by Scott Wheeler
Tucked in her bed for a good night’s sleep, a young Laura (Lizzotte) Willard was abruptly shaken from her sleep by her father.
“They’re burning the crosses again,” Willard remembers her father telling her. Gathered in front of their home on Elm Street in Newport, the family could see three crosses burning up the hill in back of where the East School stood at the time. “There was one big one and two smaller ones.”
“My parents were so frightened,” the now late Willard recalled. “They were wound up.”
Being about ten or 12 years old at the time, she relied on her parents to explain to her what these unnerving events were all about. “They said it’s the Ku Klux Klan again,” she said. “My parents were so upset.”
When most people think about the Ku Klux Klan and cross burning, they think about the South and the persecution of African Americans following the Civil War. The Klan had a different set of subjects to harass in Vermont, especially along the Vermont–Quebec border—French Catholics.
“I was told that some people didn’t like Catholics because they feared that they were beginning to take over the area,” Willard said. “They thought they were getting too much power.”
“That was a lot of years ago,” she said. Gone is the East School, replaced by the Newport City Elementary School, and the treeless knoll in back of the school is now a mixture of homes and a mature forest. Trees have replaced the berry patches where Willard and her family enjoyed berry picking.
The short-lived KKK movement that stirred emotions during the mid and late 1920s here in the Kingdom and the rest of Vermont was part of a larger national Klan movement. Born in the South in 1866 following the end of the Civil War and freedom for the slaves, the Klan at that time focused their hatred and persecution primarily on the newly freed slaves. Following a lull in Klan activities, William J. Simmons, a former Baptist minister resurrected it at a gathering at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915. The revitalized Klan expanded its scope of hatred far beyond African Americans to almost anyone who was nonwhite, non-Protestant, and not American by birth. The Klan’s slogan was “America for Americans.”
The Klan generated members by instilling fear in people, conjuring up conspiracy theories that African Americans, Jews, and Catholics, or people of other groups that the white supremacy group found undesirable, were destroying the moral fabric of the country. They went so far as to contrive plots about how the groups of their scorn were working quietly to overthrow the country.
Klan organizers arrived in Vermont during the early years of the 1920s with an active Klan presence showing its face about 1924. The organizers wove stories about how those among them, particularly the Catholics, were responsible for every perceived community and moral ill. Although the majority of Vermonters apparently ignored the slanderous stories about their neighbors, others fell under the spell of the Klan.
There are numerous newspaper accounts of Klan chapters around the state hosting picnics and other gatherings, often dressing in the standard uniform of the KKK: white robes and white hoods to hide their identities when desired. A smaller number of the membership took part in cross burnings. Burning crosses served a number of purposes—a celebration of the Klan, to remind people of their presence, and as a tool to intimidate groups that the Klan deemed undesirable.
By the middle of the 1920s, the pinnacle of the KKK movement in the United States, the group is believed to have numbered about four to five million strong. However, because of the secretive nature of the organization, no accurate number will probably ever be known. Estimates of Vermonters who belonged to the Klan vary greatly as well, ranging from 2,000 to 14,000 members. As with the national membership, it is believed that only a small percentage were actively involved in Klan activities. But those who did take part in the activities spread their brand of hatred and fear in the communities, many of them hiding as cowards in the dark of night, or hiding their identities under hoods.
Another thing that is known about the Klan and its members is that many Vermonters rebuked them and refused to tolerate their ignorance. The Vermont Legislature considered a bill prohibiting anybody older than 12 years old wearing a mask or a disguise. Some communities worked to prohibit Klan activities. On an individual basis, some members of the community refused to do business with businesses or people associated with the Klan. Strong emotions about the Klan sometimes divided communities, pitting sympathizers against non-sympathizers.
As Willard looks back on those dark days in the Kingdom when a contingent of strangers and community residents rose up, donned robes and hoods, and burned crosses that lit the night sky, she said it’s unbelievable that such a thing ever happened in rural Vermont, an area that is, and was, filled with people who pride themselves on getting along with each other.
“I was brought up to get along with people,” Willard said. “I was told if you can’t say something good about your neighbors, don’t say anything at all.”
Although Elm Street was largely a Protestant section of town, she said that people of all faiths mingled freely with each other. Ethnicity or faith was never an issue there or elsewhere in the city. Although her parents were strong Catholics, she said they taught their six children to respect other people’s religious beliefs. They had no qualms about allowing her to tag along with a friend to her church. Willard said it emotionally hurt her parents knowing that a segment of the community was trying to send them a message that they weren’t wanted—a message that was in stark contrast to how they were treated in the community.
Because of her young age at the time, Willard said she knows very little of the area’s Klan activities, other than the cross burnings that she witnessed. However, it’s her understanding that Klan members and sympathizers were in the vast minority in the area and that the burning crosses, although they attracted onlookers, were not a welcome sight.
“I don’t think the city liked the cross burnings,” she said. “But they didn’t know what to do. I still get the shivers thinking about those burning crosses.”
The now late Ken Scott of Derby also remembers the cross burnings. “It was quite a thing,” Scott said, reflecting on the 1920s when he watched cross burnings on the same hill as Willard.
“There were three crosses, one big one and two small ones. Of course we were little kids and we didn’t know what was really going on. People told us that it was the Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t know what they were and who belonged.”
Unlike Willard who lived near the Klan’s gathering spot, Scott lived a mile or so away on the Bluff Road section of Newport. He witnessed the blazing crosses while visiting a family member’s home on what is now Sias Avenue.
At the time the family member’s backyard provided a clear view to watch the fires as they slowly burned themselves out. “Behind the house was all open field straight up to the top of the hill,” Scott said. Almost 80 years later, the backyard and beyond is the site of a number of homes, and that barren knoll where the crosses once burned is now forested with mature trees.
When there was a cross burning on the hill, word quickly spread around town, especially at school. “Of course since we were all little kids, if one kid knew about it they all knew about it.”
By the end of the 1930s, with the country locked in the grips of the Great Depression, membership in the Klan dropped dramatically. Could people no longer afford the dues? Were they too busy trying to survive tough times? Or had they learned the error of their ways? Most likely all these components played a role in the virtual demise of the Klan. Although the Klan lives in the United States today, the numbers of members are barely mentionable. And instead of people jostling to join their ranks, most Americans look at them with scorn, unwilling to buy into their brand of bigotry and hatred.