The Klan at “Karleton”

It would never have occurred to me to look for historical evidence of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence at Carleton College. My obsession with the fantastic online Carletonian archives came about because I had become curious about the history of my then-home, Prentice House. My search for historical records led me to the Carleton Archives, on the first floor of the library, where I was given a couple boxes of photographs to look through, one dating from 1924. The photograph of Prentice House in the box was one I had already seen, but hidden two photographs behind it was something that made me do a double take: a photo published in the 1924 Algol, depicting three hooded Klansmen, each with the letters “KKK” emblazoned on his chest, saluting a man in a corporal’s uniform outside the Carleton chapel. The photograph’s caption reads: “Lindsay and Corporal Gilk KeepKarletonKarleton. Remember how they scared Dr. Dean in Chapel?”

The more I researched the Klan’s presence at Carleton, the more interested I became. Frank, Lily, and Kelly (editors of the Carl, the Carletonian’s art supplement) suggested I write a feature on the topic. Scott Fox showed interest in the topic as well, and so with his assistance I wrote this article, to present as much as we were able to learn in a relatively short space of time.


It is useful to keep in mind that the Klan is widely considered to have existed in three distinct stages, two of which are relevant to this article. The first Klan existed from 1865 through the 1870s. Originally founded as a social club for veteran Confederate soldiers, it quickly became a terrorist organization in political opposition to the contemporary Republican party, and in support of absolute white supremacy in the face of newly acquired civil rights by southern Blacks during the Reconstruction era. The passage of the Klan-targeting Force Acts by the federal government in the early 1870s caused the wide cessation of Klan activities for over forty years.

The second Klan was founded in 1915, and in 1921 it adopted a complex and modern system of administration and recruiting. Taking advantage of post-WWI social tensions, the Klan spread rapidly, calling for “One Hundred Percent Americanism,” white supremacy, stricter enforcement of prohibition, and warning about the threats of Catholicism and Judaism. The Klan claimed to have 4-5 million members at its peak in the mid 1920s, or roughly 15% of the eligible population across the United States. The second incarnation of the Klan did not fade away until the 1940s, after a lengthy decline brought on by infighting, widespread opposition, and poor leadership.

The first mention of the Ku Klux Klan in the Carletonian Archives dates from May 5, 1893 in an account of an oration delivered at the Philomathian Public Exhibition entitled “A Bit of History,” presented by Albert Sperry (class of 1894.) As the article recounted, “Mr. Sperry’s oration dealt with … that strange, mysterious organization in the south, the Ku Klux Klan.” According to Sperry, “The Klan attempted to maintain a pure organization but, little by little, disintegrating influences crept in … and the organization died as all organizations must die when corruption takes the place of purity.” The article concluded, “Mr. Sperry claimed for the Klan had a purpose and that in accomplishing that purpose it did some good, although it did a vast amount of harm.”

This ambiguous, even sympathetic, portrayal of the Klan as a deeply mysterious organization appears to be one that widely pervaded the Carleton atmosphere at the time. The height of pre-1920 “Klan” activity at Carleton occurred in February, 1917. At the Washington Party, an annual event commemorating George Washington’s birthday, students, who were forbidden from holding private dances, held a masked pageant instead, putting on a “grand march” and “Virginia Reel.” Suddenly, amidst “one of the largest crowds that [had] attended a college function in years,” a bugle sounded from a remote corner, “and immediately a horde of the Ku Klux Klan swept down upon the astonished throng with all the fire and life of the old Civil war days. Their broom-stick steeds reared and plunged until the ghostly robes of their riders flapped with a somber sound. Soon seizing upon a negro, they put him thru all the tortures of the days gone by. Their exit was hailed with much applause.” The “negro” they seized upon was likely either a planted student in blackface or, more likely, an effigy of the sort often strung up during homecoming festivities, a tradition that, given the available documentation, appears to have ended only in the 1930s.

In 1920, the nation was shocked by a set of events that took place several hours from Carleton, in Duluth, Minnesota. Although vital to understanding the rise of the Klan at Carleton, there was not a single mention of its occurrence in any Carleton news publication that year or any year since. On June 15th, 1920, three Black circus laborers were brutally lynched over the alleged rape of a white woman. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie had been arrested and thrown in jail the previous day after allegations surfaced that they had raped a nineteen year-old girl at gunpoint. Although examination of the girl by a family physician revealed no signs of rape or assault, a furious mob of between five and ten thousand people people broke into the jail where the men were being held and, facing no resistance from the Duluth police, removed the accused men from their cells. The mob beat them severely and then conducted a hasty mock trial, finding the three men guilty. The men were hung on a lamppost on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East, and a photograph was taken of the smiling white mob surrounding their desecrated corpses. This photograph was later distributed on postcards commemorating the event (an atrocity which became the subject of Duluth native Bob Dylan’s song, “Desolation Row.”)

There was a swift, horrified, national response. In the words of the Chicago Evening Post, “This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute. The Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation.” No member of the mob was ever convicted for the murders of any of the lynched men, but in 1921 Minnesota became the first state in the nation to pass an anti-lynching law, largely in reaction to the incident in Duluth. This chain of events, although not directly related to Carleton, provides important context surrounding the Klan’s expansion into Minnesota. It shows that racial biases in Minnesota were so extreme that an event such as the brutal lynching in Duluth was able to happen spontaneously, without any need for an ideological catalyst such as the Klan. If the conditions were this tense and hostile without the Klan, how long would it be before the Klan moved in?

Carleton homecoming effigy, 1924. Four years after the lynchings in Duluth, it is inconceivable that the Carleton community would have been blind to the racial implications of effigies such as this one.

The answer, unfortunately, involves Carleton directly. On Wednesday, May 2nd, 1923, a full three months before the first Klan parade in Minnesota took place in Albert Lea, any students on an evening stroll would have seen two flaming crosses beside the road at the upper bridge across the lakes. The Carletonian’s light-hearted reporting of the event (headline: Klu Klux Klan Konstructs Krosses Kausing Kollege Kampus Komment) suggested that some sort of Klan event had taken place on Mai Fete island, and noted that cross burnings had taken place in several towns around Northfield. There was no further newspaper documentation of the Klan’s presence at Carleton for several months, but there are clues indicating that Klan sentiments were shared among at least some members of the Carleton community.

An interesting example of Klan’s xenophobic ideals manifesting itself in the Carleton press can be found in a letter to the editor regarding the Carleton Cosmopolitan Club. The Cosmopolitan Club was an organization made up of Carleton’s few international students, and included at the time students from China, Persia, France, Argentina, England, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, and Russia. The letter in question was from Dr. Mary Sinclair Crawford, Carleton’s Dean of Women. The letter’s subject read, “Why No American Representative?” and in her letter Dr. Crawford described the lack of an American member of the Cosmopolitan Club as a “disaster,” on the same level as America’s exclusion from the the League of Nations. “They do not disguise this insult to our civilization under any name such as ‘Foreigners’ club,’” she wrote, “no, they are ‘cosmopolitan,’” Her letter concluded with a sentence that echoes contemporary Klan rhetoric: “Alas- is there not among our American-born student body one whom they might consider worthy, one who, altho offering neither the poetry of Persia, nor the culture of China, nor the enterprise of the Brown Englishman, might lift us from this ignominy of being overlooked, one who might carry the banner of America?”

The Cosmopolitan Club wrote a response in the following issue of the Carletonian, to clarify that they did indeed have an American member. Interestingly, a club photograph from that year shows the club members, all dressed in stereotypical garb (including a white South African member in blackface and holding a spear,) under a banner that reads “Karleton Kosmopolitan Klub.” It is difficult not to read this photograph as a satirical indictment of the Klan pressures that the club members surely felt amassing around them, and is also indicative of the relative safety of the Carleton environment, even in this ideologically dangerous time. The club members undoubtedly experienced widespread and pervasive racism (for example, in his senior Algol profile, Fang Kang Huang, one of Carleton’s first Chinese students, is described in the same sentence as a “slant-eyed little Chinaman” and “a hardworking, conscientious … understandable fellow,”) but there was clearly a distinction that could be drawn between what was likely considered the “good natured” racism of their friends and other relatively sympathetic classmates and the vitriolic, anti-foreigner sentiment of the Klan.

Karleton Kosmopolitan Klub, 1923. Mustafa Abassi, the first Persian student at Carleton, and Fang Kang Huang, one of Carleton’s first Chinese students, on far right.

In November of 1923, Klan activity in Minnesota had increased to the point that a Klan representative came to Northfield, his goal “the education of the public as to the Ku Klux Klan.” Fifty Carleton students attended the meeting, at which the speaker, P.J. Orn, appeared in full Klan regalia and spoke for two hours on topics the Klan favored, including white supremacy, the public school system, law and order, and the tenants of Christianity (excluding Catholicism). The Carletonian’s account of the meeting notes that the “latter half of [Orn’s speech] was interrupted by the departure of most of the Carleton delegation,” but that the students who stayed found Mr. Orn “a speaker of exceptional ability.” Other highlights of Orn’s speech included the claim that the Klan has never taken the law into its own hands, and that “the Klan is not anti-negro, but the Negro must keep his place! God Himself is against the mixture of the races.” Along the same lines, the assembled students learned that “The Ku Klux Klan is composed only of Protestants … We believe in religious toleration for every man.”

One significant figure quoted by Orn was that in 1923 there were 35,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota alone. If true, this would have constituted about 1.5% of the state’s population at the time. As difficult as that statistic might be to believe, the rallies staged around Minnesota during the mid-Twenties routinely drew crowds of thousands, indicating that, even if Orn’s number of active members of the Klan was exaggerated, there was still a contingent of thousands in Minnesota who shared the Klan’s ideals.

There is again a lapse in the Carletonian reporting of the Klan’s activities until April 19, 1924. In a short article entitled Ku Klux Klan Knights Konduct Konference, the student body is informed of a Klan meeting that occurred in the woods a short distance from Waterford the night before. This article is striking in that it is the first Carletonian article with a seemingly pro-Klan bent. It not only speaks of Carleton students who are initiated into the Klan and members who win high awards of the Klan, but also mentions that Klan memberships can be obtained at a reduced fee for students. Anyone who is interested in joining the Klan is invited to write their name, address, and class on a card, and slip it into mailbox 146.

On page 145 of the 1924 Algol, there exists what is, to my knowledge, the only photographic documentation of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence on the Carleton campus. In the photograph, three Klansmen salute a man in military uniform outside Skinner Memorial Chapel. The caption under the photograph reads, “Lindsay and Corporal Gilk KeepKarletonKarleton. Remember how they scared Dr. Dean in Chapel?” The Dr. Dean they refer to was the Assistant to the President and Chairman of the Board of Deans, but no further record of the event referenced in the caption seems to exist. It is unclear who Lindsay is, as the three Klan figures are hooded, but “Corporal Gilk” is undoubtedly Howard Gilkinson, who achieved the rank of Corporal in WWI before coming to Carleton. He won the state oratorical contest for Carleton in 1922, making the front page of the Febuary Carletonian. The speech that won him the contest was about the evil and lawlessness of the mob, including phrases such as “We shall find that mob violence is the natural outcome of our [current] attitude as American citizens towards law.” His argument, that American nationalism and patriotism and “strictly enforced law” are the only ways to defeat the menace of mob rule might seem ironic given his implicit ties to the Carleton Klan, but is actually similar to an argument the Klan was making around the same time. The idea the America would fall to ‘mob rule’ unless good, Protestant, prohibitionist, white champions of justice arose to defend it is one that the Klan espoused wholeheartedly.

The name “KeepKarletonKarleton” is very likely a reference once again to the xenophobic sentiment that marked the Klan’s outreach policy of the 20’s, a reaction against foreign elements, and an appeal to a golden past of white supremacy. Only a single other mention of the phrase can be found in the archives, in a short 1926 footnote to the Carletonian’s humor and poetry column, Clacks. It is not clear whether the reference is sincere or ironic, but it references the group’s prudish moral standards.

Corporal Howard Gilkinson with Klansmen outside of Skinner Memorial Chapel, 1923

1925 and 1926 represent simultaneously the peak and final major Klan activity in Northfield. In March 1925, a group of gowned Klan members appeared on stage before a campus play, and sang a song for the assembled audience. The reporting on this event is minimal, and treats the event as interesting, but unremarkable. This seemingly nonchalant, even supportive, attitude towards the Klan came to a head five months later, when, in early August, the first major Klan Konklave (i.e. parade and membership drive) took place in Northfield. Several hundred robed Klansmen paraded down the Northfield streets, and one hundred fifty men from Northfield and surrounding areas were sworn in as members under the light of several blazing crosses.

A series of lectures and debates on the purpose and nature of the Klan was held for students throughout 1926, but, as stated in the Carletonian’s painfully brief summary of the proceedings, “no definite conclusion was reached.” The indecision of the Carleton body as a whole towards the Klan is reflected in the article that passingly mentions the Klan as “flamboyant” in its intolerance, and the extremely obvious Klan activity that was occurring all around Northfield. In 1926 Northfield held its largest and final Klan rally, in celebration of Homecoming and Labor Day. According to a Northfield News article written at the time, over 8,000 people were in attendance. The Grand Dragon, O. E. Puffer of Minnesota, gave a speech on “Cultivation of an American State of Mind,” which exactly echoed the sort of sentiment previously expressed by Dr. Crawford’s letter about the Carleton Cosmopolitan Club. Puffer “[pleaded] for the … state of mind which would insist on America’s interests ‘in all things honorable’ regardless of the opinions of other nations, great or small.” The Northfield News reports that his speech was received enthusiastically by the listening crowd. The afternoon’s festivities included a display of fireworks and a performance by “the “Junk Man, Mr. Abraham Abrahamson” [who] gave a comic address on the “Yiddish Beople’s”- which created much merriment, especially his oft repeated draughts on a bogwater bag during his heated remarks.” It is worth a reminder that, in the absence of a large Black presence in Minnesota at the time (Carleton’s first Black student, Al Tinnin, enrolled in 1948), the Klan’s focus was primarily anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-German.

The Northfield News article concludes with a description of the parade down the business sector, “made by approximately five hundred robed Klansmen led by two bands.” Most significantly, the article notes, “[the parade] was quietly received, not a single word of detraction was heard, nor an act which might be construed antagonistic to the marchers or the organization.” The article concluded by a statement from the local Klan officials, who expressed their pleasure at the warm reception they received.

This 1926 Labor Day and Homecoming Klan parade marks the final mention of the Klan’s presence at or around Carleton college. The question arises, what could have caused the Klan’s presence to diminish after such a powerful display as the one they presented at the Northfield parade? The answer is twofold. First, despite the lack of detractors at the parade, widespread anti-Klan sentiment did exist. In December 1925 the Carletonian published a speech written by Glenn Frank, President of Wisconsin University, entitled “The Cult of Violence.” In it, Frank called for an end to mob violence, especially calling out “The men who guard righteousness with tar and feathers,” and “The men who become judge and executioner by self-appointment and travesty justice in lynching bees.”

Frank was clearly not alone in his anti-Klan sentiment, for in 1926, Carleton hired a new Dean of Students, Lindsey Blayney, who had made his career as an anti-Klan crusader in the in the deep south. Unfortunately, no clear documentation of Blayney personally combating Klan activities at Carleton exists, but it’s not difficult to draw a connection between the introduction of a vehemently anti-Klan dean and the complete cessation of any mention of the Klan in the Carleton press.

The history of the Klan at Carleton, shocking and dismaying as it is, is not one that seems particularly clear cut. The Klan certainly had members among the student body, but it also clearly had detractors. The hire of Blayney confirms that the Carleton administration seems to have been (at least largely) anti-Klan. It is also important to note that there were never any Carleton-sponsored Klan events. The debates and conflicting tones of articles on the topic of the Klan make it clear that the campus was, as a whole, unsure of the righteousness of the cause of the Klan, seductive as it was in 1920s Minnesota. Carleton’s climate was very much one of discussion and debate, oratorical events and competitions often making the front page of the Carletonian. It’s my impression that Carleton students’ sense of justice won out in the end at least as far as the question of tolerating the Klan’s presence is concerned. I would encourage anyone with further interest in this matter to look through the archives themselves; I have done the best I could to report on this topic in a very short space of time, but there are surely aspects of this subject that I have missed. Please forgive any mistakes I have made.

Thanks to Scott Fox and the staff of the Carleton Archives for their immense help in writing this article.

This is a slightly edited version of the article that appeared in The Carl.