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Terrorizing in plain sight: A Twin Cities history lesson that must not repeat itself

How many people know that in 1917, as part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, hundreds of men and women wearing the robes of the KKK rode from Minneapolis through St. Paul in decorated vehicles as part of a much-celebrated car parade?

A Ku Klux Klan float participating in the 1923 University of Minnesota homecoming parade.
A Ku Klux Klan float participating in the 1923 University of Minnesota homecoming parade.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

How many people know that in 1917, as part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, hundreds of men and women wearing the robes of the KKK and representing a Minneapolis auto dealer’s association rode triumphantly over the mighty Mississippi from Minneapolis through St. Paul in decorated vehicles as part of a much-celebrated car parade? Did you know that they then parked the cars and went to join in the revelries while the police force protected the vehicles? No? Neither did I when I began researching my last book. But it happened. In plain sight. It was photographed. It was discussed and championed in the local white press. It was advertised. It was celebrated. It was a success.

The winter carnival gained revenue. The auto dealers gained customers. The Klan robes were referred to in ways intended to suggest this was a playful appropriation for an economy-boosting “fun” event. It appears in the historical record as part of the fabric of everyday life in the Twin Cities. It was part of the fabric of everyday life. It was part of the fabric of everyday life so much that the African-American press at the time in St. Paul did not cover it. At all.

Part of the fabric of everyday life

It was part of the fabric of everyday life. This. The cavalier terrorizing of black residents of the Twin Cities. This. An absence of care or concern for what that terror (on top of the crushing economic and social inequities) would inflict on the black residents. And, in service to what? To the market. What was protected? The private property of the white “night riders” in their “costumes.” What was privileged? The coffers and the peace of the white establishment. 

And this week, in Minneapolis and the broader Twin Cities the discussion continues: Why are black residents “rioting”? Why are black residents not letting “justice be served”? And the care and concern for property over people is on display. Brilliant observers and activists have made clear that what we are witnessing in the nation this week, and in so many past weeks, is the perpetuation of a centuries-long practice of appropriating black bodies as fuel for a nation that discards them at whim. 

This is true for the nation as a whole and yet neither Minnesota nor the Twin Cities are usually the focus of the national debate. They should be. They should be because of Philando Castile. It should be because of Jamar Clark. It should be for every one of my former neighbors and friends in the Twin Cities who are not safe because of the skin they live in. It should be because the black community in the Twin Cities is deeply rooted and critically important to the histories of civil rights over two centuries, and also subject to generations of terror despite laws and statutes that might suggest otherwise. 

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And yet, the ever-present threat of terror silences people. In 1917 The Appeal (one of the leading African-American newspapers in the U.S. and located in the Twin Cities) did not make one mention of the “car parade” populated by “the Mill City auto fraternity [who] made a conspicuous showing with their ghostly-costumed Ku Klux Klan.” None. This might seem curious. After all, didn’t the black residents of St. Paul or Minneapolis see or hear about it? Didn’t they care? No doubt they did. No doubt they were scared. But the public record is silent. Their experiences lost to us today. But the public silence is curious only until we remember that this was part of the fabric of everyday life. This specter of race-based violence (even when presented as “costume”) was part of a legacy that included the attempted lynchings of two black men in St. Paul in 1896, and the conspicuous rise of a new incarnation of the KKK in Minnesota in the 1910s. In 1920 three black men were lynched in Duluth and in the 1920s the Klan began publishing its newspaper from a St. Paul office. 

Not a mere byproduct, it was the main feature

And so, hundreds of people dressed in the ensembles of a terror group were part of a grand carnival designed to serve the needs of business and political establishments that welcomed white revelers from across the nation and the world, while African-Americans were conspicuously absent in any public way except four unnamed black men depicted as the “attendants” to the King of the Carnival that year. The 1917 car parade was recorded in the day’s papers with a large photo of three hooded men, their faces showing, under the headline “Minneapolis Ku Klux Clansmen Coming in Force” and an accompanying subtitle “’Night Riders’ Will Attack Carnival.” In the days that followed, much was made in many articles about the linked economic interests of the cities’ leadership and the boost that the parade had offered. The deployment of a terror-inducing spectacle was not just a mere byproduct, it was the main feature. 

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello
Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello
And yet, to my knowledge, these details have been lost to history until now. And so the silences continue and the slow, constant burn of racial terror and violence toward black bodies by white America continues, without redress by those in power. 

Not that long ago

And in 2020 we are witnessing an eerie reminder that 1917 is not that long ago. The expectation of black silence in the face of terror persists. After generations and generations of state-sanctioned terror and the systematic weakening of black bodies, black lives and black communities by silent and insipid housing policies, educational policies, employment policies and the growth of the carceral state, among others, in the last few days black Twin City residents have been outraged and called for justice, and engaged in public displays of generational grief and righteous anger. And in this moment there are concerns and questions about “rioting” and property damage.

The outrage and the anger is more than 100 years in the making. And peaceful protests for generations have led us where? To ask that black residents be silent now, be patient now, be calm now, is asking for the victims of violence and terror to protect the systems that inflict that upon them. If we are shocked that Twin City residents of a century ago put white supremacy on public display and celebrated it with no public outcry from black residents, how is it possible that we can also be outraged in 2020 that there is public outcry and outrage from black residents. White supremacist history seems to be repeating itself frequently. We should all be concerned about that.

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, Ph.D. is a professor of American studies at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. A former St. Paul resident and former employee at the Minnesota History Center, she is the author of “Modern Bonds: Redefining Community in Early Twentieth-Century St. Paul” (U Mass Press, 2018).

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