Skeletons in the closet: Historical society displays KKK robes, keeps owners secret

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Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society president Steven Meeks points out details in the emblem on a 1920s KKK robe to onlookers Wes Bellamy, Jalane Schmidt and Jane Smith.
Photo Eze Amos Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society president Steven Meeks points out details in the emblem on a 1920s KKK robe to onlookers Wes Bellamy, Jalane Schmidt and Jane Smith. Photo Eze Amos

 

After several weeks of prodding by a UVA researcher, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society produced two of the 26 Ku Klux Klan robes in its collection, but its president refused to reveal which of the city’s citizens wore those robes in the 1920s.

The yellowed robes were stretched out in the exhibit hall of the historical society July 6 for a private viewing that included the media, UVA researchers and members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces.

Two of the 26 KKK robes in the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society’s museum collection saw the light of day two days before the Loyal White Knights of the KKK hit Charlottesville. Photo Eze Amos

The robes were discovered in a shed in the eastern part of the city in 1993, according to the historical society. The Klan apparel was stored in a crate and had been exposed to dirt, heat, humidity and wear.

The resident who discovered and donated the robes did not request that his or her identity be concealed, nor did the donor request that the original owners of the robes remain anonymous, says historical society president Steven Meeks.

“Due to the sensitive nature of these artifacts, and in the interest of protecting the privacy of the descendants of both the donors and the original owners of the artifacts, at this time the society is not disclosing the address where the artifacts were found, nor the identity of the donor or the names of the two Klan members associated with this collections,” says Meeks.

Along with the robes was a KKK certificate of knighthood dated June 1, 1926. A facsimile of the certificate was enlarged and the name of the Klansman was redacted.

Meeks did not attempt to contact the donors, he says. He cited the impending visit of the Loyal Knights of the KKK as the reason for protecting the owners and their descendant

That decision caused some concern among the historians and members of the blue ribbon commission present.

UVA Associate Professor Jalane Schmidt, who is researching UVA’s ties to the KKK, which donated $1,000 to Memorial Gym in 1921, says she filed a research request with the historical society in mid-June to view the robes and received no response.

UVA prof Jalane Schmidt compared seeing the robes to going to a funeral, where you know someone died, but there’s still a heaviness in actually seeing the casket. Photo Eze Amos

She believes the robes should be displayed and the owners revealed. “This is not good practice for a historical society,” she says.

John Edwin Mason is a UVA history professor who served on the blue ribbon commission. If the historical society displays the robes, as Meeks suggested it might, to understand them fully, its job would be to interpret the artifacts, says Mason, “You can’t do your job as a historical society without the provenance being attached to the display of this archive. It just can’t be done.”

Mason questioned protecting the identity of owners “who are long since dead.” Knowing who wore the robes “is essential to understanding the role of the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville society,” he says.

Meeks did say the wearers of the two robes displayed “were neither one prominent members of the town.”

Steven Meeks. Photo Eze Amos

But a June 28, 1921, Daily Progress article on the newly organized Klan chapter and its inaugural cross-burning at Monticello says the event was attended by “hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”

And a 1922 Progress story notes that robed and masked Klan members showed up with a floral tribute with three Ks spelled out in white flowers at the funeral of Albemarle Sheriff C.M. Thomas.

“I think [Meeks] is being overly cautious when it comes to the people who at the time were associated with the Klan,” says Mason. He says he’s much less bothered with keeping the names of the donors secret.

But Don Gathers, who chaired the blue ribbon commission, says what the Klan members stood for is “morally wrong,” and the fact that the donors did not request anonymity “raises the question why” Meeks would take that stance.

Doug Day, former executive director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, says he displayed the robes in 2005 or 2006. “At the time, the provenance was already smudged,” he says. The garments were found in Belmont when someone bought a house there, he adds.

Day says he would have “real reservations” about releasing the names of the owners and donors. “Why expose them? To what end?” he asks. “It’s perfectly in the purview of the historical society to withhold the names.

Attorney and lifelong Charlottesville resident Lewis Martin says Meeks discussed the issue with him. “It wasn’t so much a legal decision as about where we are now,” says Martin. “The historical society didn’t want to expose any descendants” of Klan members, nor discourage anyone who might want to donate artifacts to the organization.

 

 

 

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