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For teachers

Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

An artifact of racism: a Connecticut Klan robe

a Connecticut Klan robe as stark reminder. See learning resources here.

Ku Klux Klan robe, c. 1928 (The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford) A Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. William Frank Mitchell, Executive Director & Curator at Large, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) - [Narrator] We're in the Motley Study Center, part of the Amistad Center for Art and Culture, housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, looking at one of the most troubling objects that I've ever worked with. This is a robe from the Ku Klux Klan that dates to about 1928. I think in the north we have this reassuring myth that the Klan is of the south, but this is from Connecticut, this is from New England. - [Narrator] One of the things we'd like to remind people is that there was slavery here in Connecticut and then Klan was active here as well and was a significant presence into the 20th century. - [Narrator] Most of the videos that Smarthistory focuses on are looking at subjects that are things of beauty, paintings and sculptures that are technically excellent, that are intellectually profound. This is an object that is very different but it is a part of our material culture. It is a part of our history and it is a history of terror that should not be forgotten. - [Narrator] This came into the collection pretty recently and there was an intense conversation about why we would have it, what it would mean to bring it to this collection that is primarily a resource for celebrating black history and the achievements of African Americans. But this is a collection that represents the highlights and the struggles of African Americans and others to push for freedom and equity across the centuries. And so we have an obligation to celebrate the stories that are important but also to confront and to challenge. - [Narrator] Maybe it makes sense to spend a moment giving a quick history of the Ku Klux Klan. - [Narrator] I certainly think of the Klan and it's earliest moments as being local and tied to the history of enslaved blacks needing to be controlled and managed as a constantly resisting and struggling population of workers. In the years after emancipation we see the Klan emerge as a force but still a local force. Still doing the work to control people and not thinking of themselves as this vast national conspiracy. - [Narrator] This transformation into a national fraternal order is helped along by Hollywood. - [Narrator] In the late 19th century the images that we have of Klan activity present us with carnival characteristics, people with big puppet heads or animal heads and furs and that does change as we get into the 20th century and an important impetus for that is The Birth of a Nation, the film and the costuming and the people's realization that that could be appropriated and put to use in daily life. - [Narrator] And so in the wake of D. W. Griffith's film which is often credited with being the first feature length film in American history. A film, by the way that was shown in the White House, a film that enjoyed broad popular acclaim and is often credited with reviving the Klan and heroizing it, has the effect of creating this national organization of terror. And it is at about this time that the Klan becomes a centralized organization with centralized control. - [Narrator] Griffith's film helps to galvanize the NAACP as people are out there protesting this film and working hard to keep it from being shown in places. It also perpetuates the myth of rape as the cause of lynching, so lots of activism around that as well. So for black activists and people who are committed to the civil rights struggle, it is a watershed moment and while we don't think of it as also giving birth to the Klan costume, it's also doing that work. - [Narrator] It's important to remember that the Klan was not only intent on forcing African Americans as it had so much in the 19th century but was reacting against the influx of immigrants, especially of Catholics, of Jews, of Eastern and especially Southern Europeans. But the focus remains clearly on enforcement against African Americans. It is a movement that arose against the autonomy that was claimed by former enslaved peoples. - [Narrator] The Klan at it's root is definitely a white supremacist project. Whether it's controlling and dominating people of African descent in the south who were either enslaved workers or free workers and trying to make sure that they either stay put or they worked in a certain way or remained poor (laughs) or lost property. Or whether it's looking at new immigrants, who the Klan did not see as white, showing up to challenge their domination. It's still a white supremacist project. - [Narrator] This robe was meant to transform it's wearer into a member, into a symbol, into a non-individualized member of a larger group. I can tell from the stitching, from the cloth, this was a mass produced object, meant to be inexpensive and as a result to reach the widest possible audience. - [Narrator] It's the cheapest model. It's a basic cotton without a lot of ornamentation. We have seen images of the catalog where you could purchase this piece. It's really smartly designed. - [Narrator] One of the things that it was intended to achieve was to create a sense of a larger than life figure. And one of the ways that that was created was the addition of the cape to accentuate the breadth of the shoulders of the wearer. - [Narrator] It gives permission for the person who's wearing it to act outside of societal boundaries, that they no longer need to follow rules, that they can act violently without fear of retribution. - [Narrator] We haven't had this piece in the collection for very long. We've had it on exhibition, it's been a prompt for other institutions around the region that have had complicated material that they haven't shown, to bring those things out and have conversations about what it means to have racist material from early 19th century, what it means to have Klan robes and that's been a really great thing to just learn from each other about what these things mean to Connecticut history. It's also allowed us to talk about things that we feel we need to talk about here in Hartford and in Connecticut and to push us as an institution. And given what's happened in America in the past two to three years, it's been important to think about confronting these bigger questions. So when David Duke gets to stand on the stage at HBCU in Louisiana as a candidate, given his history with the Klan, it's important that we have a Klan robe in our collection and we're able to remind people that the things you think you may remember about the Klan, well these are the things that we know about the Klan and as people are marching in Charlottesville and talking about blood and soil with tiki torches, it's important to have these artifacts that we can go to and remind people of that history because it's just too easy to forget. (lively piano music)