“One thing leads to another,” sings rock band The Fixx.
That’s what happened when four history students at University of North Texas launched what began as a feel-good school project.
They started researching stories of African-Americans buried in what Denton County folks call the “Old Slave Cemetery” near Pilot Point.
After months of digging — through sparse records, not dirt — their research took them into a dark and evil corner of Denton County history.
One thing leads to another. They ultimately began investigating the possibility that Denton County’s top leaders in the early 1900s were members or strong sympathizers of Klavern No. 136, Denton’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan, a killing cadre of clowns.
Sometimes it takes a full century for watchdogs to emerge.
Black community shrinks
“We didn’t set out to tell that story,” grad student Emily Bowles says.
Their initial focus was on the St. John’s community of Pilot Point, where freed slaves and their offspring from Alabama and Missouri settled after the Civil War.
Census records show that between 1910 and 1930, the black community shriveled.
The students wondered. Where did the people go? And why?
“There’s something there,” grad student Micah Crittenden said. “It’s like seeing a shadow run across your yard. You don’t know what it is, but there’s something. You can ignore it. Or figure out what it was.”
After months of study, their hypothesis is that some residents were scared off. Others, they believe, could have been abducted and lynched.
J. Todd Moye, a UNT history professor serving as one of their advisers, calls portions of their findings “shocking.”
“What they’ve uncovered so far is extremely impressive,” he says.
KKK big in 1920s
That there was Klan activity during the early 20th century in Denton, as well as in Fort Worth and Dallas, is not news. Back then, Texas was known as the No. 1 state in the nation for lynchings.
But they found a couple of old newspaper stories that required further attention. One was a story from a newspaper, The Dallas Express, in 1922:
TAKEN FROM JAIL AND LYNCHED.
“Pilot Point, Texas — Two men, detained yesterday in connection with the theft of two horses, were missing from the jail this morning.
“And unsigned note was found on the door of a local newspaper office which read: ‘Both Negroes got what they had coming. Let this be a warning to all Negro loafers. Negroes get a job or leave town.’
“Two Negroes disappeared from the jail here in a similar manner several months ago and nothing has been heard from them, or of them.”
That was it. Not much else to go on. The names of the four who disappeared are unknown. No government records exist.
Crittenden says this “silence of records” is the main obstacle when trying to learn about disappearances.
For whites charged with crimes, news coverage was usually detailed and complete.
“Someone is arrested,” Crittenden says, “and we see that in all the newspapers. Every detail. Grand jury. Bond. Report on the trial. The outcome.”
For some arrested blacks, though, there could be intense news coverage of the arrest at the start.
“It’s covered wildly every day — and then nothing,” she said. No death certificate. No news. No records. Disappear. Just like that.
The KKK made its first major public appearance in Denton a few days before Christmas 1921.
One newspaper account: “Just before 9 o’clock over 300 white-robed and hooded figures, headed by a torch of red fire, appeared and paraded the streets for nearly two hours. They moved in silence, and the crowd looked on almost as silently.”
A marching Klan is one thing, but how do these students implicate Denton County leadership? How do they surmise that some under those 300 hoods were members of the political establishment along with law enforcement, including members of the county sheriff’s department?
One way is by asking how often jails are left unlocked and unguarded. When accused men were abducted, as part of illegal “Jim Crow justice,” for some reason, a jailer was never around. There was never damage to doors or cells either. And no witnesses.
“They were taken out of the jails to be lynched,” Crittenden said. “It was normal.”
Investigations rarely began. These murders were never solved.
Spreadsheets tell a story
The second technique they used is a bit more scientific.
Researcher Hannah Stewart created a spreadsheet that shows every public mention of the KKK in Denton newspapers and public records from 1917 to 1928. She found 303 mentions. Some headlines:
Rumors of Klan in Denton unverified
Whipped 20 lashes for allegedly being mean to wife
Klan not disbanding
Crittenden created a separate spreadsheet using newspaper reports of every black person arrested in Denton County from 1909 to 1925. Everything from murder to indecent exposure — 330 in all.
They took these two spreadsheets cataloging Klan activity and black arrest records — and merged them to chart activity by dates.
The fact pattern that it reveals shows that levels of Klan violence generally spiked around the same time as significant crimes involving blacks occurred.
From the spreadsheet merge, researcher Jessica Floyd said, “We got a really interesting picture about how the Klan and the police were connected.”
Denton lives with its past
Denton struggles with its racist past along with hundreds of other communities. A debate over what to do with a former “whites only” water fountain and a Confederate statute on the lawn of the Denton County Courthouse on the Square has festered for two decades.
I told the story recently of how a century ago, black members of the Quakertown community in Denton were forcibly moved to an uninhabitable part of land because their village was too close to a women’s college. It’s now a city park.
Two years ago, the county set aside money for restoration of St. John’s Cemetery. The county also plans to add historical plaques.
‘The past is never dead’
Moye praised the four women researchers for their “maturity, intellectual curiosity and persistence it takes to do this kind of original research.”
“They’re being very careful about the conclusions they can draw from the limited evidence available, but they also understand that the evidence is limited for a reason, and they keep digging.”
Crittenden quotes William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
How true. One thing leads to another.