Methodology example – 1921 Klan initiation

One of the issues with historical research is being aware that even documentary sources can have a bias. Let’s look at an example of two articles where, although they appear to cover the same event (the 1921 August 31 Klan initiation) they present the events in dramatically different ways.

Tulsa Tribune, Thursday, September 1, 1921
(part of front page was damaged so there are some lacunae in the text)

“[3]00 Klansmen Take Oath at Cross of Fire

[S]ilent Empire Swears in New Members

Like a spectral army, a crowd of [m]en estimated at 1,500 stole out of [Tu]lsa in more than 300 automobiles [la]st night and assembled at a lonely [sp]ot surrounded by overhanging hills [wh]ere Tulsa’s chapter of the Ku [Kl]ux Klan held what is believed to [be] its first initiation.

About 3 o’clock yesterday after[no]on a reporter for The Tribune re-[ce]ived a telephone call. The voice [se]emed to be that of a business man. […] was quick, sharp and to the point. [T]he reporter was informed to be at [th]e corner of Third and Main street [a]t 8 o’clock last night and he would [b]e tipped off to one of the biggest [stor]ies that ever “broke” in Tulsa.

The reporter was inquisitive but [c]ould elicit no further information [ot]her than the assurance that the [pe]rson talking was reliable and the [st]ory worth while.

It lacked two minutes to 8 by the [re]porter’s watch. The theater [cr]owd was bulging in the streets and [th]e stream of automobile traffic [po]uring across the intersection at [Th]ird and Main was growing stead[ily] heavier. A man tapped the re[po]rter in the shoulder.

“Are you The Tribune man?” he [as]ked. Receiving the affirmative re[ply] he said, “Get into my car and I w[il]l drive around to the office. I [ha]ve some big inside stuff on the […]li[…]ation you are interested in [b]ut can’t afford for it to be know [th]at [I g]ave it out.”

Reporter Blindfolded.

They walked around the corner and climbed in a big Cadillac roadster. The reporter noticed that the [cur]tains were up. The car dashed [ra]pidly west and stopped in the [sha]dows Sixth Street and Denver Avenue, when one of the men said “We [are] going to blindfold you and take [you] where you can get a real story. [You] wont’ be harmed but you had [bet]ter keep still. You are at liberty [to] write about all you see on this […]”

The automobile traveled at what [se]emed to be a rather high rate of speed [fo]r a long while. The occupants of [th]e car were silent. Sitting between [t]wo of them on the rear seat, the [re]porter could tell that the car went [up] hill and down hill many times [an]d made a number of turns as it traveled.

Finally it stopped. The car door [op]ened and a few seconds the blindfold was removed. Only the [u]nknown driver was there. He in[s]tructed the reporter to make him[s]elf at home and said he would re[tu]rn later.

The car stood on the brink of a [hi]ll overlooking a little valley sur[ro]unded on all sides by hills. Several [hu]ndred yards away, a strange sight. In the heart [of] the valley [h]undreds of automobiles were as[se]mbled in a great circle, The head[li]ghts of all converged on a spot [wi]thin where nearly 100 men in [th]e long white robes of the invi[si]ble empire stood ghostlike beneath [a] giant tree.

The Fiery Cross

Standing in the glare of the powerful lights their forms were distinctly outlined. The reporter saw the hood and the gown barred with the signs that have come to be known [as] the mark of the Ku Klux Klan. [A] tall man stood directly beneath [th]e tree. Beside him was a giant [fi]ery cross held high by a man in [si]milar garb. Standing near it [w]as a great American flag unfurled. On the outside of the circle of cars were other automobiles at intervals with their lights streaming outward into the darkness. They

(At this point most of the text is too badly damaged to get anything be the last half of each line.)

…ftly on guard. Past
…the spectral figures under
…nd the giant cross that
…e a thing alive as its
…flame leaped and play-
…them. The tall man ad-
…few paces. Rapidly men
…civilian garb and wear…”

You get the point.

Compare this to:

Tulsa Daily World, Friday, September 2, 1921

“Klux Klan initiates

Thirty candidates were initiated into the mysteries of the “invisible empire” at the first open air meeting of the klansmen held in an open field 11 miles south of town on the Broken Arrow road at 9.30 Wednesday night.

The cars containing about three hundred and fifty members of the Ku Klux Klan left Fifth and Cincinnati at 7:30 o’clock. Armed guards stations along the road halted the cars for inspection and a second inspection was had upon arriving at the scene of operations. The cars were parked in a circle with all lights out except those with high powered spotlights which furnished the illumination for the business session of the klansmen.

The proceedings were the same as the previous meetings held in Convention hall. Guns were carried so that the klansmen could be prepared for any emergency that might arise, one of the participants said.”

So, the real question we get from this is – What previous meetings? Clearly more research is required since virtually every academic source has referred to this as the first Klan event in Tulsa.

KKK Roster

(This was originally posted on my Livejournal, but I have moved it here and updated it).

The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives has in its collections a roster of the KKK in Tulsa for the years 1928-1932. It is part of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) papers, 1924-1995, bulk 1924-1936. Coll. No. 1993.001.

Since 1993, it has been the Department’s policy has been to not show the original to anyone, but let them use the photocopy, out of concern that it might be damaged.   This roster was, according to legend, one of four, and only covers the declining years of the Tulsa Klan.

In 2011, Special Collections had it digitally transcribed.

Using that transcription I was able to make the following determinations:

In 1928 registered membership was 975 members, consisting of 720 Democrats, 251 Republicans, 3 Independents.

In 1929, membership was 240.

In 1930, membership was 199.

In 1931, 87.

In 1932, 28.

There are 16 memberships with no discernible year.

Conversely, membership in 1921 (August 31, after the riot), the Tulsa Klan enrolled its first 300 members. By 1924, when the Governor declared martial law in Tulsa, there were reputedly upwards of 10,000 members, not including the women’s auxiliary and children’s groups.