The History of Harvard University’s Ku Klux Klan
There are certain things that Harvard viably excludes from its history books: the oft-unfulfilled tradition of having sex in the Widener stacks, the unabridged history of the juggling club, the ingredients in emerald beef. Others are excluded on more tenuous grounds. The Harvard Ku Klux Klan falls into the latter category. You could spend an entire lifetime living at Harvard, never learning about the racism that once dominated campus affairs, unless you happened to stumble across file HUD 3502 deep within the annals of the Harvard archives. This is the story of HUD 3502.
The Harvard branch of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1921 with the assistance of a Mr. W–the organizer of the Chicago chapter and an imperial officer in the Klan–and an unidentified man, Mr. T.
From the offset, the Harvard Klan was a silent beast. Hooded Klansmen did not hold massive demonstrations in Tercentenary Theater; progressive leaders of the era were not hung in effigy in the Yard. Yet-at least according to a prominent Klansman who spoke to The Crimson in 1923-the Harvard Klan was far from a fringe association. The Harvard Klan, he said, is inactive. But it is very far from being disorganized, nor can I even say now its influence is unfelt.
Indeed, on October 22, 1923, The Harvard Crimson published an article detailing the Klan’s intentions to increase its membership in the coming weeks. It stated, “The Harvard Ku Klux Klan has only been waiting for the favorable moment to show its strength. And now there are indications that the next few weeks will see the largest drive for Klan membership yet.”
The Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was quick to voice its opinion on the matter. The day after the Crimson article was published James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to Harvard President Lowell and the board of overseers of the University. It stated:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wishes to go on record as believing that it would be better to close the University than to permit it to become a vehicle for disseminating the poison of race and religious hatred upon which the infamous Klan depends in recruiting its membership. We trust that every effort will be made to discover those responsible for bringing this organization into Harvard and that they will be expelled when their names are known. Nationwide experience with the Klan has demonstrated that where it has not been dealt with sternly and promptly it has become futile to attempt to do so later.
The Harvard archives show no record of President Lowell or the board of overseers responding to the telegram or taking any measures to purge the campus of Klan activity. Surprisingly, neither do the Harvard archives show record of the supposed explosion of Klan activity ever occurring. Whether this is a result of what was, according to an unidentified Crimson reporter, “division in the Harvard branch [of the Klan] itself” or the selective record keeping of the University remains a mystery.
What is clear, though, is that the 1920s at Harvard were no Benneton poster. While, records kept by the University itself make little mention of student organized racist activities and University-wide racist policies, other national publications did not hide Harvard’s dirty laundry in the closet.
In 1922, W.E.B. DuBois had noted in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine that President Lowell, “when asked by the NAACP to join leading Americans in denouncing lynching, did not even acknowledge the letter.” And in January 1923, the New York Times and the prominent black publications Negro World, Defender, Crisis and Messenger broke the story of President Lowell’s unabashed support for a policy excluding blacks from freshmen dormitories.
In spite of the fact that 143 Harvard alumni had signed a petition protesting the policy in September 1922, it took until March 1923 for the University to repeal the mandate. And even then, records show officials asking blacks students to seek alternative housing accommodations.
Indeed, the list of racially charged incidents, policies, mishaps and mandates could go on for pages, causing one to wonder whether students should be more aware of the footnotes to Harvard’s history.
“I think it’s important that we Harvardians know where we have been so that we can figure out where to go,” said Diarra K. Lamar ’01, a member of the Crimson Key Member and Lowell House resident . “I am not sure if airing all of Harvard’s questionable past is most productive, but one thing is certain: We need to understand the things that have shaped what Harvard is today to be able to motivate changes for tomorrow’s Harvard. What is the forum for learning about Harvard’s past? I don’t know yet.”
Dionne A. Fraser, president of the Black Students’ Association, echoed the same sentiments. “The average student doesn’t learn anything about Harvard’s history,” she said, adding that, in her opinion, “if you’re getting a degree from a university you should know the history behind the degree, both the good and the bad.”
Yet, with Harvard History 101: “the Lowell Years” unlikely to show up in the course guide any time in the near future, the burden of encountering an unabridged version of Harvard’s history bears down almost entirely on the student body itself. Would it be productive to hold massive demonstrations, storm Lowell Lecture Hall, and demand the “never before seen footage” of the past 350 years? Probably not.
But the next time you find yourself near the Harvard Archives, tucked neatly underground like the facts contained within, you just might want to take a peek at file HUD 3502.