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Making Sense Of Family Stories

vintage photo album
Flickr Creative Commons

Corrie Van Ausdal |Community Voices

During the holidays, when families gather, there can be a chance to share family stories and ask questions about family history.

Community Voices producer Corrie Van Ausdal spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a story passed down in her family. It's about her grandmother, her great-grandfather and the time they went to a Klu Klux Klan rally in Arcanum, Ohio a century ago.

My grandma was almost 105 when she died in March of this year. She was a retired English teacher and the keeper of family memories. When she was 96, a StoryCorps booth visited Dayton, and my dad brought her there to record her stories about growing up in Arcanum, Ohio, a mostly German Protestant village with red brick buildings and tree lined streets.

It was during the StoryCorps interview that my dad asked his mother how she ended up at a Klu Klux Klan rally.

"What happened was that one night dad had said, 'Well, let's go to church.' I was 10," my grandmother said. "All of a sudden I looked around and there were men in white sheets with hoods over their faces and heads. And I said, 'What's that?" As the men came around, I'd say, Oh, that's Mr. So-and-so. And I could name almost all of them, even under the sheets. By the way they walked or their stature. And after that, we drove out to the east edge of town, and they burned a cross. And I wanted to know what that was about. And Dad explained very carefully that it was anti Negro anti Catholic and anti Democrat, because we were Democrats. And I said, why? And Dad said, 'It's ignorance and hatred. And I wanted you to know.' And I've never forgotten the fact that it was his church. I've told a number of my friends over the years because they think that the Klan was in the South and there it was in my hometown."

My grandma lived on her own for many years. Her memories were rich with facts and details until she moved into a nursing home at the age of ninety-nine. And the days became the same as she began to lose her memories, I began to wonder about them and this one in particular. I asked William Trollinger, professor of history in the History and Religious Studies Department at the University of Dayton, to help me put this event into its historical context.

"The Klan was huge in Ohio and in particular in this section of Ohio," he says. "Started in 1915 and they hired a PR firm. And so this is PR through and through. And they were phenomenally successful in recruiting people."

I told him my grandma's story.

"I go around the states speaking about the Klan," says Trollinger. "It is striking how often I hear variations of this story when I speak. And each is usually after I speak and then people come up and talk. And it is a sort of Atticus Finch sort of thing, 'Yes, Okay. We were there, but we were really opposed.' I don't know what to do with that. I can understand being embarrassed at having participated in such a hateful organization. I get that. But I'm skeptical."

There was one part of the story that's still confused me, though. Why did they go to the second location?

Couldn't the message about ignorance, intolerance be explained without taking a 10 year old to a cross burning? I asked Hassan Kwame Jeffries, who is an associate professor of history in the Department of History at the Ohio State University for insight.

"The cross burning is a social event," he says. "The politics happen in a meeting. So you may disagree with some of the politics, but you're certainly okay with the people. And that's why you show up at the burning with your daughter. And you're not afraid of the people there because they're your people. You could possibly disagree with them in some way, shape or form. It doesn't mean that you're turning against them. That doesn't mean that you're faulting them. You could just have a political disagreement with them."

That makes sense to me. Her father was a friend to these men and most likely shared some, if not all, of their beliefs.

"So even the most progressive still believe the white supremacy. The white supremacy is the norm, not only by custom, but by law," says Jeffries.

"The Klan wasn't killing white people because they didn't join the Klan," says William Trollinger. "Your life's not on the line if you say 'I don't think so.' And it wasn't true that all whites in an area would join the Klan because that's simply not true. There were white people who spoke out against the Klan."

And then last May, the Klan showed up in downtown Dayton.

There were snipers on rooftops and helicopters circling overhead. The 10 or so Klan members were dressed in ordinary clothes and were barely visible behind concrete barriers, a high chain link fence, news trucks and armed police who faced outward toward the crowds of counter protesters. The line between Klan and anti Klan was clearly drawn, unlike the night a century ago when my young grandmother identified her neighbors by their shoes under their robes.

My family have always shared this story with pride. But what I've learned is that my great grandfather had options. He could participate, observe or resist, and he did not resist, at least not any louder than a little girl's voice in a quiet church.

This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.