The 13 volumes of the Ku-Klux Congressional Testimony (part of the Serial Set) illustrate well the continuing divide in our country. I blogged about these records in 2016.
These records are an incredible source of information for all genealogists trying to understand the issues at stake during Reconstruction, issues that extend into today. Hundreds of white and black southerners testified, and what they shared is riveting to read.
It’s also a cautionary tale for Americans in the current moment.
Though some genealogists are grappling with the knowledge that they descend from enslavers, other disturbing parts of American history go largely unmentioned. I think genealogists are well situated to engage with this history; after all, history is supposed to be our thing.
Using the Congressional Records
The image below shows how the 13 volumes (the final report and testimony) are organized. Testimony was taken in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Notice where the indexes for each state are located (underlined in red):
The indexes for these records are very detailed. Here’s an example from Alabama:
Here’s a clipping from testimony that was given in Alabama:
For my research, these records helped me learn about the communities where my ancestors lived and better understand their possible reasons for migration.
The white violence in some locales essentially ran out all African Americans. This practice hurt even some white planters who needed black labor.
I found it notable that many of the early Klan members relied heavily on what they perceived as black belief in superstition.
They told the people they terrorized that they were the ghosts of dead Confederates, raised from Hell, and that they had an unquenchable thirst.
Many blacks could identify exactly who had beat them, because they knew the person’s voice and they had worked for or with them.
A Tough History Indeed
Segregation was birthed as a direct result of the failure of Reconstruction. How have genealogists wrestled with ancestors who were segregationists? What about ancestors in the White Citizens Councils and similar groups?
What about the Klan, and their sympathizers? The fact that some of these might include living family members reminds of how close this history is.
The Klan had hundreds of thousands of members in the 20th century, so think about the huge number of descendants that exist today. Edward Ball discussed his Klan ancestry in his book, Life of a Klansman.
The uncomfortable reality is that most whites, certainly most white Southerners, held racist beliefs. In the 1880s. 1890s. 1900s. 1910s. 1920s. 1930s. 1940s. And so on.
Just like slavery, there is no getting around that ugly truth. We have to confront it head on.
Where are the genealogists who are reckoning with this history within their families in their lectures and articles? I haven’t seen any, but I would like to.
I think it is possible to have mature, thoughtful conversation and dialogue about this tough history. Historian Charles Dew’s book, The Making of A Racist, is simply masterful in how he discusses his life and developing beliefs as a child born in the late 1930s.
Whites who did not participate in the racial caste system were often ostracized, ridiculed or met with violence. Nevertheless, some were brave enough to do exactly that.
What did white children think when they first were taught that blacks were inferior?
What were their questions to their parents? Did they have any?
What were their parent’s answers?
What did it make them think about themselves as children?
Did they ever think about how black people must have felt?
How did those beliefs correlate with the family’s religious beliefs?
Do we even know the history behind this period of time?
In the frightening world today where some don’t want Americans to learn American history, this post is a reminder that we can’t understand anything without it.
Reconstruction refers to roughly the years 1863 through the 1880s. The ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments during this period fundamentally changed America.
The Amendments were crafted to create birthright citizenship, open voting to black men, and establish equal protection under the law to ensure that the former slaves could participate in building an actual democracy.
On one side were those who were fighting to make America live up to its founding documents and create a multi-racial democracy. This consisted primarily of freedmen, their white allies, and Radical Republicans in Congress.
As you can imagine, the folks on the other side of that fight did not want true democracy. Former Confederates and their Democratic Party allies had fought a war to keep a slaveholding republic, as their own secession documents tell us. These congressional records contain their testimony, too.
The hearings detailed in the records were part of President Grant’s battle against white violence towards freedmen in the defeated Southern states during Reconstruction.
The testimony demonstrates that white supremacist ideology did not die after slavery’s demise. It adapted new strategies. The first strategy was to continue to use brutality to achieve via extralegal means what could not be achieved legally. The violence was stunning in its scope and scale, as depicted in this video.
Southern freedmen were at the mercy of a furious white populace who had lost the war.
Freedmen’s white allies were subject to be whipped and killed themselves, and many were. The Freedmens Bureau addressed the violence when possible, but were spread too thin. In fact, one could be murdered FOR making a complaint to the Bureau.
It is no mistake the Ku Klux Klan, America’s first domestic terrorist group, was birthed during Reconstruction. It was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 with former Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest as its first Grand Dragon. There were many other white terror groups with a similar playbook.
The photo above shows the Klan in these early years, late 1860s. This is before the white costume became formalized, which didn’t happen until the huge second wave of the Klan was born in 1915, with the release of the movie The Birth of Nation.
If you want to know what racism and white supremacy look like, watch that movie. It was screened in Woodrow Wilson’s White House.
The Klan and other local whites beat, tortured, whipped, and murdered thousands of freedmen and their families. They burned hundreds of schools and churches that freedmen struggled to build. They forced freedmen to abandon their crops and homes and other material possessions.
President Grant wanted the Federal Government to help put an end to the violence against the freedmen, who had helped the Union win the Civil War. Congress passed and Grant eventually signed three Enforcement Acts (often called the Ku Klux Klan Acts) that gave the Executive branch the power to act.
And he did. The Justice Department was established by Congress at Grant’s behest and was specifically created to protect the civil rights of freedmen against white terror violence.
Given this history, I hope more genealogists will explore these records more deeply.
The Failure of Reconstruction
The Thomas Nast drawing below illustrates the Klan and the White League shaking hands over a cowered black family. A school burns in the background, a lynched body hangs, and the ominous phrase “The Union as It Was–This is a White Man’s Government” looms above.
The iconography leaves no doubt about its meaning.
If we learned American history well, we know how Reconstruction failed.
White terror was used to keep black men away from the ballot box across the south. Once Republicans and white Northerners lost interest, former Confederates and their allies regained state political power. There is some great scholarship available on how Northern and Southerners reconciled around whiteness during this period. Learn about it.
Democrats swiftly redrafted state Constitutions and created new laws restricting the civil rights of freedmen and establishing segregation. Lynchings became widespread.
Exploring the KKK hearings (and others such as the Freedmens Bureau records) help genealogists better understand this volatile period of time and better understand TODAY.
I hope genealogists will more openly consider their ancestor’s experiences during the ugly history of Reconstruction violence, segregation, and the long nightmare of horrors it entailed for black Americans.
Write about it thoughtfully. Talk about it with your children and grandchildren. Shine a light on it. Let it inform your beliefs and choices today.
No, history is not past. It is right here, alive and well.
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.