Hamilton County Begins To Reconcile A Shameful Klan Past
On February 12, 2020, Jessica Petty climbed a narrow flight of stairs to the office of the Hamilton County Historical Society and Museum on Noblesville’s Courthouse Square to retrieve two faded boxes and a manila envelope. The president of the small organization paused to call Diane Nevitt, a longtime board member and volunteer. Nevitt confirmed that she was picking up the right materials: membership cards and receipts identifying 1,164 men who were members of the Hamilton County Ku Klux Klan between 1923 and 1926. Petty placed the boxes in the backseat of her car, cleared snow from the windshield, and pointed her GPS to the Indiana Historical Society.
At IHS, Petty handed over the Klan papers and cards to vice president of archives and library Suzanne Hahn. The senior director of conservation, Ramona Duncan-Huse, quickly transferred a portion to a special freezer that kills mold, which can further harm the papers. Conservators readied the collection for public access, vacuuming dust and lingering mold spores, gently cleaning sullied membership cards with organic solvents before archiving the collection.
The records had sat in the Noblesville office relatively undisturbed since 1995. That’s when they were discovered and handed over to the Hamilton County Historical Society, whose board decided to secret them away amid national media attention that cast a harsh light on Hamilton County’s past. David Heighway, the Hamilton County historian and former Hamilton County Historical Society president who came under the most fire for the 1995 decision, concedes that mistakes were made when the group decided to conceal the records. “We had not talked to the black population, which is who we should have talked to as well,” he says.
Earlier this year, that same organization voted to reverse course and gift the records to the Indiana Historical Society. In doing so, they made it possible for the public to finally access the collection and read the names, exposing unwitting families of deceased Klan members to stigma.
The plan was for the collection to be made available once preparation was complete, with a target date in April 2020. But the COVID-19 health crisis has delayed the reckoning, and the Klan collection from Hamilton County remains inaccessible to all but a small handful in a large storage room lined with metal shelves among thousands of articles, maps, and photos in acid-free folders and boxes—a painful chapter of Indiana history that remains partially untold and fully unresolved.
In the spring of 1995, Don Roberts opened what some might consider a Pandora’s box. He was clearing out a barn behind an old house in downtown Noblesville he had purchased in an estate sale. In a corner was a steamer trunk. Inside, he found white Ku Klux Klan hoods, sashes, and a small electric cross.
But even more significant were the names of Hamilton County men who had been members of the KKK in the ’20s. On ivory cards stained brown along the edges, elegant signatures indicated their allegiance to the Klan, to uphold the aspirational promise to be “of unquestionable character and … loyal American citizens.” He found more names on sheets of creased, beige paper and among a dozen stacks of saltine-sized membership-dues receipts, each held together with a rusty staple.
Roberts, who died in 2017, could have walked away. Instead, the U.S. Navy veteran and retired teacher shared his discovery with then Hamilton County historian Joe H. Burgess, who pored over the records and transcribed the names—including that of his father and two of Roberts’s uncles—before he passed away in 2018.
The materials eventually made their way to the Hamilton County Historical Society, and word of the collection’s existence soon leaked. The Noblesville Daily Ledger news editor Gregg Montgomery asked David Heighway, who was the director of the historical society, to show him the list of names. Heighway refused the request to head off a potential witch hunt.
On May 30, the Ledger published a column by Montgomery titled “Historical society will make Klan records public,” a headline that jumped the gun by 25 years. In the piece, Montgomery broke the news that the records existed and reported that the historical society would “offer copies” of them to the public the following month. Locals reached out to Heighway expressing concern about revealing skeletons in their families’ closets.
A follow-up story two days later reported that, actually, the historical society was discussing how the records would be handled. Rumors circulated about possible destruction of the documents. Heighway received calls from African Americans in the community pressing him for answers. On June 19, the Ledger’s editorial board urged the historical society to release the records.
Heighway had thought the historical society would quietly accept and eventually release the records. Instead, he found himself in crisis communications mode. In addition to local media, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Tampa Bay Times, Newsweek, The Telegraph of London, and the BBC wanted to know what the 15-member board was going to do with the Klan collection.
Although typical contributions to the historical society, such as family photos or military uniforms, don’t require input from the board, the sensitivity of this gift called for back-and-forth discussions and a vote. Heighway says that his group fully understood the historical significance, and if they had been able to quietly accept the records, they likely would have been made available to the public immediately. But, he says, the “media circus” made that difficult. They worried that some reporters would use the list to track down Klan descendants and “get somebody to have a fit on camera” when confronted with the past.
A scrum of reporters gathered outside the museum in mid-July to hear the board’s decision. Heighway announced that only scholars doing serious research could see the records, but no names could be published. Genealogy buffs or people curious to find out if they had a family member on the list could inquire about a specific person, but they weren’t allowed to see the records. They were simply informed if their ancestor was among the names.
The historical society’s decision was unanimous, and in an editorial in the Ledger on July 12, Heighway wrote: “Our primary concern has been for county residents. We want to know what impact this might have on them. The list of names will be of no use to the casual researcher because it is meaningless.”
The records remained in the dark—until 23 years later, an act of racism brought them back into the spotlight.
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January 2018, a seven-second video showing a 17-year-old Noblesville High School student draped in a Nazi flag went viral on social media. The teen shouted racial slurs into a megaphone on the grounds of Forest Park in Noblesville, violating no laws.
Several days later, NHS principal Jeff Bryant called on parents to have serious conversations with their families, neighbors, and friends about hate shared via social media, asking them to become “part of the solution.”
On February 27, 2018, Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer went one step further, announcing the launch of a public education series centered on the power of diversity and inclusion. This was the founding of the Noblesville Diversity Coalition.
The new group put together a plan for how they would educate the community. Through their planning, they continued to revisit questions the historical society had avoided. As they considered different ways to bring more awareness of cultural and racial diversity to the community, they looked to the past and how people construed their history.
“We just completely gloss over many of the things that are sort of negative, particularly when it comes to race,” says coalition member Bryan Glover.
Indeed, there are feel-good stories. In 1835, free blacks of mixed heritage migrated to Hamilton County to escape deteriorating conditions in the South and established Roberts Settlement. The settlers, mostly from North Carolina and Virginia, sought better opportunities with greater freedom and fewer racial barriers, made possible in part by friendly white Hoosier neighbors. And in 1925, a Hamilton County jury convicted Indiana Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson for the rape and murder of an Irvington schoolteacher—a somewhat remarkable feat given the local level of Klan membership at the time. The decision led to the eventual demise of the Klan’s weighty political and social influence in the state.
But Glover says those events, while important, don’t present a full and accurate picture of Hamilton County’s racial history.
Glover was born and raised in Noblesville, and is one of the 4 percent of African Americans (11,845 total) who call the county home. Following a Diversity Coalition event in 2018 that celebrated local school students’ cultures—Russian, Rwandan, Vietnamese—Glover was reminded how the community doesn’t always tell its entire story.
After the presentation, he started talking to David Heighway about the issue, citing the hidden KKK records as an example. Glover argued that although burning crosses in yards and midnight raids weren’t prevalent in Indiana communities, 444 African Americans lived in Hamilton County in 1920 when the KKK was building political and social steam. Their lives were not unaffected.
When Glover suggested it was time to reconsider opening the KKK records to the public, Heighway agreed and brought up the idea to the board. Glover attended the following board meeting and further discussed the issue, representing himself, not the Diversity Coalition.
During the next meeting, the Klan records were the main topic of discussion among the board members. At the time, Jessica Petty was an intern at the Indiana Archives and Records Administration, the agency that manages governmental records, and a Hamilton Country Historical Society volunteer who frequently attended board meetings because of her love of local history. The Klan collection piqued her interest and she offered to spend more time on it, helping facilitate collaboration between the historical society and the Noblesville Diversity Coalition.
She researched how other institutions handle these sorts of records and presented three initial options to the historical society. First, the group could keep the records and open them to visitors in the library. People worried this scenario would make it difficult to do the collection of primary source documents justice, and unsupervised individuals could easily steal or deface the collection. Second, the records could be scanned and put on a website or some other digital repository, but this would be costly to do securely and could leave out users without access to a computer or the internet. Third, they could do nothing.
Old worries resurfaced. What if someone obtains the list and just publishes it in the paper? What if someone’s home is vandalized because his or her last name appeared on the list? How can we protect people from misusing or destroying the list? They didn’t want that responsibility, so when the idea of handing over the records to the Indiana Historical Society was proposed, it took hold.
“People were really intrigued and excited that it would be protected better physically,” Petty says. At the Indiana Historical Society, members of the public would request to see records and then check them out to view in a supervised reading room. Petty also suggested that they develop programming around the gift to make it more than a gesture, with the Diversity Coalition helping answer questions about why the decision was being made.
In February 2020, the board voted on what to do with the controversial Klan collection. This time, they decided to hand over the records to the Indiana Historical Society, making them available for anyone to see.
While COVID-19 has delayed when the records will be open to view, there could be pent-up interest. Indiana Klan history intrigues Hoosiers. Hamilton County’s racial history is complicated. In the mid-1920s, Indiana held the distinction of having the most widespread Klan foothold in the nation, and many Hamilton County residents gladly joined the robust “Klavern 42.”
During Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016, historian James Madison put thousands of miles on his car touring the state to address groups and share stories from Indiana’s 200 years of statehood, but it was a period lasting only about five years that mesmerized crowds. A preeminent Indiana historian and the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History Emeritus at Indiana University, Madison says that after his talks concluded, the questions asked most were about Indiana’s relationship to the Klan. That experience pushed him into writing his latest book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, due out October 2020.
“At its height in the 1920s, one-quarter to one-third of native-born white males in Indiana were Klan members. Hamilton County, with an estimated 35 percent in 1925, was one of the strongest Klan bastions in Indiana.”
One of the most common misconceptions about the Klan in Indiana, he says, was that it was comprised of uneducated rubes. A reporter from New York called them “the great unteachable,” ignorant ne’er-do-wells, terms that more accurately apply to members of today’s scary, unorganized white supremacy groups. The Klan of the 1920s included “good people, normal people,” Madison says. They were middle-class family men, ministers, Quakers, teachers, farmers, lawyers, pharmacists, and city and county officials.
Another common misbelief is that the Indiana Klan was like the Alabama or Mississippi Klan, intimidating and murdering African Americans. Instead, the Indiana Klan was selectively “pro America,” bent on forcing Protestant morals — trouncing the influence of Catholics and Jews — and keeping immigrants in their place at the bottom of the food chain.
“The bigotry was baked into the cake, but they learned how to make it a little bit more palatable,” Heighway says. As a master marketer, salesman, and orator, D.C. Stephenson can take much of the credit for the Klan’s rise in Indiana. In 1922, he moved an organized recruiting effort from Evansville to Indianapolis, deploying Klan representatives across the state. In just 12 months, starting in July 1922, more than 100,000 Hoosier men joined up. As membership numbers swelled, so too did Stephenson’s influence, including ties to Indiana Governor Ed Jackson.
“At its height in the 1920s, one-quarter to one-third of native-born white males in Indiana were Klan members. Hamilton County, with an estimated 35 percent in 1925, was one of the strongest Klan bastions in Indiana,” Allen Safianow writes in You Can’t Burn History, an in-depth look at the 1995 discovery. Safianow is a former professor of history at Indiana University-Kokomo and has written much about the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. Hamilton County Klavern 42 had a membership of 2,461 in 1925. Safianow recounts dozens of “Klan demonstrations, parades, cross burnings, and extravagantly ritualized funeral services conducted in Cicero, Sheridan, and Noblesville,” often covered by the local media in a cheery light.
The Klan disseminated its messages of bigotry through The Fiery Cross, a weekly communiqué published in Indianapolis that spread its own version of events of the day and warned of fake news by sources such as The New York Times. But the Klan publication didn’t discriminate when it came to advertisers.
Greek immigrant Harry B. Plackas took out ads to help keep his family and business safe. Plackas arrived at Ellis Island from Greece in his 20s in 1907 and moved to Noblesville in 1912. After his first wife died during childbirth, he married Zaharoula Krekoukia. In Noblesville, they raised four daughters, including Jane, the mother of Sandra J. Pakes. Pakes lives in San Antonio and recalls her grandparents’ and mother’s experience in Indiana.
The Plackas family owned a general store and the Palace of Sweets on Conner Street, Noblesville’s main thoroughfare. Harry learned English and became a U.S. citizen in 1910, but his thick accent, dark features, and handlebar mustache did nothing to endear him to many of their neighbors. Other kids called Pakes’s mother and her sisters “dirty Greeks.” To dispel the assumption that they were Catholic—they were actually Greek Orthodox—the girls tucked the crosses they wore inside the necks of their blouses.
“It was good business to take out an ad in the KKK magazine so you would be protected,” Pakes says. “A lot of business owners in Noblesville took out those ads out of fear.” If the Klan’s true character was in question among the men who signed on in Hamilton County, a regular column in the Noblesville Ledger should have put any doubts to rest. The Klan Komment, Safianow writes, “spelled out in very clear terms the organization’s support of white supremacy, racial purity, prohibition enforcement, separation of church and state, and immigration restriction.”
An aggressive Klan Komment column published on July 20, 1925, in Noblesville, begins: “To the second class, composed of law violators, the un-American and anti-American elements, we say, ‘Come on, you minions of hell and imps of Satan. We welcome your opposition and are ready for the fray.’”
The Klan disseminated its messages of bigotry through The Fiery Cross, a weekly communiqué published in Indianapolis that spread its own version of events of the day and warned of fake news by sources such as The New York Times.
White Protestants weren’t exempt from Klan intimidation, either. In the 1970s, Noblesville resident and retired teacher Stan Renner interviewed a prosperous farmer in the northern part of Hamilton County for a class he was taking on local Indiana history. The farmer told Renner the Klan had paid him a visit to ask him to join, which he declined, saying he didn’t have any interest. The Klansmen returned, and the farmer told them no again.
“They came back a third time and said, ‘Well you know, funny thing happens to farmers who don’t join. Their cattle die of a mysterious illness called bullet-to-the-head,’” Renner recalls. “He said, ‘You’ll probably find my name on some list somewhere. I joined, paid my $10, never went to a meeting. I considered it an insurance policy.’”
Now that the Klan has been dethroned and is reviled by most people, it’s ironic that some white Protestants in the 1920s signed on to become members to protect their families. Their past decisions now threaten to put their living descendants at risk of ridicule. But it would be foolhardy to assume most people joined with these sorts of good intentions when the true nature of the Klan was that of a violent organization advocating bigotry. Families will have to wrestle with not knowing exactly why their great-grandfather or great-uncle joined the Klan and come to terms with their past.
The Hamilton County Historical Society says they made the decision to shine a light on these records not to cast blame, but rather to do good. As part of that mission, the Noblesville Diversity Coalition is including the story of the records in a four-part lecture series on the history of Noblesville. Programming was supposed to begin April 30 but has been postponed.
“My hope would be that we would have a discussion about diversity and inclusiveness. I would hope that that’s the conversation that we would eventually find our way to,” Glover says. “What has happened through history is important because it informs us in many ways, perhaps paths that we don’t want to go down.”
Imagining that the Klan, or a similar group, could rise back to power in this day and age might seem far-fetched, but history can indeed repeat itself. Safianow writes about “Klan Day” in the summer of 1925, when Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, the highest-ranking figure in the national Klan, spoke to a Noblesville crowd during an annual community celebration. Its language is not dissimilar from that in recent news.
“His address was biting,” Safianow writes, “praising the recently passed National Origins Act, which sharply restricted the immigration of certain national and ethnic groups, for building ‘a stone wall around the nation so tall, so deep and so strong that the scum and riffraff of the old world cannot get into our gates,’ and arguing that ‘the colored man’ should be ‘kept in his place.’”
Releasing the Hamilton County Klan collection to the public in the context of COVID-19 could make it and conversations around tolerance more relevant than it would have been before March 2020. Stories of collaboration among cultures and countries and the selflessness of individuals could inspire our society to be more tolerant. Or the government’s regulation of the freedom to conduct business and the fact that the virus derived from a foreign country could lead society down a path of intolerance. Time will tell, and future generations will be the ones bringing to light the evidence.
Hamilton County’s history—and the decision to hold and eventually release the Klan records—can provide a lens to look through as Hoosiers consider how they will respond to current circumstances and each other. It’s unrealistic to believe the act will prevent future bigotry, but it could present an opportunity for a reconciliation. Giving people a chance to grapple with telling a more complete story can make a community better—even if several of the chapters are ugly.
Title illustration by Lincoln Agnew.
(Note on the Indiana Historical Society archives: Due to precautions taken because of COVID-19, those wishing to access collections materials in person (IHS will reopen to the public on July 7) need to make an appointment in advance—they can do so by contacting IHS at 317-234-0321 or email.)