When the Klan Walked Boldly
While my generation and my parents’ can recall how bad things were before equality was more codified in the Civil Rights Act passed as I graduated from high school, only our grandparents knew how bad things were earlier in the twentieth century and back into the nineteenth. In those days, ethnic and religious discrimination was blatant and people could be insulted, abused, refused jobs and housing just because of their color or church affiliation or length of time in this country.
One example is a pair of pictures showing a Ku Klux Klan parade down Broadway in 1927. White-hooded people marching from rallies where giant crosses burned is still a chilling national image but most don’t associate it with Newburgh, New York. This “northern” Hudson Valley town didn’t have Klan conflict, did it? Indeed it did and more than once.
The 1920’s wasn’t all jazz and dancing. It was also an era of staunch Americanism and suspicion of new immigrants and new thinking. The parallels with today are many. A great war had just ended and loyalty and patriotism were treasured. Among the many fraternal organizations flourishing was the Ku Klux Klan. In New York State, where Catholic Alfred Smith had been elected governor, anti-Catholic sentiment was high. So was anti-immigrant sentiment as more people arrived from Eastern Europe. The Klan established a strong foothold in Orange County for a time.
This parade, shown in the pictures here, is so well-attended and so blatant. Was it typical of the time? Old newspapers and the stories told by citizens who were here in the early 20th century confirm the KKK was well known in these parts. Klan articles appear describing rallies and parades from about 1924 (when Al Smith was elected) through 1928. This big Newburgh parade was on Labor Day 1927. Five hundred and forty-two male and female KKK members, marched in robes and hoods but without covering their faces with an additional veil as was often done in ceremonial rallies. They were led by a Newburgh man from Overlook Place, Robert Huddleson, who was their Exalted Cyclops. Many “junior” KKK members from ages 12-18 marched too. The newspapers reported that approximately 2,000 people turned out to watch and that there was a smattering of applause. The Beacon City Band provided the lead-off music. Newburgh’s American Legion Band had declined to perform.
After the parade that set off at 4 p.m. along Lake Street, Broadway and Liberty Streets, there was a big rally on the Farmer’s Market (Regional Market) grounds on Dickson Street. Reportedly over 20 men were inducted at that event and the news reported on the intricate ceremony performed by a New York State Klan official. Men marched in two columns toward a fifty-foot burning cross and then circled twice, each holding the shoulder of the man in front of him as prayers were said. Two hymns were sung: Onward Christian Soldiers and America. Prayers were offered by their chaplain, Reverend George Pender, pastor of Newburgh’s Congregational Church.
Might these men and the women of the Kamelia (Klanswomen) be hyper-patriotic, insulting, but harmless, as they went about their rituals in our city in those days? Two things indicate otherwise. One is the story of an old woman who still remembered being told by her immigrant father to hide whenever the robed Klan marched up to the Heights past their little Liberty Street store. The other was revealed in the news story of this 1927 Labor Day parade.
The line of march included a part of the Ku Klux Klan that I had never heard of: the Kavaliers. They came down Broadway in their unique organizational uniform of “huge” black sombreros and red capes and carrying imposing blackjacks. All were local Newburgh men and some from nearby towns, especially Walden. They also wore official special deputy sheriff badges pinned on them by the Orange County Sheriff.
Mary McTamaney 2020
(Editor’s Note: The above video clip was taken by Archie Stewart who owned Broadway Garage on Broadway in Newburgh, NY. Other films by Archie are available here on the Blog in the Video Galley. This was filmed in 1927. Archie referred to them as “The Kluckers”. It is presented here for Historical context along with the article by Mary McTamaney, Newburgh City Historian. As Mary noted, most would not associate this “chilling national image with Newburgh”. However, less than one hundred years ago this very sad display took place in this beautiful city).