The Klan hood and the notebook–Part 2: what do we (or should we) learn from a dirty old hood?

From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

Conceding that comments written in the notebook are written for public consumption, they nonetheless reveal a great deal about how the public sees the Klan hood, the people who might have worn it, and even the museum that has put it on display.

The staff at the Fredericksburg Area Museum opted for minimalist, neutral interpretation of the hood in its adjacent label copy, clearly putting the emphasis on the question, “What does it mean to you?”

As a way to provoke a renewed sense of social consciousness (at least as expressed in the notebook), this approach has been exceedingly successful. But does this constitute “mission accomplished?” Are the assumptions visitors make about hood accurate?  Do they bring enough knowledge to the artifact to truly understand it? Does it matter that visitors leave the display with little greater understanding of the role the Klan played in early 20th century America, and Fredericksburg in particular?

In interpretation, provoking an emotional response or moral outrage in visitors is the low-hanging fruit. On a battlefield, for example, it’s fairly easy to bring people to tears, for the stories there are unspeakably sad. So too at Wounded Knee, Birkenau and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which all provoke outrage too. Is the value of these places (or the Klan hood) rooted in their ability to renew a sense of societal virtue and moral direction? How can you read the notation from the young student who declared, with obvious patriotic passion, that after seeing the hood, she wanted to grow up to fight hate crimes–because, she was reminded, “they still happen today”–and not conclude that the exhibit has done good beyond a thousand more traditional and forgettable displays (including every single one of the hundreds that I have done)?

It’s clear from the notebook that people’s reaction to the hood is derived from its association with terror and violence, perpetrated by people who were, as one visitor called them, “cowards, ignorant, inhuman.”

Certainly many were, but by reducing the Klan hood to a simple (though often valid) association with violence and barbarity, aren’t visitors missing something important, something perhaps even more important than the capacity of individuals to be evil?

The label for the hood vaguely says the item was “used at a time when the KKK experienced a resurgence in popularity in the United States.” Unsaid, presumably, is that this was the 1920s, when membership in the Klan soared to more than 4,000,000 members across the nation. The governor of Indiana was a Klansman. Klansmen in Fredericksburg formed their own group in 1924 (and thus begot the hood and other items in the museum’s collection). The Klan was mainstream and anti-union, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and racist.

The same year a Klan group organized in Fredericksburg, the state of Virginia passed its vile Racial Integrity Act, intended to make racial purity government policy.

A restroom door from Falmouth, on display at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

The point is, the brief rise of the Klan in the 1920s in America, Virginia and Fredericksburg was not the act of crazed individuals, but part of a political movement that would leave a legacy that endured for decades. Shouldn’t visitors know that in fact the hood on display was probably not worn by a bloodthirsty fanatic wielding torch and rope, but rather by a man who might have lived the next block over, owned a shop downtown, played with his grandchildren, sat on the school board, and whose only overt racial act was to vote for politicians who institutionalized white supremacy–and that he was joined by hundreds of other men just like him? In some ways, isn’t that more frightening?

It’s an interesting conundrum. Is the provocation of an emotional, moral response a worthy end goal of an exhibit like this? Or should we challenge visitors to go beyond their basic emotional reactions (sometimes based on incomplete or inaccurate assumptions) and foster a greater understanding of history, the artifact, and the society that produced it? Can we do that AND still expect people to have the moralistic emotional responses they have had?

And what of the outrage the exhibit provoked toward the museum–the visitors who were offended that the label copy was far too neutral, that it needed to declare and demonstrate the hate-filled nature of the Klan? Does a museum have a responsibility to assert the immorality (in modern terms) associated with an object like that?

This is fascinating stuff, and these are timely questions.  The museum staff will soon be reconsidering the Civil Rights exhibit and, especially, the display and interpretation of the Klan hood. I expect they’d be grateful for whatever input readers of Fredericksburg Remembered might have to offer.

Whatever the outcome, I hope that the $1.50 notebook will remain part of the equation. In many ways, it’s more valuable than the hood itself.

5 thoughts on “The Klan hood and the notebook–Part 2: what do we (or should we) learn from a dirty old hood?

  1. “Does a museum have a responsibility to assert the immorality (in modern terms) associated with an object like that?”
    A moving target, especially for exhibits that will be there for possibly several generations. Each generation puts it’s own explanation for events, on events or artifacts displayed. As we have seen with some of the interpretations of the battlefields, what is “acceptable” can change over time. I can see where a mininalist explanation might be better, allowing the visitor to judge for themselves.

  2. I would agree except in this instance, the KKK had one specific, unambiguous objective: white supremacy. There are no alternative explanations on how to describe or interpret their clearly stated goals in part because they are still active and their goals are still the same skewed, hatemongering goals. In the case of battlefields, we have to rely on what was written by the participants because they are now all dead; therein lies the subjective interpretations. Subject to one’s upbringing, education, geography, etc.

  3. A minimalist response may be appropriate for casual visitors to a museum, but the fact remains that most people have a visceral, yet uninformed view of the Klan at that time.

    The Klan did not stand for white supremacy. It stood for separation of the races which, at that time, was viewed as appropriate by society as a whole regardless of race — for example, many African Americans believed that it was wrong for people to marry outside of their race.

    The issues that caused the Klan to grow in popularity are still with us today. There are ongoing debates about immigration, civil rights (especially gay rights), the role of women in society, religious pluralism, etc. where points of view advocated by today’s Klan are also shared by large portions of mainstream society.

  4. I am a Civil War Battlefied Buff (you might call it) and visited many sites North & South the last 25 years. I came upon this page simply browsing the internet. The fact that the hood and the notebook exists shows a sense of historical obligation that a museum would want to exude. Generations of young adults coming across such an item will undoubtly be cause for them to research further into the Klan’s history (right or wrong depends on ones point of view). I personally think that displaying the artifact is a good thing.
    Take into consideration that here we are 150 years forward of the Civil War and I have read many stories that have facts and insights wrong. People try to re-write or eliminate history daily. Preservation of one’s ideals is essential to understanding public feelings and thoughts at that time. Germany has gone to great expense to minimalize the Nazi Regime in Germany to the point that only few places exists that one can see the effects it had on its country and world. Displaying the hood (this is the only one I seen on display) speaks volumes and brings to life past history. Slave Chains and Auction Blocks have a deep effect also to those who understand their meaning.White or Black.
    The notebook, I think will finally reveal it’s value 100 years from this time. It will portray what visitor’s today still feel on history from 20-150+ years ago.
    Life values and thoughts by people in the world characteristically change decade to decade.(Especially with a war-torn world which we live in-It wasn’t long ago that Iraq was looked upon as a US ally). The notebook will earmark a time in history in which we can get a picture of societies thoughts (if the writings within are taken seriously); just as we get a broad picture of the Civil War and its meaning by the writings of those who were living at that time. Right or wrong.

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