The Washington Post

Smithsonian accepts Klan robes for future museum

Two authentic robes of the Ku Klux Klan were given Monday to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

African American History Museum director Lonnie Bunch and historian Spencer Crew examine the Klan robes donated by Sandra Parks, widow of Stetson Kennedy. (Michael R Barnes/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, NMAAHC)

“The purpose of the gift was to show the world the absurdity of an American terrorist organization from the inside,” said Parks. “Exposure is the issue here and there is no place in America that the story can be better depicted than in the Smithsonian. More Americans will come to understand the significance and the bravery of the people who fought against this powerful and destructive organization.”

The robe that belonged to Kennedy, who died in August, is a black robe that he kept after he infiltrated the Klan in the 1940s and rose to the ranks of its security forces. “This was the squad that tried to protect the secrecy of the Klan. At one point Stetson contacted the FBI and it got back to the Klan. Stetson was put in charge of the Klan’s investigation of the source. He was investigating himself,” said Parks.

Over the years, beginning with Humphrey Bogart, people had taken an interest in filming his story but no effort ever materialized. Kennedy, a pioneering folklorist worked for the Works Progress Administration and wrote “Unmasking the Klan.” He spent his life educating people about hate groups.

The second robe, a red garment, belonged to Phineas Miller Nathaniel Wilds, a chaplain in the Klan. It was donated by his great-grandson, Richard M. Rousseau, in the name of the family.

Both families live in St. Augustine, Fla. Parks said she didn’t know if Kennedy ever wore the robe to a Klan meeting but he would display it during lectures and only put it on once to demonstrate how threatening it was to a youth group.

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the African American museum, said the gifts would help tell some of the horrors of the African American story. “In some ways you can’t understand the African American experience until you understand the depth of the struggle,” said Bunch. “This is an important way to understand the resilience of African American people. The best symbol of the Klan is the robe.”

The museum is scheduled to open across from the Washington Monument in 2015.


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