THE RISE AND FALL OF THE KKK IN THE KEY WEST
“We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the founding of the (Ku Klux) Klan in Key West,” said Arlo Haskell. “It’s a … chapter in Key West history that I wanted to know more about.”
Haskell, a historian and writer based in the southernmost city, has spent years researching the history of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the Florida Keys – about who they were and how they operated. He presented his findings at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center’s recent virtual lecture.
While researching “The Jews of Key West”, Haskell’s award-winning book, the author came across the founding documents for the Klan of the Keys.
“It had a lot of prominent Key West names in it, and I wanted to know more,” Haskell told Keys Weekly. “You’d recognize last names like Maloney, Porter – Porter still has a badge on Caroline Street.”
The KKK was founded in Key West in the 1920s as a direct response to political organization within the black community.
“White America wasn’t a fan of Marcus Garvey,” explained Haskell. “The Key West clan was formed during Garvey’s visit to show clear opposition to what he was doing.”
Garvey was an international figure who led a movement around the world preaching black equality, Haskell told Keys Weekly. As the forerunners of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the charismatic Garvey founded the hugely popular Universal Negro Improvement Association and coined the phrase “black is beautiful”. His 1921 visit to Key West prompted city guides to form the Klan of the Keys, Haskell said.
Key Wester Charles H. Ketchum (left) was the Grand Dragon of the Florida Klan in the 1920s, when Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state. ARLO HASKELL / Contributed
The clan raged in South Florida with violence and terror, with kidnappings, beatings and at least one murder carried out “really with impunity,” Haskell said.
A man who ran the Klan of the Keys, Charles Ketchum, also became the “great dragon” for all of Florida. During his tenure, the state’s entire Klan organization was headquartered in his office on Eaton Street in Key West, Haskell said. Under Ketchum, the Florida clan became even more violent, including more lynchings per capita than any other state. The Florida Klan also organized the infamous 1923 Rosewood Massacre, in which an angry white mob burned a mostly black town in rural Florida with multiple victims. The city was abandoned by survivors.
For the author, the “most shocking” discovery was who was in the Klan and how widespread it was.
“It wasn’t a fringe organization. It was the Monroe County Sheriff, the City of Key West Police Chief, the tax collector, the fire chief and the chief of criminal justice, ”Haskell said. “All powers in the city of Key West were in the clan. That haunted me a little. It stayed with me. ”
The Klan operated in broad daylight and sponsored circuses and beauty pageants. There were parades in the streets of Old Town Key West and the newspapers were promoting them, Haskell said. This main aspect of his operations appeared to the author to be particularly relevant in light of today’s racial conflicts and clashes.
“We always learn from history,” said Haskell. “Right now we are seeing white nationalist militant groups supported by the highest levels of government. I think there is certainly a connection between what happened then and what we see today. If you look at history, you can find precursors to what we are going through today. “
A typical Ku Klux Klan parade. Although this photo was taken in Miami, there were many similar parades in Key West in the 1920s. ARLO HASKELL / Contributed
Haskell said there are ramifications for this unequal past in Key West today. He often thinks of the entire generation of Black Key West residents who would have been around the age of his grandparents, faced racist terror and without recourse to justice.
“The kind of economic disenfranchisement, the kind of devastation the clan has inflicted on the black community of Key West, is a kind of trauma that is passed down through generations.” he said.
Just as quickly as it mobilized, the Clan of Keys got into disarray.
As a takeaway from the talk, Haskell hoped his audience would always question the versions of the story that were most often told and read. These stories tend to represent those with economic and political power, and some things are usually left out, he said. It is easier for historians to find out about men in the Klan who perpetrate violence than the black men who kidnapped them and the black women who raped them, Haskell said.
“These stories are not told, they are placed in a footnote,” he said. “The crimes of the powerful are covered up, and the tragedies of the poor are also covered up. I hope people think twice about the stories they hear and remember that there is always another story that is not being told. “
Haskell asked the audience to consider their own privileges. The generational impact of such a racist history would have a huge impact on what is available to people today, he said.
“It’s important to keep track of the historical complications of people’s prospects and fate,” he said. “It’s all connected.”