In 1871, the U.S. Government decided to hold 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,” but they are often referred to by historians as the Ku Klux Klan Hearings or the KKK Testimony. I first discovered this set of records when my friend Tim Pinnick gave a lecture about them, and he shared some of the indexed pages which he posted on his website.
Thanks to the Making of America, you can now access all volumes of the Ku Klux Klan Hearings. It gets even better—the volumes are fully text-searchable! I have been waiting for this for years; here is the what the website looks like:
The hearings were documented in the U.S. Serial Set, which are the published records of the U.S. Congress. These hearings were the precursor the passing of the 1871 Klan Act, which enabled President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to go into southern states to maintain order and to penalize the acts of private citizens. Federal prosecutions under this Act did serve to sufficiently cripple the first iteration of the Klan, although in the first decade of the 20th century, it would come back with a vengeance.
The real jewel of these records are the verbatim testimony that was taken in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. I don’t need to tell you how genealogically rich these records are—they cover 13 volumes and over 7000 pages of testimony and reports! These records include first person testimony from numerous freedmen and women, but also include testimony from local white officials, both those aligned with the Confederate cause and those aligned with the Union, such as Freedmen’s Bureau officials. These records are indexed in great detail at the beginning of each published volume, so that’s what you’ll want to explore first. Here is example of one of the indexed pages as well as two pages from Andrew Flower’s testimony:
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 printed testimony about those counties. 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 thousands of beatings, whippings, murders, rapes and other assaults. There was violence directed towards any efforts by freedmen to educate themselves or to better their economic station by purchasing land. Black churches were also burned down. I found it interesting during the testimony that the violence became so common, they turned “Ku-Klux” into a verb, and talked about people being “Klu-Kluxed last night.”
The violence during Reconstruction, which I have blogged about before, is truly mind-boggling. Needless to say the freedmen were the primary victims, but so were white men who pledged allegiance to the Republican Party (the old Republican Party, not the one in force today). Black republicans, who had been able to participate in state and local government and vote since the Civil War, were especially targeted. It goes without saying that most of the perpetrators were never brought to justice.
What may surprise you is how much of the violence was directed towards getting the freedmen to not 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” by itself was not the only driver for the violence—it was a form of control designed to keep the freedmen at the very bottom of the economic, social and political ladder and to keep a compliant and dependent labor force in the South to continue to work the land. I think it’s important that we really 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 chilly, I don’t know what is.
I have already spent many more hours than I need to wading through these records. I am just overcome with the sadness and utter amazement that African-Americans survived all of the historic atrocities they collectively endured. I’d love to hear your comments about this source.