Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Adventures in Reporting #3

During the 10 years I spent writing for one area newspaper in the 1990s and up until 2004, I was painfully aware of one fact about that particular community, which was not where I live, that troubled me, perplexed me, and appalled me.

The K K K (K u   K l u x   K l a n) had a strong presence there.

The county seat was what is called a "sundown town." That means it was all-white, and all-white on purpose. During my time in the county I once saw a picture of a sign that used to be within the town environs.

It said something like, "N------, don't let the sun set on you in this town."

While that was a long time ago, some things still have not changed. The town was then, and still is, a very white community.

It's a place where Confederate Flags fly proudly from many poles. The Stars and Bars line the roads. They're a people hardened by life in the mountains who distrust government and anything or anyone different from them. The only reason some people would speak to me was because I knew my history and could eventually point to some 7th-generation relative who might or might not be a common ancestor with them or a friend.

Its the kind of place where a grand dragon, an organization leader, flies his flag up in the hollows.

While I was over there, in 1998, an out-of-state group gathered at Fenwick Mines in the Jefferson Forest in Craig. The event made headlines but there was no mischief.

At least not that year.

That changed in 1999. That year a black man ventured into town to work on the new grocery store project. He took room and board with a 74-year-old local man.

Threats followed, in person and by phone. A sign in a neighboring yard told the black man to go home, except in worse language.

And then someone set a cross afire in the yard.

A group of women from my alma mater, Hollins University, went to New Castle and organized a peace rally.

Because I was a freelance reporter and could turn stories down, I did not write about these events but instead turned them over to someone on staff. Someone who didn't venture into the area weekly and who would be covered by the employer's insurance should the tires on their car be slashed or, heaven forbid, they turned up dead.

Yeah, I wimped out.

To say these events frightened me would be an understatement. Did they influence my work? I am sure they did. For a long time I could not conduct an interview without wondering, are you someone who would hide behind a white hood?

These memories came back to me on Sunday. My husband, as he always does, was reading the farm machinery and auction listings.

He called me over to look at one of the advertisements (which you can also see on the link).

"Look, they're advertising K K K memorabilia," he said.

Listed under collectibles it advertised  an "original 1925 ... charter" and a full suit with a patch and other memorabilia.

I felt the distaste and surprise rise in my stomach. My mind flashed to those days in 1999 when I did not feel safe.

And up for auction one finds pieces of Americana, actual proof that such horrid things really did occur in this country, and still occur.

All I can do is shake my head. What a society we are.


  1. When we first moved here, and after we opened the business in Salem, someone actually handed my husband a business card, inviting him to a meeting! We were so freaked out, not only because all the stories about the south we had heard might be true, but because we're the very people (Catholics) that they would torture. Needless to say he didn't go and the guy who gave him the card died not long after...

  2. How brave those women from Hollins were. I always wonder if I would find the courage to face down such evil people. I truly believe: 'Evil will prevail when good men do nothing'. It's certainly easier to do something when you aren't alone. The more good people stand united against evil, the less evil has the brass face to parade itself in public.

  3. Now you've hit on something I've wondered about. I know of the history of the KKK in this area, but locals are not willing to share much -- maybe because I'm officially a Yankee. There must be a rich vein of history and struggle. Some black families have been here for centuries and they must have stories to tell. I've met some very fine black people and wonder what makes them reticent.


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