“The Klan” was always a very feared and controversial organization from it’s beginnings in American history. Though not well known, Roswell had its own version of the KKK (Pioneer Klan No. 15) from 1924 to 1934, reaching its peak in 1927.
According to an article by local historian Elvis Fleming: “The first Ku Klux Klan started in Tennessee in 1865 to intimidate freed slaves and to resist the government by scalawags and carpetbaggers. The Klan died out in the 1870s, went dormant, and arose again 50 years later, known as the ‘second’ Klan.”
Nationally, historians believe that the second Klan started in response to the hit silent movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” in 1915. That film portrayed former slave men as evil sexual predators, and it glorified the first Ku Klux Klan. The second Klan was chartered in 1915 and continued until 1944. It used the same code words and costumes as the first Klan, plus it introduced the burning of “fiery crosses.”
“Rumors abounded for several months in Roswell that National and local organizers were working to form a local Klan chapter,” according to newspaper accounts. In early January 1924, a large number of cars “…came down from South Hill at 1:30 in the morning. It is believed now that this was a meeting of the Klan,” the Roswell Daily Record reported.
All doubt was removed on Feb. 2, 1924, when a “flaming red cross” was burned on South Hill just east of Main Street between Summit and McGaffey streets. A large number of cars were observed in the vicinity, which the Alamogordo News declared was the first known meeting of the Klan in Roswell. However, the Roswell Daily Record found that the cars were those of onlookers and not Klan members. It could be speculated that the cross-burning was in celebration of the imminent granting of the Roswell Klan’s charter, which was approved in Atlanta three days later.
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Roswell’s “fiery cross” was made of iron pipes wrapped in burlap saturated with oil. The fire department went out to check on it because it had been reported as a burning telephone pole.
The Roswell Daily Record report of Klan activities in it’s Feb. 4, 1924, edition seemed to carry of a disapproving tone:
“Local and city officers this morning repeated their warning that the state law prohibiting hooded or robed persons gathering or parading will be enforced to the letter!
Just what a Klan organization hopes or expects to accomplish in Roswell is not known, since no official statement has come from the body.”
The New Mexico legislature in 1923 passed a law, referenced in the article, that made it unlawful to appear in the Klan’s uniform in public places. However, the law did not “…prevent the burning of fiery crosses on privately owned or leased premises or in halls rented by the organization,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican, March 3, 1925.
Several other towns in New Mexico preceded Roswell in activating Klan chapters. The local Klans in New Mexico were evidently numbered in the order in which they were chartered, thus giving the Roswell Klan the No. 15. With the records of Klan No. 15 are lists of the charter members of about two dozen local chapters in other towns in the state.
The Roswell Pioneer Klan No. 15 had 60 charter members when it accepted its Charter on Feb. 15, 1924. The requirements to become a member were set forth in the by-laws as follows:
“No person shall be naturalized in this Klan unless he be a white, male, Gentile, native born citizen of the United States of America, who owes no allegiance of any nature to any foreign government, nation, ruler, or person, and who is at or above the age of eighteen years, and a believer in the tenets of the Christian religion, and whose allegiance to the government of the United States of America to the exclusion of all governments, kings, potentates, powers and influence whatsoever, is unquestionable.”
As a group, Klan officers were referred to as “Terrors.” The national Klan leaders devised many words, starting with “K1,” to make the work and the offices of the Klan seem unique and mysterious. The place of meeting, for example, was called a “Klavern,” a regular meeting was a “Klonklave,” dues payments levied on members was a “Klectokon.” An officer called “Kligrapp” (recording secretary) made quarterly reports to national, as well as local Klan officials.
It is possible to generalize about the size of the Roswell clams membership because of all the quarterly reports from 1924 through 1934 are in the records. Members in good standing by the end of the first quarter of 1924 numbered 102. The number kept rising until it exceeded 200 in the first quarter of 1926.
Then about half the members were suspended for nonpayment of dues, but there were provisions for reinstatement. The Klan record keepers devoted a lot of time and space to accounting for the payment of dues and other levies. The qualified membership for the remainder of 1926 fluctuated considerably, from 130 in the third quarter to 264 in the fourth quarter.
The Roswell Klan’s image of itself was that it was something like a lodge. In Klan literature and correspondence, there are frequent references to and comparisons with the Masons. However, the Grand Master of New Mexico Masons issued a statement disclaiming any connection with the Klan, maintaining that Masons of New Mexico were in no way in sympathy with the work or aims of the Ku Klux Klan, nor of any kindred organization. The grandmaster was Lucius Dills, who was formally of Roswell and the first editor of the Roswell Record. His statement, published in the Albuquerque Journal on one July 1922 declared:
Freemasonry has always been the champion of orderly legal processes, and utterly condemns the Ku Klux Klan and other activities that seek or assume to substitute and or mob violence in the stead of constitutional government and the law.
The Roswell community seemed to consider the Klan to be a patriotic organization, and indeed it’s meetings and ceremonies abounded with references to the Constitution and the American flag. Evidence that the Roswell Klan was accepted as a patriotic organization is a photograph of the Klan’s entry in the Cotton Carnival parade in 1926. The float featured people in white – in violation of the 1923 law prohibiting such displays. There were also several U.S. flags. On the side of the float was the message, “Knights and Women of the Ku Klux Klan.” The float also had slogans on the front and rear. The front is illegible, but the rear one reads “100% American.”
The emphasis on God was found throughout the Klan’s ceremonials and to some extent in their actions. A long time church member related how the Klan once interrupted a Sunday evening service at Roswell’s First Baptist Church. The Klansmen in full regalia, marched down the isle and presented an envelope with $500 in it to the pastor. The entire episode was carried out in silence.
A prominent name associated with the Roswell Klan — indeed, a patriarch of the Klan — was Capt. Jason W. James. He was a leading citizen in the community, and he frequently made speeches to the Klan. James was born in Missouri in 1843. During the Civil War, he fought in several Confederate armies, including short stints with the guerrillas led by W. C. Quantrill. He became a close friend of Capt. J. C. Lea, and they both were captains of their own units in Louisiana, at times under the command of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the war, James stayed in Louisiana and tried a number of occupations, none of which succeeded. He joined the KKK when it started in 1865 and was a leader of forces who— among other activities — roamed the countryside at night intimidating former slaves in an effort to prevent them from voting.
Capt. Lea moved to New Mexico Territory where he became the “Father of Roswell.” In 1892, James also moved to Roswell. He succeeded in several economic pursuits, mostly agriculture. When New Mexico Military Institute was re-established in 1898, James took a great interest in the school and furnished rifles and medals for the rifle team.
The Institute dedicated the 1918 “Bronco” annual to Capt. James in appreciation of his efforts on behalf of cadets.
James was no doubt involved when the Roswell Pioneer Klan No. 15 was organized. The members were assigned numbers which were written on their membership cards instead of their names. Captain James number was “one,” he was the only “old Klansman” from the 1870s, and he was not required to pay dues. He was about 80 years old when Klan No. 15 was established, and he was 83 when he became the Exalted Cyclops (leader) of the Roswell Klan in the fall of 1926.
To show him their appreciation and respect for his past and present actions, the Klan on Nov. 4, 1926, awarded him the gold “Hero Cross,” which had Gen. Bedford Forrest’s likeness engraved on one side and the fiery cross on the other.
The membership spiked in 1927, hovering around 350 with a peak of 362 in the second quarter. This sudden growth was apparently a result of the Roswell Klan buying its own place. The location of their meeting place before this is not indicated in the records.
By June 1927, the Roswell Pioneer Klan No. 15 had formed a corporation called Roswell Benevolent Association. This name, and not that of the Klan, was used in all legal matters. The trustees of the Roswell Benevolent Association purchased land on June 6, 1927, two miles east of Main Street on East Pine Lodge Road at Calumet Road. The 49-acre place included a lake which is now dry. The Klan had a Klavern building, but whether it was a new building or remodeled is unknown.
Membership lists show that 508 men were members of the Roswell Klan at one time or another. The numbers of members in good standing suddenly fell from 350 in the last quarter of 1927 to 237 in the first quarter of 1928. There were some brief rallies in 1928 and 1929, but the trend was mostly downward.
On March 19, 1928, when three fiery crosses appeared in various parts of town, the most ominous one was placed in front of St. Peter Catholic Church on South Main Street. Another one was behind the Elks Lodge on West Second Street, and the third was in a vacant lot next to the armory on West Fifth Street. The burnings took place the night before the city primary election, creating a sensation that overshadowed the election. The newspaper surmised, “It was expected that a number of votes would be changed because of the cross burning.” It seems that one of the “imitation cross burnings” was near the home of a man who had been actively promoting one of the tickets in the primary election. The burnings were “…generously described as a rank outrage,” according to the Daily Record. Further, “…it was generally regretted this morning that an attempt had been made to inject religious prejudice in the city primary.”
Part II next week.
Credits to Elvis Fleming, “Pioneer Klan No. 15: The Ku Klux Klan in Roswell, 1924-1934”
Janice Dunnahoo is a volunteer archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico.