Thursday, September 24, 2009
"Lois, why does your mother keep a baptism robe in the closet?" It wasn't a baptismal robe. My mom told me this story sixty years later and she was still ashamed, as if it were her fault that her best friend's parents had Ku Klux Klan garb in a spare room closet at their house. "I didn't understand at the time," she told me. "But I knew it was something bad." Yes, it was. Very bad. "Lois was my best friend, from the first day of school. We walked together every day for nine years. We met at the corner and walked up 11th Avenue. After that day, my mother didn't like me to go over to Lois' house anymore." They had been playing hide-n-seek when my mother discovered the KKK robes in her hiding place. Lois was embarrassed but not clear herself what the white garments were for. "They take them when they go out at night," she explained. "Let's ask my mother." Ugly, mean words were said. My mom had seen nary a Negro in her young life, in the very small northern Colorado town where they lived. She had studied history, slavery, the Civil War. But her few trips to Denver had steered clear of 'that' part of town. America in the 1920's was so segregated that it was not uncommon for a child to not have had opportunity to interact, or even see an African American, especially in the West. My mom didn't grow up in a household that harbored hate. A grudge or two, especially against the uncle who inherited the family farm and had the temerity to sell his crops -- sell them! -- not only to his poor brother who, as the younger of the two, inherited nothing, but also to his father, who gave him the farm. For god's sake. I digress. So, yes, a grudge. But hate, no. My mom went home and told her mom or, more precisely, asked a lot of uncomfortable questions. Ten year old Ethel returned as she described that day to me with a trembling voice, misty eyes, a sense of horror and shame. After sixty years. She later learned more about the activity of the Klan in Colorado during that period; prominent politicians participated. She winced and pulled away from their association whenever Lois related that her parents had been "out there" the night before. Lois herself never expressed sympathy for these unconscionable activities so my mother decided to continue their friendship all the way into high school, offering her, in fact, an alternative vision of the world. Colorado. 1920's. 1930's. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Colorado, even thriving. I remembered that today when a debate on facebook (gotta love facebook!) devolved to the point that I was put in my place, "this hate speech all started with the Clinton's." Um, no. No, not quite. Not at all. We've been in that gutter for a very long time.