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Klan once part of Columbus


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I’m pretty sure Bill Carter wouldn’t recognize the Columbus of 2013.

A lot has changed in the 89 years since his death.

Certainly the streets and buildings of the city where he was born have been dramatically transformed, but the thing that most likely would stop him in his tracks would have to be the people.

Were he alive and able to walk down Washington Street today, he would be face to face with a rainbow of colors and cultures — blacks, Hispanics, Asians, all mixed in with whites like him.

Looked at from another perspective, I imagine that if Columbus’ 2013 population was to go back to Carter’s time in the 1910s and 1920s, they wouldn’t recognize their city, either.

Practically, all of the faces they would have seen would have been white.

Carter died July 30, 1923. He was one of two passengers killed in a car that was struck by a railroad switch engine and caboose on Third Street near Lafayette Avenue.

His death was major news in The Evening Republican the next day, but it was his funeral two days later that also drew front-page attention.

The headline on the story might make some 21st century Columbus residents shudder.

“Robed Klansmen bury victim of Monday’s smash.”

Carter was buried by his fellow members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The story reported that “between 35 and 40 members of the Ku Klux Klan of this city, in robes of white, laid to rest the remains of William Carter, automobile accident victim, in the Newbern Cemetery this afternoon following impressive ceremonies held at the Newbern Methodist Church and with appropriate exercises at the grave.”

The Klan funeral was not the first of its kind. The story noted that two others had been conducted in the county earlier.

The reporter went on to describe what happened in the church.

“The services were the regular ritualistic services of the Klan. The mysterious appearance of Klansmen, the silent forms moving about the church and cemetery, together with a most eloquent but touching sermon by the Rev. B.K. Johnson, minister of the East Columbus Methodist Church and a beautiful tribute by the Klan chaplain all contributed to make the sorrowful occasion a most unusual one.”

There apparently was a prescribed procedure for Klan funerals, according to the story.

“Klansmen, in their long hooded robes of white, filed into the church singly and, with arms folded, marched down the aisles. When the last Klansman had taken his place, as if by a signal, the hooded figures were simultaneously seated.”

Music was provided by a quartet of robed Klansmen, both at the church and at the gravesite.

“At the cemetery the Klansmen, their white robes in the sun making a most unusual picture, circled about the grave. ... The casket was carried by Klansmen and lowered into the grave with Klan services.”

The clipping has been encased in a family Bible owned by Betty Lane of Columbus, a distant descendant of Carter, who expresses shame at her relative’s association with the organization known mostly today for a literal reign of terror waged against blacks, Jews, Catholics and other minorities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Betty also is someone who knows the importance of preserving history, even the kind that can bring shame to families.

“I remember that his headstone was a considerable cause of embarrassment for some family members,” she recalled. “It carried the Klan symbol. One relative was so troubled that he asked for a chisel so that he could go to the cemetery to remove it. He was told by other family members not to do that. It might have been embarrassing for the family, but it was history, and we simply can’t run from our history.”

Betty also puts her ancestor’s allegiance to the Klan in the context of the times.

“That was a time when the Klan literally controlled Bartholomew County,” she said. “If you wanted a good job, you had better be a member of the Klan.”

There’s plenty of evidence to back up Betty’s description of Bartholomew County in the 1920s.

Back in the 1970s, workers readying a Columbus home for sale came across a pile of papers. Among those papers was a remarkable document — a 1926 membership list for the Columbus chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

It was turned over to the Bartholomew County Historical Society and, as the county historian, I had the opportunity to go over the list.

I counted the names.

There were more than 1,200.

That was almost 10 percent of the population of Columbus, and only adult males were listed. Presumably, many had wives and children who shared their beliefs.

Even though most, if not all of those on the list, were dead by the time I read it, several of the names were familiar. One belonged to a former mayor of the city.

In the 1920s, the Klan was not a shadow organization. It operated completely in the open. Its members met regularly at a lodge downtown on Washington Street.

In 1928, The Evening Republican reported that the local group had welcomed in the new year by burning a huge cross on Washington Street.

Obviously, we have come far since that time. The Klan and its connection to Columbus and Bartholomew County are distant memories, ones that some people would prefer be erased from history.

Ironically, someone has taken steps to erase Carter’s association with the notorious organization. When he went to the cemetery to take a photo of Carter’s headstone, Republic photographer Joe Harpring noticed that a symbol in the middle of the headstone had been removed, leaving only a small rut.

When I mentioned that discovery to Betty, she assumed that the relative who earlier had that in mind but been dissuaded, had carried out his original mission.

That’s doubtful. Mark Romine, who has been tending the Newbern cemetery for several years, recalls seeing the Klan symbol on the Carter headstone eight or nine years ago.

“It had to have been removed after that,” he said earlier this week. “There’s no telling who could have done that.”

I guess that leaves us with a pretty simple question: Was history served or tarnished by its removal?

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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