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College Students Review KKK Stories in North Texas Newspaper

A conspiracy of silence could mean historians may never be able to bring the names of two men -- or many other lynching victims -- to light, said UNT history student Hannah Stewart

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    College Students Review KKK Stories in North Texas Newspaper
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    This September 20, 2007, file photo shows copies of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    A year ago, a memorial opened in Alabama to remember what Denton County and other communities around the country worked hard to keep secret: decades of racial terror and lynchings at the hands of community leaders.

    Stories in the Denton Record-Chronicle helped keep those secrets, even while reporting the news.

    In the past year, University of North Texas history students spent months combing through old Record-Chronicle stories following the revelation of a lynching in Denton County in 1922. The two men who were lynched in Pilot Point are among 4,000 remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

    But a year into the search to identify the two men, their names remain unknown.

    Record-Chronicle stories offer few clues to the pair's identities, but that didn't surprise the history students. Like other newspapers at the time, the Record-Chronicle didn't name black men or women who were accused of a crime, taken from the jail or otherwise in the news. The newspaper identified them only as "Negroes."

    That conspiracy of silence could mean historians may never be able to bring the names of those two men -- or many other lynching victims -- to light, said UNT history student Hannah Stewart.

    "Only if someone discovers documents in an attic somewhere," Stewart said. "Denton had a really horrible past that people don't want to acknowledge."

    She was alluding to the work of another former UNT history student, Michelle Glaze, who helped tell the story of Denton's Quakertown, a prosperous, free black community, through documents uncovered in a Denton family's attic. The former editor and publisher of the Record-Chronicle, W.C. Edwards, was part of the official city committee that forced the residents of Quakertown from the central city to the other side of the railroad tracks from 1922 to 1923.

    In other words, the families of the two men who were killed may know more of the story than the newspaper reported.

    Still, Stewart logged more than 300 news stories in North Texas news sources from 1898 to 1928 that either directly or indirectly reported Ku Klux Klan activities in Denton or the surrounding area -- which may explain the contorted silence. Of those 300, 236 stories were in the Record-Chronicle, with the majority in the years 1921-24.

    "We didn't know there was this much," she said.

    The frequency of stories started to increase in 1917 with multiple notices in the Record-Chronicle praising the movie "Birth of a Nation," which depicted African Americans as violent and the Klan as saviors. At first, the nearest screening was in Fort Worth, but by summer, the movie screened in Denton.

    Sometimes a Record-Chronicle headline read "no evidence of Klan activity in the city" even as the newspaper ran advertisements for upcoming Klan events, Stewart said.

    In 1921, the year of the first public appearance of the Klan in Denton, the Record-Chronicle reported Klan stories about once per week, a frequency that continued through about 1924.

    The public appearance, an unannounced Klan parade in December 1921, was perceived as a show of strength. An odd headline -- "K.K.K. Parade Has Put Rabbits in Negroes' Feet, City Officers Declare" -- followed in the Record-Chronicle.

    Many newspapers ran photos from Klan parades in their community, said fellow history student Emily Bowles. However, the Record-Chronicle did not.

    A few days after the parade, the newspaper reported that the Klan had given the editor money to send to a local charity.

    Occasionally, a story about the Klan quoted a club official, but the students are searching other historic documents to better identify who might have been a member of Denton's Klan chapter, Klavern 136.

    Other news stories followed Klan initiations or recruiting events. Eight months before the lynching in Pilot Point, a Record-Chronicle reporter was "kidnapped" and taken to a Klan initiation on the edge of town. About 25 to 30 men were initiated into the Klan as a crowd of 300 to 400, including the reporter, watched in April 1922. The initiation took place at the new Elm Fork Bridge, about halfway between Denton and Pilot Point.

    The bridge was the county's longest span at the time. It linked the county government seat to surrounding peanut and cotton farms.

    Pilot Point was an economic hub for cotton growers with its rail connections and its cotton gin, considered to be among the nation's largest when it was first built. After the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans got on the train in Chambers County, Alabama, and got off in Denton County to establish St. John's, a free black community outside Pilot Point. Locals have said St. John's was thought to be a larger free black community than Denton's Quakertown.

    While the Record-Chronicle followed Klan news, no single story appears to have documented the violent pattern that also emerged in the chain of headlines from 1921 to 1924. As Klan activity increased in Denton -- alongside the push to move Quakertown to the other side of the railroad tracks -- so did news reports of individuals being flogged, or whipped, or coated with tar and feathers.

    The Record-Chronicle reported the Pilot Point lynching one week after the murders but reported the news as a "Klan warning to loafers." The victims were never identified in the story.

    When it opened a year ago, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice announced that communities could claim the individual beams honoring their dead. Many communities have expressed an interest, including individuals in Denton. But memorial officials have not announced any official protocol for requesting the beams; instead they have been steering communities toward activities that encourage more research and understanding of lynching, such as collecting soil samples at lynching sites.

    That, too, may be a tall order for Denton County, since the code of silence kept that information secret, too.

    "You have to take on your city's past or you can't move forward," Bowles said. "You can't Band-Aid if you don't know what you're trying to fix."