Humor can be extremely revealing. It can give voice to otherwise inexpressible thoughts and it can be used as a tool to bond the humorist and the (humoree?). For these reasons, expressions of humor can be a valuable resource for historians eager to gauge the opinions and perspectives of a particular person, place or time. It can also give insights into fleeting historical contexts.
I recently stumbled across just such a piece of historical humor that hits upon the most sensitive chapter in Southern history. Despite its purely benign intention, it is a joke that would never be made today. In fact it's so sensitive that I've been nervous about sharing it for the past couple of weeks. My hope, however, is that I can give enough context to make any reader understand why it is important to expose and study this without casting any scorn on the people and institutions involved. Here's what I found:
My first reaction after seeing this in the clubs section of the 1900 Converse College yearbook was a surprised expletive or two. Converse had a chapter of the KKK active on campus?! And they were proud enough to show it off (names included) in the yearbook?! But after the shock faded, it became clear that a few of my assumptions were wrong. Taking a closer look at the rhyme, I saw that the organization's mission was to "torment the faculty." Also, by including the names of the members, it clearly wasn't a secret society. Plus, the photo is a hokey, staged depiction of a night-time raid, complete with a lantern and an over-abundance of firearms. And then of course, I remembered that the KKK wasn't exactly a women's institution.
So this was a joke: a pretend student club to terrorize college professors. It would be funny without the awful, heavy, blood-soaked baggage. But what exactly is that baggage and what changed to make this so terribly distasteful?
The answer lies in the precise period in which this joke was made. It also helps to have some background on the history of the KKK. The oversimplified (and still controversial) story is that the KKK had two periods of activity and that its mission shifted between those two periods. It was born in late 1865 just as the South entered Reconstruction as a reaction to perceived wrongs committed on the Old South ruling classes by newly emancipated slaves, carpetbaggers, and unsympathetic Southerners. The corruption and mistakes of Reconstruction-era politics are well documented, and the KKK was widespread among otherwise benign Southerners because it was a counterbalance to other wrongs. Two wrongs don't make a right, but with any luck they can make a tense standstill, and it was a long time before violence stopped begetting violence. But by the 1880s, with the end of Reconstruction coming in 1876, the KKK had lost its need for existence. By 1900, it was a foggy memory. Enough time had passed to make it an acceptable joke. It reminds me of the South Park episode that reasons that 20 years is the amount of time that has to pass before a serious issue can become a joke.
The reason that this joke can't work now, though, is primarily because of the resurgence of the KKK in the 1920s. While the previous incarnation stressed the wrongs of a corrupt political structure, this newer version was more explicitly white supremacist and xenophobic. Hatred towards various ethnicities, non-Protestant religions, and Communism became a key point of the revised rhetoric. As the decades passed, it was also much more of a fringe organization, while the earlier version had more widespread sympathy.
With this context it becomes easier to understand how a group of teenage college girls could laughingly violate what has become one of the strongest American taboos. 1900 was a window in time when the KKK didn't exist and reviving its memory could be funny to a group of wealthy white girls. It was also over half a century before the Civil Rights Era would begin to push out the antebellum ideology that assumed white superiority.
Only true history dorks need read further.
I want to issue a disclaimer that I'm aware of some of the racist agendas that have been put forth using this "Dunning School" interpretation of Reconstruction as a period of corruption and mismanagement. Here's my view: Despite the best intentions and limited successes of some who were involved in Reconstruction politics, post-war politics anywhere are bound to be messy, particularly when a large percentage of the electorate is so new to the political process. Rational evaluation, that cornerstone of the democratic process, is nearly impossible for anyone in such a situation, especially when there are so many forces desperate for a piece of the pie in a war-torn state of economic collapse and near anarchy. In such a state, corruption and mismanagement seem almost inevitable.