noble attempt to maintain the ideals that this country was built on and preserve the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race.

    The big barbecue at the fairgrounds, which Henderson Kounty Klan No. 2 rented for $100 – took place on what was then called Decoration Day. (It didn’t become Memorial Day until 1967.)

    On May 29, the day before the event, The Gleaner carried a letter to the editor from Klan No. 2, which said it was being “misrepresented by false statements made on the streets of this city in regard to the attitude the Klan will show as to Negroes, Jews and Catholics attending” the barbecue and fireworks show.

    “Any person who attends the ceremonies and who wishes to watch the proceedings will not be molested by any Klansman, nor will any Klansman allow any other person to mistreat or insult anyone who attends.”

    That ostensible hospitality could not completely sheathe the Klan's racism, however: “The barbecue, of course, is for whites only (and was free of charge to them) but should a colored man wish to buy some meat it will be sold to him, and he can go to some part of the ground and eat it but will not be served at the tables. We not only invite the colored people to watch our initiation ceremonies but specially invite them to attend.”

    I don’t know whether any Blacks attended (I suspect none or very few) but according to the May 31 Gleaner an exhibition baseball game was played pitting a Klan team from Evansville against a team sponsored by Mann Bros. Department Store, which was owned by a prominent Jewish family.

    Klansmen from Indiana and Illinois traveled to and from Henderson all day and into the night via three ferry boats operated at the riverfront, along with two where the Twin Bridges now stand.

    All kinds of contests and races, along with the exhibition baseball game, provided entertainment. The huge crowd singing “provided a new and thrilling experience. As the last notes died away the voice of prayer was heard asking divine blessing on the assemblage ... An air of solemnity pervaded the occasion and the bowed and bared heads of the thousands evidenced the depth of feeling.”

    The Rev. John Williams was the sole speaker at the event, and he began by paying tribute to the dead of the armed forces. But he quickly switched to some of the Klan’s favorite topics.

    The crowd “loudly cheered” when he praised the General Assembly’s recent action to mandate reading of the Bible in the public schools, which he called “a step to preserve unsullied the purest Anglo-Saxon blood in America.”

    Thirteen states did not require that, he noted.

    “Immigration was one phase of the short address that drew from the audience demonstrative approval … for he said an American boy must be 21 before he is given the ballot, while the most illiterate who comes here may obtain that privilege after a residence of only one and a half years.” He advocated a five-year moratorium on immigration.

    Williams urged the audience to “break away” from the “old parties” and elect only candidates who supported building a “gigantic ark” to carry away “undesirable aliens who refuse to be assimilated.”

    He denied the Klan was “hostile to any religion.” But he qualified that remark by saying, “Only as the Roman Catholic priesthood attempted to invade America and foist upon its people did the Klan arise to repel.”

    The evening began with a parade from the fairgrounds to the downtown area “with hundreds of men and women in line of march, with decorated automobiles and floats, headed by Deputy Sheriffs Rupert Sutton and Henry Sandefur.” That was followed by a fireworks display.

    The parade, fireworks and initiation of 300 new Klan members – in full regalia but with faces uncovered − provided the capstone to the day. “During the solemn ceremonies three towering fiery crosses were burned, illuminating the scene.

    “It was a night that will linger long in the memory of all who were present,” according to The Gleaner’s reporter, who seemed somewhat taken with the whole affair.

    “No one went away hungry. The meat was delicious and highly enjoyed.

    “There was no sign of disorder on the grounds and everything went off as scheduled.

    “A spokesman for the local Klan stated last night that members, and especially those in the parade, appreciated the services of the city police in keeping traffic off the line of march.”

    They demonstrated that appreciation the following day, according to The Gleaner of June 1. A Klan representative showed up at police headquarters with a box of cigars.

    “In accepting the gift, Chief (Alex) Posey said he and the men would smoke the cigars with a pleasure enhanced by the reciprocal good feeling behind the tender.”

    Similar Klan gatherings were held in 1925 and 1926, when the Klan’s national leader came here to speak.

    75 YEARS AGO

    A crowd of about 12,000 attended a May 29 air show at the Sturgis airport to raise money for a war memorial, according to the Union County Advocate of June 2, 1949.

    The event, which grossed $4,322, featured three flyovers by four Shooting Star jet fighters and appearances by a variety of other military aircraft.

    Gov. Earle C. Clements introduced the main speaker, former governor and U.S. senator A.O. Stanley, which marked his first appearance in Union County since 1937.

    “In his traditional fashion, the well-known Stanley kept his audience entertained for the next 30 minutes with the fiery oratory for which he is noted, interspersing his discourse with humorous anecdotes.”

    On a more serious note, he said, “I pray for peace, but after 50 years of public life I am fearful.”

    50 YEARS AGO

    State Sen. Carroll Hubbard was being guarded by three Kentucky State Police troopers in the wake of two telephoned death threats after winning the 1st Congressional District Democratic nomination from incumbent Frank Stubblefield, according to The Gleaner of May 29, 1974.

    The same day Hubbard won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives − which at that time was the equivalent of winning the congressional seat − his brother, Kyle, narrowly won the Democratic nomination for the 4th Congressional District. The primary victories came on their father’s birthday.

    Kyle Hubbard was beaten by Republican incumbent Gene Snyder in the fall.

    Carroll Hubbard won the fall election in 1974 and served in Congress until 1992 when he was caught up in the House banking scandal. He served two years in prison. He died Nov. 12, 2022.

    25 YEARS AGO

    Judy Jenkins’ column in The Gleaner of May 30, 1999, told the story behind the steel cross that has stood at the cloverleaf for most of six decades.

    David Sutton, 24, died instantly Oct. 17, 1964, when his car hit a concrete base for the streetlights that were yet to be installed. His car flipped and he was thrown out. The car landed on top of him.

    A passenger, Harry Richardson Jr., received only minor injuries.

    Sutton’s father, Elvis Sutton, initially put up a wooden cross but it was later replaced by the steel cross after the wood deteriorated. Sutton’s younger brother, Paul “Cowboy” Sutton, replaced the flowers every year on his brother’s June 17 birthday until his death in 2019.

    Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at

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