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Disappearing Black Denton

The Ku Klux Klan

In 1903, The Girls Industrial Institute and College of Texas -- which would later become Texas Woman’s University -- opened on sixty-seven acres donated to the institution just north of Quakertown. Immediately south of Quakertown were two streets known as “silk stocking row” for their density of prostitution. By 1916, the student population of the Girls Industrial Institute and College of Texas, renamed College of Industrial Arts, swelled to 1,600 white women. In the same year, the United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled a statue of a Confederate soldier topping an arch on the courthouse lawn in downtown Denton. The first screening of Birth of a Nation in Denton County was at the College of Industrial Arts on January 17, 1917. Within three years, women gained the right to vote when the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Women began to wear makeup, bob their hair, and purchase shorter skirts from department stores in urban areas. Liberation came. Within four months, Denton County had established its first chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. 

While the people of Denton County were introduced to the idea of a Ku Klux Klan through Birth of a Nation, the first masked crusaders were imitated in nearby Fort Worth three months before Denton’s first screening of the film. The Fort Worth Klan began at the request of Fort Worth City Commissioner Jamieson. He asked the Chief of Police Chollar to “organize a Ku Klux Klan to head the fall festival parade” on October 12, 1916. Because the establishment of an official Klavern requires a paid membership of ten dollars by 100 members and a charter from the Klan’s Atlanta Headquarters, it would be four years before these roots stoked into a fully operating organization.

The Ku Klux Klan in Texas began at a United Confederate Veterans (UCV) reunion in Houston on October 6-9, 1920. Z. R. Upchurch, third in command of the propaganda/recruiting arm of the national KKK, arrived in Houston for the UCV reunion in late September 1920. During his time at the UCV reunion, Upchurch enlisted the required 100 new Klansmen to establish the first klavern in Texas: Sam Houston Klan No. 1. Over the next three months, 150 additional klaverns formed, each with the requisite 100 paid members.

By December 31, 1920, the Denton Record-Chronicle (Denton’s newspaper of record) echoed the recruitment language of the Klan. The editor, William C. Edwards, wrote of a general sentiment that a crime wave existed in Denton County and mused about its causes. Edwards settled on the inability of law enforcement to take care of crime because each person arrested was accused of so many crimes that the judicial system did not seem to punish them correctly. The Fort Worth Klavern 101 was in operation by 1921, as was Dallas Klavern 66. Because the order of establishment dictated a Klavern’s charter number, when the nearby small city of Gainesville was awarded Klavern number 151 was announced twelve days into January of 1921 to “combat [the] possible increase of [a] crime wave” it is clear that Denton Klavern 136, too, was in operation. The countywide “crackdown on vags” (vagrants) began on January 14, 1921, but with eighteen prisoners in jail at the time, only three were Black (17% of the prison population). 

To the immediate south of Denton were three Klaverns: Dallas, Fort Worth, and Oak Cliff. Dallas announced its establishment of Klavern 66 in April 1921. Reverend A. C. Parker was the Exalted Cyclops of Klavern 66 at its inception followed by Hiram Wesley Evans, a dentist and future Imperial Wizard of the whole Invisible Empire. In the most extensive published work on the Klan in Texas, Charles Alexander writes, “Texas was the star Klan state, and Dallas was the star Klan city.”

As if asked by an unknown source, the Denton Record-Chronicle denied the existence of a Klan again on June 29, 1921, regardless of “unverified statements that an organizer has been here and has discussed an organization in Denton.” Ten days later Edwards reiterated the message stating, “so far as outward indications go,” there was still no Klan in Denton. Through the Klavern numbering convention, it is certain that a Klan did exist in Denton County on both June 29th and July 9th, 1921. Therefore, the statements regarding the lack of KKK in Denton were likely written with the intent of heightening the drama and/or increasing the public support before the Klan’s formal reveal.

On July 1, Edwards published an editorial which criticized a senatorial candidate for his anti-Klan stance stating, “He must have mistaken the ‘sign of the times.’” This sentiment was echoed later the same week by Governor Pat Morris Neff who told the state house that “murder, theft, robbery, and holdups are hourly occurrences that fill the daily press. The spirit of lawlessness has become alarming.” Neff went on to bemoan the growth of “technicalities” that had “sucked the lifeblood out of the penal code.” Edwards responded in print, “The Ku Klux Klan has been called into being largely in those communities where the existing authorities have demonstrated either their inability or their unwillingness to enforce the laws.” “The KKK typically justified vigilantism by charging that the police were not doing their jobs.” Because this offended police officers, Hiram Evans shifted the narrative from inept police to engaging police and thereby legalizing or legitimizing extralegal action. The Sheriff’s office responded in arrests -- twenty-three men and women were held in the county jail in August 1921 of which forty-eight percent were of color. 

On Monday, December 19, 1921, 330 hooded Klansmen marched in the streets of Denton from Robert E. Lee High School, where they put on their regalia, to the courthouse square where Mayor H. V. Hennan addressed the crowd of hooded attendees. Several thousand people watched the procession as Klansmen carried a burning cross and a sign that said “Denton Klan, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” This was the first official action of Klavern 136.

Over half of all victims of lynching in Texas were taken out of the custody of law enforcement. Linda Gordon argues that this and the broader success of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was due to its pseudo-legal status. This could have only been provided by the involvement of the legal system itself in the work of the Klan, as Sheriffs and Deputies alike would have otherwise felt the calling to raid meetings. While secrecy may have intensified membership in the Invisible Empire, local Klan Klonklaves were advertised in the newspaper in Denton beginning in January 1924.

In Oklahoma, law enforcement officers occasionally handed suspects over to the Klan for violent extralegal punishment. Sometimes, those law enforcement officers “even participated in the beatings.” Less public, Denton County officials appear to have signaled to the Klan when action was requested but distance required on the part of the Sheriff’s Department. The morning of accused rapist George Smith’s disappearance, the Denton Record-Chronicle printed a one-line statement that said “Sheriff Goode and his officers are overworked.”

Membership on the District Court’s Grand Jury was both public and semi-regular for some citizens. Former law enforcement officers were frequently selected and would serve in a non-consecutive rotating semi-pattern. “In Oklahoma, and perhaps in elsewhere too, Klan membership was automatically suspended for any man called for jury duty, so that he could deny it and not be excluded for bias” argues Linda Gordon. 

A Klan advertisement in the Beaumont Enterprise read “The law of the Klan is JUSTICE” -- a term also painted on the side of the makeshift platform used for the live incineration of Henry Smith. As such, the Klan often acted as the investigative body of local Sheriff’s Departments. Erwin J. Clark testified in 1924 that the Ku Klux Klan had an organized system of espionage where members were assigned people to watch. All Mexican and African Americans were watched in addition to any other white Americans who were considered of poor moral character. This was the work of the Klokann. “If we had a report about a man’s immoral conduct we would select one of his neighbors, someone who knew him well, and we would authorize this party to watch him from day to day and night to night and render reports...If we wanted telephone conversations, why we got them; or anything else of that nature.” 

The Governor of Arkansas became so overwhelmed with the actions of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 that he petitioned the Department of Justice for help. J. Edgar Hoover contemporaneously reported, “The Governor has been unable to use either the mails, telegraph, or telephone because of interference by the Klan” and that, “local authorities are absolutely inactive.” In Houston, Klansmen tapped telephone wires, intercepted telegraphs, and spied at the post office. This information was then transmitted to the Sheriff’s Department who would respond through capturing the offender and placing them into custody. It was from this very custody that the accused were taken by the Klan under the cover of masks and darkness. 

Police forces were active participants in the Ku Klux Klan. “Take Dallas County as an instance,” opined anti-Klan gubernatorial candidate Henry Warner on July 19, 1922, “Sixty-three outrages committed and only one case brought into court. And then it was the prosecuting witness who was tried. Or Harris County, where a great number of outrages have been perpetrated; Jefferson, Hardin, Liberty, Chambers, Angelina, Harrison, McLennan, and half a hundred others the tale is the same. In Travis County, Peeler Clayton was shot to death near the Klan hall. Every effort has been made to ascertain his slayers and there is today no information to be had by the grand jury, despite the strenuous effort of the District Judge and the District Attorney and the Grand Jurors. I cite you these facts as a reason why the courts were first captured by the Klan.” 

Not only were law enforcement officials an essential component of extralegal justice and, the majority of victims of lynching in Texas taken directly from the custody of the police, but the Sheriff’s Department in Denton County coordinated directly with the Ku Klux Klan as early as the summer of 1921. Deputy Sheriff J. W. Fox was visited at home by members of Klavern 136 in August 1921 who encouraged the Sheriff’s Department to “clean up the whiskey situation” in the eastern portion of Denton County and supplied the deputy with information about alleged prohibition violators. The Klansmen indicated if Deputy Fox did not act on the information shared, the Klan would take actionact and their response would be far less “mild.” The men met again a few days later after Fox arrested a father and son in the eastern part of the county on prohibition charges; within days, two more raids were conducted in the same spot. 

The significance of this marriage between violent ideology and the justice system in Denton County became apparent in October 1921. Gus Fowler, a Black man who lived a few miles south of Pilot Point in the eastern portion of Denton County, received a letter from the Ku Klux Klan on Friday, October 7, 1921. The letter warned Fowler not to continue his pattern of Saturday night parties and that he “better watch [his] conduct.” The letter was signed “K.K.K.” and stated that Fowler would only get one warning. Deputy Sheriff J. W. Fox publicly denied any knowledge of the letter or its contents and Fowler canceled his party for Saturday night.

The following Friday, students dressed as Klansmen, calling themselves the “Keen Kollege Klan,” marched across the campus of North Texas State Normal College in Denton. On Thursday, October 20, 1921, officers detained two Black men in jail “on suspicion” of attempted burglary in Pilot Point, Texas. The twelve-year-old daughter of the Norrod family reportedly identified the two men, who were from outside the county, as the men who broke into her home on October 19 and so unnamed arresting officers placed the two men in custody. At 11:10pm on the night of October 20, three automobiles arrived at the jail. Witnesses could not identify the vehicles “because of the darkness” and were also unable to ascertain whether the men were masked. The men from the vehicles acquired the two prisoners and drove them to a field owned by Joe B. Burks north of Pilot Point. 

In the Burks field north of town the three automobiles met up with twelve more. It is unknown what happened to the two men after this point as witness accounts were not reported in the newspaper beyond confirmation of the location. If each car contained an average of three men, it would indicate the Klavalier squad of Denton Klavern 136 was comprised of forty-five men. The men left a note on the office door of W. J. Miller, the Editor-in-Chief of the Pilot Point Post-Signal, which read, “Yes we did it -- applied the lash. This should be a warning to all loafers and lawbreakers. K.K.K” The prisoners were never seen again.

The following morning, the Denton Record-Chronicle ran an article on the attack. The third subheading of the article stated, “Sheriff Not Notified” in bold type. This is significant. When Sheriff Blakemon of Collin County was invited to naturalize into the Ku Klux Klan, he refused to join due to his oath of office. The Klan replied, “You need not let this deter you. Our plan is whenever one is to be whipped in Collin County to send for a whipping squad from Dallas Denton or some adjoining county. You can be at home asleep and not know anything about it. We of the McKinney Klan will return the compliment and send a whipping party to do the job when called upon in adjoining counties and you, being a peace officer, will not be delegated to go on such missions.” The October 1921 kidnapping of two prisoners from jail played out these roles perfectly. The Denton Record-Chronicle received word of the crime and contacted the Sheriff for comment at 12:30am on October 21. The Sheriff had heard nothing of the events prior to their notification and informed the newspaper staff that Deputy Sheriff Decker was headed to Pilot Point on other business later in the day and would investigate further. Because the Sheriff was not made aware of the crime contemporaneously, history may never know the fate of the two men taken from jail that night.

On Saturday, October 22, Sheriff Goode and County Attorney B. W. Boyd traveled to Pilot Point and made an investigation of the crime. They concluded “that the negroes were taken out of the jail all right” and that Goode “thinks that they were whipped.” Goode informed the journalist that he had found out some additional information but desired to wait until he could confer with District Judge C. R. Pearman before he released it and Pearman was to be out of the city until Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, Goode and Boyd were still waiting on a conference with Pearman that had yet to transpire. No further information was released about the case and no charges were filed; meanwhile, Sheriff Goode offered a $25 reward to anyone with information on a case of auto theft two days later.

On December 13, 1922, two Black men were accused of stealing two horses from another Black man named Sam Gertin in Pilot Point. The horses went missing on Monday night, December 11, and returned Wednesday morning, December 13, when Sheriff Goode and Deputy Nick Akin traveled to Pilot Point to investigate the possible crime. The saddles were found west of town and while the Sheriff’s Department was “convinced the negroes arrested got the horses” they found no witnesses or information which could lead to a county charge. With no regard for habeas corpus, the two men were held in custody in Pilot Point in an unguarded jail overnight.

On the morning of December 14, 1922, W. J. Miller found a note tacked to his office door which stated, “Both the negroes were given what they had coming. Let this be a warning to all negro loafers. Negroes, get a job or leave town.” Similarly, when the jailers arrived at the jail to give the two men breakfast, they found the men missing along with the lock to the jail door. The officers from Pilot Point informed the Denton Record-Chronicle that they had “absolutely no trace of the two negroes” but that they assume the letter to the Post-Signal referred to the same men. While it was not reported as such in local papers, African American publications called the event a lynching and stated that the Ku Klux Klan had perpetrated the attack. Every publication (save for the Denton Record-Chronicle) stated that the disappearance was very similar to one several months beforehand, presumably, the attack on October 20, 1921.

There was no investigation that followed the disappearance of two men on December 13, 1922. The general law enforcement response to each of the five men who went missing during the fourteen-month period was a resounding “meh” followed by a period of excuses for inaction. This blasé response by the men entrusted with keeping the peace was a powerful statement of ideological agreement with the Ku Klux Klan. In the criminal justice system of Denton County in the 1920s, Black criminals faced heavy sentences while white vigilantes went uninvestigated, unindicted, unaccused, and unknown.

Membership in Klavern 136 is difficult to determine as no formal records have yet been uncovered by historians of this predominantly rural Klan. It is through relationships and comparison with known Klan activity that some insights into membership become apparent. 

The political power of the Ku Klux Klan was nearly as attractive as its moral tenants to Denton County residents. Alvin M. Owsley, a Denton politician, was mentioned as a possible running mate for William G. McAdoo at a meeting of the Dallas ‘McAdoo for President’ club on July 14, 1923. His nomination was urged by a member who stated, “we must nominate a ticket composed of men whose sympathies and interests are known to be with the people.” This was printed gleefully in the Fort Worth Klan Newspaper The American Citizen. Similarly, Mayor H. V. Hennan spoke at every Kluxer rally in Denton County during his tenure of office and on October 20, 1922, Dr. W. G. Kimbrough received a Klan burial by eight hooded members of Klavern 136. The Klansmen placed a cross of roses with the letters KKK atop at his grave in Denton’s I.O.O.F. cemetery after they spent time in a place of prominence at his church funeral. 

Businessmen joined the Klan to avoid boycotts, politicians to gain votes, and editors to ensure readers and advertisers. Will C. Edwards, the Editor-in-Chief of the Denton Record-Chronicle was the chosen Klan candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 1924. Edwards never denied membership throughout his campaign which, perhaps, cost him the election. Citizens and business owners wrote to the American Citizen, a Fort Worth Klan newspaper, to express their dissatisfaction with the anti-Klan stance of the Chamber of Commerce or the Elks Lodge. These letter writers were additional Klansmen of Klavern 136 and expressed the viewpoint of the Klan in Denton County.

On July 17, 1923 at 8:30pm Joe Berry, a white section hand on, and who lived two houses down from , the T & P Railroad in Denton, was beaten while his wife and children attended church at Mission Baptist. The flogging was done with a horse whip by six robed and hooded men who were walking along McKinney street to the Barber Grocery store and turned back after seeing Mr. Berry in his yard. The attackers put a handkerchief over Berry’s mouth, brought him to the space between his home and Mr. Barber’s home (directly to the west), and whipped him “seven or eight times.”

On the same night, law enforcement was informed of the brutality at 11:00pm. Deputy Nick Akin received the report as he was preparing to go off duty, reported the event to R. M. Huffines who, in turn, called Sheriff Swinney. When pressed the following morning on the inaction of the Sheriff’s Department, Swinney explained that he was “sick when the call came and could not have done any more than he could do Wednesday morning.”

Swinney, Akin, and County Attorney Boyd conducted the investigation. When interviewed, Berry’s neighbor J. M. Barber said he heard nothing and was home all evening. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, County Attorney Boyd said the investigators could not find any neighbors who heard or saw the attack. When Swinney and Boyd were finally able to interview Mr. Berry, they “found no marks from a whip.” Within three days of the attack, the Berry family moved from their home on McKinney street to Arizona.

Paul Merritt, a witness for accused white rapist Barney Cloninger, was beaten by men wearing black masks and coveralls. At the Imperial Klonvocation in late 1922, five months earlier, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans made a declaration which limited the use of Klan regalia to official acts (parades, meetings, initiations). Five months later, Paul Merritt, a witness for accused white rapist Barney Cloninger, was beaten by men wearing black masks and coveralls. This choice of outfit was notably different from traditional, white, Klan garb but nevertheless coordinated and conveyed the same anonymous message. In reference to the actions of these “white cappers” in Denton County, Sheriff Swinney stated, “I am confident it was done by men outside of Denton County.” 

At 11:30pm on March 30, 1923, Merritt and several family members left Denton for Pilot Point and were stopped on Elm Fork Bridge. There, Merritt was abducted and driven ten miles back toward Denton. He was taken out of the car and through woods on A. D. Turner’s land where they met up with two other cars of men who all beat him severely. After the beating, a man referred to as “doctor” was asked by one of the masked men if he had the “tools for an operation.” The doctor replied that he would not perform it and would rather die than see it happen to this man. Following the incident on Elm Fork Bridge, Merritt was dropped off west of the city square in Denton blindfolded and bound. When he got into town, he stopped for a drink and then walked to his hotel. Merritt reached his hotel around 12:30am and was greeted by a doctor, called by law enforcement officers who were aware of the attack.

These two incidents, in addition to the two disappearances, call into question the close relationship between the law enforcement of Denton County and the Ku Klux Klan. However, a survey of historical literature on the Ku Klux Klan argues for a consensus on that previous question. The involvement, or at least passive approval, of the Sheriff’s Department and City Police was an essential component of extralegal violence. Without this unholy alliance, the Klan would not have been able to operate with impunity. In the state of Texas, during the second rising of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, only three Klansmen were prosecuted for their involvement in extrajudicial violence. Charles Alexander makes this case in Crusade for Conformity stating, “During its violent phase, the Texas Klan had enlisted law enforcement officials to avoid interference in its clean-up activities, and as a result had eluded prosecution in most areas of the state.” 

The principle of Klannishness dictated that all contracts were given to Klansmen with preference, therefore, when Sheriff Goode hung up his spurs and went into the public sector as a road contractor, his Denton County contracts affirm a relationship with the local Klan. This same principle can be applied to the relationship between Sheriff Swinney and Alvin Owsley who acted as his campaign attorney in 1922. Both Swinney and Goode followed textbook Klan procedures as Sheriff, with Goode as the unseen accomplice and Swinney as one with active knowledge. This is typified through their times in response to action by the Klan and by the purging of Nick Akin, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, from the Sheriff’s Department in 1923.

City Marshall Joe Young and County Attorney Boyd were universally involved in Klan-related violence and its subsequent “investigation.” Neither Young nor Boyd ever found evidence of wrongdoing sufficient for charges against members of Klavern 136. Judge Pearman, similarly, found himself absent in each case -- just long enough for public concern to abate. In the Fall of 1925, Pearman announced that he had diarrhea and would be taking a leave of absence for three months. During this time, he refused to resign and allow another justice to take his place, but instead, relied upon a rotation of local attorneys who took turns adjudicating cases until his return. During the tenure of District Judge Pearman, criminals were unable to plead guilty and receive a suspended sentence through normal means. Fines and bonds were heavy under Pearman (almost doubly so for defendants of color) and thus, even if he was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he certainly did their bidding from 1920 through 1925.

From 1920 until the close of Sheriff Swinney’s term in January 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had membership in important positions in the Justice System of Denton County. James Goode, William Swinney, Joe Young, Ben Boyd, and Charles Pearman were, at best, passive participants in Klavern 136 during the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan. This explains why it was unnecessary to assault a jailer when the Klan took prisoners as victims for extralegal violence and why there were no witnesses within the jail when the Sheriff’s entire family lived between the front door and the cell doors. The complicit and explicit actions of Sheriffs Goode and Swinney explain why evidence of whippings, floggings, and lynchings were never found -- not because those events did not occur in Denton County; but rather, because those crimes were sanctioned by the Denton County Justice System in the Jim Crow Era.

While scholars and academics have long questioned the symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, few tackles it explicitly. References are often delicate, to avoid a direct indictment of cops, or they assume a consensus that has yet to solidify on the topic. But the local study of the history of the relationship between white supremacist groups and the sheriff’s department offers a powerful and intimate critique of both the past and the present. In a county with a history of whitewashing racial tension and violence, this study takes aim at the heart of the very system that perpetrated racialized crimes. Because Klavern 136 and the Denton County Sheriff’s Department (as well as the County and District Courts) worked together in the early 1920s, a question claws at our collective understanding. If the system operated with white supremacist aims in the 1920s, what has changed between then and now to ensure purity of purpose in policing? Are we to believe that modern law enforcement venerates a fair application of “liberty and justice for all?” Succinctly, are we certain who has the keys to our jails in 2020? The historical evidence points to an arrangement like that of nearby Dallas where, “all public officials were Klansmen.” Without an honest acknowledgement of the sins of the past, Denton County will never truly reckon with race in the present.

In late 1920, a Klan formed in Denton County which had the power to remove prisoners from jail; and it did so for a period of four years. While much has been written about how the Ku Klux Klan needed the membership of law enforcement to guarantee access and safety from prosecution, perhaps a more significant finding is that law enforcement needed the Klan in rural areas where the populist call for justice was loudest. In the 1920s, when faced with the actions of Klavern 136, the inaction of the Denton County Justice System demands their collective culpability. The combination of Klannish action and judicial inaction was a well-rehearsed drama that played out across the South and resulted in the death of several thousand Catholics, Immigrants, Jews, and African Americans in the 1920s. America has spent much time vilifying the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan yet so little attention has been paid to the explicit and complicit actions of county-level law enforcement which structured and permitted racial violence.