Two white, stained, cotton robes that may have belonged to men who met with others at Thomas Jefferson’s tomb in the summer of 1921 to form a Charlottesville chapter of the Ku Klux Klan were shown to the media and a few others behind closed doors Thursday afternoon.
After pulling two of the 26 robes in its museum collection — and following requests from local activists, academics and journalists — the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society held a private conference to discuss the origins of the robes and how they came into the historical society’s possession.
On those robes are patches bearing a cross and a drop of blood, echoing the blood spilled at Jefferson’s gravesite when the members of the new Klan chapter in the city held a ceremony that year.
“… [T]he Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city,” The Progress reported on June 28, 1921.
“Hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men met around the tomb of Jefferson at the midnight hour one night last week and sealed the pledge of chivalry and patriotism with the deepest crimson of red American blood.”
Historical society President Steven Meeks said the robes were donated in 1993 by a local resident who found them in a wooden crate in a shed in an eastern part of the city. He said a “Certificate of Knighthood,” dated June 6, 1926, also was donated to the Society at that time.
The robes were displayed publicly from 2005 to 2006 and from 2010 to 2015, when they were loaned to the Legacy Museum in Lynchburg, which specializes in African-American history.
Without consulting the donor, the historical society decided not to reveal who the items belonged to, where they were found or who had donated them. Meeks said they have identified the names of two Klan members associated with the artifacts.
“That is the decision the society has taken at this point,” Meeks said.
“They were donated to us nearly 25 years ago,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that things have changed, and [with] the current climate of things, we just don’t think it’s right to release the names.”
The effort to have the historical society display the robes and other Klan artifacts was spearheaded by University of Virginia professor and activist Jalane Schmidt.
In recent emails to reporters and other colleagues, Schmidt said she felt that the historical society was attempting to “stonewall” her request and avoiding bringing attention to the items. She said started making requests to the society about three weeks ago.
Although the items were displayed Thursday after the long holiday weekend and after local reporters and members of the City Council were contacted, Schmidt’s concerns over the fact that the names associated with the artifacts would not be revealed persisted.
“They’re trying to avoid that, because it’s probably some old respectable family name which adorns a current Charlottesville building, street or park,” she said in an email earlier this week. “They just don’t want to say. Klan membership was very popular among the most ‘influential citizens’ of 1920s Cville.”
Meeks said Paul Goodloe McIntire — Charlottesville’s most illustrious philanthropist who gifted the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to the city and for whom the historical society’s building is named — is not associated with any of the Klan items in its collection.
“I will tell you this much,” Meeks said about the Klan members associated with the artifacts, “neither one of them was a prominent person in the Charlottesville community.”
The historical society’s decision to withhold the name of the donor and redact the name on the Certificate of Knighthood drew some criticism from the community members who requested to see the material.
Don Gathers, the former chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, a panel the City Council created last year to consider what should be done with the Lee and Jackson statues, was particularly critical of the historical society’s decision to hide the names.
“I can respect your position about not wanting to release the names, but I think it’s a disservice to the community to not release the name of the donor,” he said.
Admittedly playing “devil’s advocate,” Jane Smith, who served on the commission last year, said she understood why the historical society would want to avoid revealing the name of the donor.
“I think it might encourage people to donate sensitive materials that would be of great interest to the community,” she said. Smith later added that the descendants of Klan members should not be judged by the associations or actions of their ancestors.
John Edwin Mason, a UVa professor and another former member of the commission, said the society should reveal the names associated with the artifacts if it plans to publicly exhibit the items in the future, an idea that Meeks and Will Lyster, vice president of the society, said they have been considering.
“You’re a historical society and you have to interpret these as historical artifacts,” Mason said. “You can do it half-heartedly or do a bad job, but you can’t do your job as a historical society without the provenance being attached to the display of these archives. It just can’t be done.”
Among those in attendance at the private exhibition Thursday was Councilor Wes Bellamy.
Bellamy, who last year created controversy by calling for the removal of the Lee statue, said Thursday evening that he felt “motivated” to continue advocating for the removal of the statue and creating equity in the presentation of local history in the city.
By Thursday evening, as pictures of the exhibit were shared online and on social media, he said several people had accused him of seeking attention and creating further division in the community by asking the historical society to display the Klan artifacts.
“That was probably one of the more difficult things I’ve seen in my life,” he said about the exhibit. “All I can think about is what the people who owned those robes would say to me right now.”
“For all the people who say we’ve never had these race issues or that nothing was ever wrong — those robes were found here in Charlottesville.
“How can these people say we haven’t had these issues? How can they say they haven’t permeated into our cultural norms? Look at all the opposition we’re facing. How can you tell me that is not all connected in some shape, form or fashion?”
On Saturday, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, of North Carolina, will hold a rally in Justice Park.
Next month, a coalition of far-right activists and leader that include avowed white nationalists and nationalist socialist groups, will hold a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park on Aug. 12. On Wednesday evening, David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the KKK, encouraged his Twitter followers to attend that upcoming rally.