“A burnt child fears the fire”: Ku Klux Violence against African American Children in the Reconstruction Era

By Max Gaida

Although the American Civil War had officially ended, the following two decades of Reconstruction saw a surge of terroristic violence against emancipated African Americans of the South. The Ku Klux Klan, originally a loosely organized group of former Confederates, was and remains particularly infamous for the night-time attacks they often committed in disguise. Half a century after such a raid, Millie Bates, a witness to the attack, made the terror she had felt as a child palpable: “It still makes de shivvers run down my spine and here I is ole and you all a settin’ around wid me and two mo’ wars done gone since dat awful time” (Slave Narratives Vol. 14, S.C. 1: 46-47). Violence by men who called themselves Ku Klux was instrumental in continuing the oppression of freedpeople and, through fear and intimidation, socializing their children to accept a subordinate status. This essay examines how children were attacked by the Klan and what effects this might have had on them.

Although Black children were affected by this brutality, their experiences throughout the Reconstruction era are understudied. As politically powerless figures, they were not the primary targets of Klan attacks. Yet, the lives of Black children in the Reconstruction era are an important field of research because they were at the intersection of two major post-Civil War battlegrounds: the scope of freedom for former slaves and the meaning of childhood generally. As the first generation of Black children in which the majority, instead of just a lucky few, grew up in freedom, their experiences were vital in shaping the course of Black life for the next decades. Violence by the Klan seriously diminished the meaning of freedom. As will be argued, this form of white interference forced Black families to respond by adapting their behavior to fit the demands of white people.

Children represented the future state of race relations, and for this reason, actions by the Ku Klux were possibly motivated to socialize Black children to accept their subordinate status in a white supremacist system. Emancipation created a radical shift in American society, in response to which actions of the Ku Klux Klan aimed at Black youth can be read as part of an effort to instill values as similar as possible to those that had existed antebellum under the system of chattel slavery into the children.

Childhood is not just a biological phase but “a social and cultural construct,” (Mintz 2006: viii) influenced by factors such as class, gender, and, of particular interest here, race. Writing the history of children is complicated by the lack of primary sources in which their voices are heard directly. As an alternative, this project scoured the report of a Congressional committee investigating the Ku Klux Klan in 1872 for instances in which witnesses spoke about children. Far from comprehensive, this was chosen as a place to begin the research because of the source’s diverse range of witnesses, wide scope, and availability.

Men dressed in costumes typical for the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan. The infamous pointed robes would not become the norm until the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, children were subordinate and politically powerless. Perhaps for this reason, there are no instances in the congressional hearings in which Black children were the primary targets of Ku Klux violence. The Klan was motivated by broadly political goals, and an “absence of massive violence existed only […] where such violence served no political purpose” (Gillette 1979: 28). Applying this to include Black children, one begins to understand why they were not explicitly targeted: they could not vote, so they could not be prevented from voting; they held no power, so this could not be taken away from them; they could not act as a direct threat, so they did not need to be curtailed. Nonetheless, men acting as the Ku Klux had ample reasons and opportunities to attack Black children. 

Often, children were victims of a callous disregard for their safety, such as when the Ku Klux fired into houses where children, too, were sleeping. An Alabama father highlighted how careless and brutal such shootings could be, enumerating that over three hundred bullets had been fired into his house (cf. KK Report, vol. 9: 1018). Other times, children perished with their parents in houses that had been set on fire by the Klan (cf. KK Report, vol. 12: 793). The indiscriminate way in which Black families were attacked reinforces historian Leon Litwack’s argument that because freedpeople were no longer the property of white men, whites no longer had an economic incentive to protect freedpeople and also held no patriarchal feelings towards them that would have offered a “degree of protection, sympathy, and support” (1979: 196).

Most frequently, children were deliberately attacked because their fathers voted for Republicans or were involved with the party. These attacks were meant to punish freedmen by brutalizing those they held dear, thereby deterring future political aspirations. Holding political office could lead to violence against one’s family, as shown by the child of a “chairman of the board of county commissioners” as well as his wife being wounded “pretty severely” in a shooting of all three (KK Report, vol. 3: 3). Political activism could even be fatal for Black children, with one girl being hanged together with her parents “because they had tried to register black voters and ignored several warnings not to do so” (Berg 2011: 82). Politically motivated attacks would likely target children as well because of the pain this caused their parents. Thus, violence against their children further worsened the potential consequences of political activity, spreading the risks from themselves onto loved ones. It is also likely that brutalizing the children of prominent freedmen was meant to socialize them into not following their parents’ footsteps.          

Children became circumstantial witnesses to violent acts committed against members of their household, but Klansmen also ensured that children would witness the brutalization of their parents. For example, the son of Isham McCracy was literally made to shine a light on the whipping of his father (KK Report, vol. 3: 545). This attack is particularly reminiscent of slavery because of the choice of weapon, the whip, and, as Steven Mintz explains, for slave children this would have been  “the harshest memory […] seeing their parents being whipped and discovering that they were impotent to do anything about it” (2006: 103). Furthermore, this incident highlights that Ku Klux intended their violence to be observed and known by Black children, so that they would know what consequences they could face should they make political demands or challenge white supremacism. Moreover, witnessing violence reinforced the powerlessness of freedpeople, and ensuring that this also affected children helped perpetuate white supremacy. Overall, those not directly attacked were nonetheless affected, learning that white men could act with impunity towards former slaves and their descendants. It is plausible to assume that the terror of these situations would have imprinted itself on the children’s memories, becoming what Leon Litwack calls “nothing less than defining moments in their lives” (1998: 10).

Whipping is a particularly frequent form of violence against children mentioned in the congressional hearings. The choice of whips was expected, as the enforcers of the antebellum racial order were well equipped and practiced with them, but they also served an instrumental purpose “as a psychological reminder of slavery” (Kosary 2012: 331). There are abounding examples throughout the report of children being whipped together with their parents including “even the least child in the family” (KK Report, vol. 3: 586). One witness illustrates that the victims were aware as to why they were being whipped: “to ‘straighten’ the neighborhood—to make the negroes subservient, and make them fear them” (Ibid.) The Ku Klux whipped Black children to ensure they were socialized as they had been under slavery, to accept a racial hierarchy in which “whites still maintained their right to control and brutalize them” (Emberton 2013: 44), even though they were legally free.

Some contemporaries, such as Harper’s Weekly, believed white supremacist terrorism was “Worse than slavery”.

Ku Klux violence against Black children shaped their personalities, actions, and lives. The psychological effects on children were similar to those of slavery: they “would internalize a sense of dependence, inferiority, and subordinate status” (Mintz 2006: 103). This included that, like slave children, freed children would have experienced a “severe trauma” in “learning that their parents were helpless to protect them from abuse.” (Ibid.) Contributing to this trauma was that, to escape night-time attacks, many families slept outside of their house. In one county of South Carolina alone, this affected thousands. One can only speculate that sleeping out had detrimental effects on the health and development of children, but what is certain is that the practice contributed to Black children experiencing their home as a vulnerable space which continued to be “penetrable at any and all moments by the power of white men” (Rosen 2009: 192).

Although Black children were often the victims of Ku Klux violence, they were not completely powerless. Several parents tried to assert this through their testimony. Children not crying during an attack is the most common way in which parents give proof to them not being victims. For example, one father recalls that his children “did not make any fuss at all” (KK Report, vol. 2: 102). Another father goes further, elaborating on how his “little daughter” had kept their infant from crying, thereby successfully hiding them during an attack (KK Report, vol. 13: 61). On the one hand, these are instances of empowerment, during which fathers defend their children’s dignity, not allowing them to be victimized further. On the other hand, the cases show that the children were not able to live in innocence, having to at least witness violence.

Children’s attempts to intervene, for example by calling for help, mostly failed or even backfired. Henry Lipscomb’s daughter, for example, begged the attackers “Don’t kill my father,” but for this the Klansmen “struck her on the mouth” (KK Report, vol. 4: 681-82). Abram Colby’s daughter also tried to save him, but he conveys how this ended for her: “They drew up a gun and actually frightened her to death. She never got over it until she died” (KK Report, vol. 7: 697). Indirectly, Abram Colby claims that the Klan killed his daughter just because she had dared to implore them not to kill him.

Clearly, Black children were unable to stop attacks with the little power they had, and risked harm if they involved themselves by desperately begging for Ku Klux attackers to stop. Many Black witnesses emphasizing that their children were not completely powerless supports Steven Mintz’s argument that the adversity faced by Black children, although inflicting “scars that lasted a lifetime,” also inspired strengths in the form of “pride, family and communal loyalty, and resistance to injustice” (2006: 117).

The Ku Klux Klan continued the brutalization of Black children for political reasons, and this can be understood as a continuation of antebellum socialization. Emancipated Black children presented a generational threat to white supremacy, and therefore needed, in the eyes of the Klan, to be taught their subservient status. Violence was an instrument used to this end, in order to control the actions and ambitions of Black children.

There is still ample research to be conducted in this field, particularly on the question of to what extent, if any, Black children played a role in the national narrative constructed about the Ku Klux Klan through newspapers. Furthermore, sources in which the children themselves speak need to be uncovered to better understand their perspectives.

Until they grew old, the Black children of the Reconstruction era would neither experience nor attempt meaningful pursuits for equality. Instead, their adult life was marked by the height of Jim Crow in the 1890s. Their childhood experiences of Ku Klux violence, described in this article, were a part of the continuation of antebellum oppression and are likely part of the reason why no substantial attempts to overcome the system of white supremacy were attempted until the beginning of the twentieth century. Enduring their continued oppression was a choice forced onto them through knowing what they could face upon resisting. Daniel Lipscomb explains this most succinctly, if perhaps acrimoniously, in his testimony: “A burnt child fears the fire” (KK Report, vol. 3: 430).

References

KK Report. U.S. Congress. Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee on the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. Vols.1-13. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872.

Slave Narratives.  Federal Writers’ Project. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. Vols. 1-14. Unpublished manuscript, 1936-1938. Retrieved from the Library of Congress on Sep 21, 2020. 

Berg, Manfred. Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011.

Emberton, Carole. Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South After the Civil War. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879. Baton Rouge, London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Kosary, Rebecca A. “”To Punish and Humiliate the Entire Community”: White Violence Perpetrated Against African-American Women in Texas, 1865-1686.” In Howell, Kenneth W., ed. Still the Arena of Civil War, 327–51. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2012.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf distributed by Random House, 1979.

Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Rosen, Hannah. Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Images

Header: “Visit of the Ku-Klux”. Engraving drawn by Frank Bellew, published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 16, no. 791 (1872 Feb. 24), p. 160. {{PD-US}}

“Mississippi Ku-Klux”. First published in Harper’s Weekly January 27, 1872. {{PD-US}}

“Worse than Slavery”. Wood engraving by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s weekly, v. 18, no. 930 (1874 Oct. 24), p. 878. Library of Congress.

About the Author:

Max Gaida is a graduate student in North American Studies at the University of Cologne. He is writing his master’s thesis on the policing of and by freedpeople during the Reconstruction era. His research interests include the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the history of anti-urbanism, and the philosophy of history. He aspires to pursue a Ph.D. in American History. You can contact him via email or on twitter @MaxGGaida.


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