After Slavery: Educator Resources

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8. Albion W. Tourgée Reports on KKK Violence in North Carolina

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Nine: Coercion, Paramilitary Terror, and Resistance in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

In North Carolina racist paramilitaries had been organized in the White Brotherhood and the Constitutional Union Guard, but the Ku Klux Klan dominated from early 1868 onwards. By 1870, the KKK was a potent enough threat to affect state politics. As was true in South Carolina, Klan violence in North Carolina peaked in early 1870, and was concentrated in Alamance, Caswell, Orange and Chatham counties—all white-majority counties in the central northern region of the state. When in February the Klan staged a nighttime procession encircling the Graham courthouse in Alamance, the prominent black Republican policeman Wyatt Outlaw opened fire on them. A former slave, Union army veteran and president of the local Union League, Outlaw was shortly afterwards lynched in front of the same courthouse, with a note attached to his lifeless body that read "Beware! You guilty parties—both white and black."

The lynching of Wyatt Outlaw and the murder of John W. Stephen, referred to in the document below, were early episodes in what became known as the 'Kirk-Holden war'—a series of confrontations between the state militia recruited by Republican Governor Holden (and commanded by the former Unionist guerrilla leader George W. Kirk) and the Klan. Conservatives tapped into white resentment against the repression that ensued to win statewide elections in the fall of 1870 and to impeach Holden and reclaim power for white supremacy. With Republican authority severely weakened, conservatives would spend the next five or six years clawing back the legislative gains that had been won in the early period of Reconstruction.

Albion W. Tourgée, who wrote the letter below, became as a result of his autobiographical writing one of the best-known of those northern Republicans who came south during Reconstruction. Here he offers his close friend and fellow northerner, Senator (and former Union army General) Joseph Abbott, a stark evaluation of the perilous state of affairs confronting freedpeople and their allies in North Carolina, and an unusually frank acknowledgment of the inadequacy of the Republican response.

Albion W. Tourgée Reports on KKK Violence in North Carolina

[Greensboro, N.C.]
Gen. Jos. C. Abbott-My Dear General:
It is my mournful duty to inform you that our friend John W. Stephens, State Senator from Caswell, is dead. He was foully murdered by the Ku-Klux in the Grand Jury room of the Court House on Saturday or Saturday night last. The circumstances attending his murder have not yet fully come to light there. So far as I can learn, I judge these to have been the circumstances: He was one of the Justices of the Peace in that township, and was accustomed to hold court in that room on Saturdays. It is evident that he was set upon by some one while holding this court, or immediately after its close, and disabled by a sudden attack, otherwise there would have been a very sharp resistance, as he was a man, and always went armed to the teeth. He was stabbed five or six times, and then hanged on a hook in the Grand Jury room, where he was found on Sunday morning. Another brave, honest Republican citizen has met his fate at the hands of these fiends. Warned of his danger, and fully cognizant of the terrible risk which surrounded him, he still manfully refused to quit the field. Against the advice of his friends, against the entreaties of his family, he constantly refused to leave those who had stood by him in the day of his disgrace and peril. He was accustomed to say that 3,000 poor, ignorant, colored Republican voters in that county had stood by him and elected him, at the risk of persecution and starvation, and that he had no idea of abandoning them to the Ku-Klux. He was determined to stay with them, and either put an end to these outrages, or die with the other victims of Rebel hate and national apathy: Nearly six months ago I declared my belief that before the election in August next the Ku-Klux would have killed more men in the State than there would be members to be elected to the Legislature. A good beginning has been made toward the fulfillment of this prophecy . . .

These crimes have been of every character imaginable. Perhaps the most usual has been the dragging of men and women from their beds, and beating their naked bodies with hickory switches, or as witnesses in an examination the other day said, "sticks" between a "switch" and a "club." From 50 to 100 blows is the usual allowance, sometimes 200 and 300 blows are administered. Occasionally an instrument of torture is owned. Thus in one case two women, one 74 years old, were taken out, stripped naked, and beaten with a paddle, with several holes bored through it. The paddle was about 30 inches long, 3 or 4 inches wide, and 1/4 of an inch thick, of oak. Their bodies were so bruised and beaten that they were sickening to behold . . .

I could give other incidents of cruelty, such as hanging up a boy of nine years old until he was nearly dead, to make him tell where his father was hidden, and beating an old negress of 103 years old with garden pallings because she would not own that she was afraid of the Ku-Klux. But it is unnecessary to go into further detail. In this district I estimate their offenses as follows, in the past ten months: Twelve murders, 9 rapes, 11 arsons, 7 mutilations, ascertained and most of them on record. In some no identification could be made.

Four thousand or 5,000 houses have been broken open, and property or persons taken out. In all cases all arms are taken and destroyed. Seven hundred or 800 persons have been beaten or otherwise maltreated. These of course are partly persons living in the houses which were broken into.

And yet the Government sleeps. The poor disarmed nurses of the Republican party-those men by whose ballots the Republican party holds power-who took their lives in their hands when they cast their ballots for U.S. Grant and other officials-all of us who happen to be beyond the pale of the Governmental regard-must be sacrificed, murdered, scourged, mangled, because some contemptible party scheme might be foiled by doing us justice. I could stand it very well to fight for Uncle Sam, and was never known to refuse an invitation on such an occasion; but this lying down, tied hand and foot with the shackles of the law, to be killed by the very dregs of the rebellion, the scum of the earth, and not allowed either the consolation of fighting or the satisfaction that our "fall" will be noted by the Government, and protection given to others thereby, is somewhat too hard. I am ashamed of the nation that will let its citizens be slain by scores, and scourged by thousands, and offer no remedy or protection. I am ashamed of a State which has not sufficient strength to protect its own officers in the discharge of their duties, nor guarantee the safety of any man's domicile throughout its length and breadth.

I am ashamed of a party which, with the reins of power in its hands, has not nerve or decision enough to arm its own adherents, or to protect them from assassinations at the hands of their opponents... Unless these evils are speedily remedied, I tell you, General, the Republican party has signed its death warrant. It is a party of cowards or idiots-I don't care which alternative is chosen. The remedy is in our hands, and we are afraid or too dull to bestir ourselves and use it . . .

Source: Albion W. Tourgée to Senator Joseph C. Abbott, May 24, 1870, published in the New York Tribune


Questions to Consider

  1. Assuming that Tourgée's description of the intensity of Klan violence is more or less accurate, how do you suppose freedpeople might respond? Would they try to flee? Stand and fight? Are they likely to abandon the Republican Party under such pressures or remain faithful to it?

  2. Are there any patterns to the violence outlined here which you have come across in the preceding documents? Can you make any conclusions about the motivations or purpose of Klan attacks?

  3. Why is Tourgée critical of the Republican Party? In his view, what would be an effective response to the ongoing campaign of violence?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Nine