In 1871, the U.S. Government held hearings on the rampant violence in the South by the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations.
The official name of these records is the “Report of the Joint Select Committee Appointed to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.” However, they are often referred to by historians as the Ku Klux Klan Hearings or the KKK Testimony.
I first discovered these records when my friend Tim Pinnick gave a lecture about them.
Thanks to the Making of America website, you can now access all volumes of the Ku Klux Klan Hearings.
Even better—the volumes are fully text-searchable! Here is the what the website looks like:
The hearings are documented in the U.S. Serial Set, which are the published records of the U.S. Congress. These hearings were the precursor to the passing of the 1871 Klan Act. That Act enabled President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to southern states to maintain order and penalize the acts of private citizens.
Federal prosecutions under this Act did serve to sufficiently cripple the first iteration of the Klan. Unfortunately, in the first decade of the 20th century, the organization came back with a vengeance.
The real jewel of these records are the verbatim testimony from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. They cover 13 volumes and over 7000 pages of testimony and reports!
These records include first person testimony from numerous freedmen and women. They also include testimony from local white officials, both those aligned with the Confederate cause and those aligned with the Union.
These records are indexed in great detail at the beginning of each published volume. Here is an example of one of the indexed pages as well as two pages from Andrew Flower’s testimony:
These records provide some of the best testimony describing what living conditions were like for former slaves in the South during Reconstruction. As expected, there are numerous beatings, whippings, murders, rapes and other assaults.
Freedmen who educated themselves or taught schools, or purchased land were frequently assaulted. They burned down black churches. Violence became so common that the term “Ku-Klux” became a verb. People discussed being “Klu-Kluxed last night.”
The violence during Reconstruction, which I have blogged about before, is truly mind-boggling. Although freedmen were the primary victims, so were white men who pledged allegiance to the Republican Party (the old Republican Party, which has nothing in common with the one today).
Voting Targeted: Just Like Today
Black republicans became targets. Most of the perpetrators faced no repercussions.
What may surprise you is how much of the violence was directed towards getting the freedmen not to vote the Republican ticket, especially in 1868. The perpetrators understood that they needed to regain political power.
This is yet another demonstration of how “racist belief” alone was not the only driver for violence. It provided the control needed to keep the freedmen at the very bottom of the economic, social and political ladder.
Those in power needed to keep a compliant and dependent labor force in the South to continue to work the land. It is so important that we understand that.
One website offers some chilling examples of how well the violence accomplished it’s purpose:
“Those murdered during the KKK’s campaign included Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds, three members of the South Carolina legislature, and several men who had served in state constitutional conventions. According to testimony, in other violence, Klansmen killed more than 150 African Americans in a single county in Florida, and hundreds more in other counties…
The Klan was most successful at taking the vote away [from] black southerners. For example, in the April 1868 Georgia gubernatorial election, Columbia County cast 1,222 votes for Republican Rufus Bullock, but in the November 1868 presidential election, the county cast only one vote for Republican candidate Ulysses Grant.”
If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is.
Search for your family surnames, but I also highly recommend searching also for your county of research and its surrounding counties. For example, my ancestors were in Taylor County, Florida, so I researched testimony from that county. Consider that violence was one of the main reasons freedmen and women migrated out of their home counties.
How did African-Americans survive all of the atrocities they collectively endured? We may never truly know.
I’d love to hear your comments if you have researched this source.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.