SPEARFISH — When Charles Rambow was deciding on the subject for his master’s thesis paper in 1970, he didn’t have to look very far for inspiration. He found the topic in some old clothes his mother had cleaned out of his grandparents’ closet.
Rambow was shocked to learn that what he thought was a choir robe was actually his grandfather’s Ku Klux Klan initiation robe.
“Both my grandparents were members of the KKK back in 1921,” he said. “That was a pretty strong motive to dig a little deeper.”
Rambow, a longtime Sturgis history teacher, will be discussing his research during a talk titled “The KKK in the Black Hills: 1920” hosted by the Black Hills State University Leland D. Case Library. Rambow’s presentation is at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18 in Jonas Hall, room 305. This is part of the E.Y. Berry Library-Learning Center 40th anniversary celebration. He will share his information, KKK paraphernalia and unique perspective of these little known activities.
The majority of his research came from interviews with people who were members of one of the Black Hills Klans, had family who were members or who were targeted by the Klan. The Klan opposed many people including African-Americans, Jews, Asians and Roman Catholics, Rambow said.
Rambow said the more interviews he did, the more people he found that remembered the Klan or had some sort of connection.
He said it just kept on growing and that nearly every community in the Black Hills had a Klan organization.
In Spearfish it was the Queen City Klan, in Lead-Deadwood it was the Mile High Klan, in Rapid City it was the Gate City Klan.
Rambow’s grandfather, a judge in Meade County at the time, was part of the Key City Klan in Sturgis.
“I couldn’t believe this,” Rambow said. His grandfather was also Anglican Irish and disliked Catholics, a group heavily targeted by the Black Hills Klans.
Rambow said the KKK marched a few times at the St. Martin’s Academy, a private Catholic school in the Black Hills, and students were instructed to hide under their desks in case of rocks being thrown through the windows.
“The most vicious thing that was done was the murder of a Catholic priest on Oct. 16, 1921,” he said. Years later some Klansmen admitted to the unsolved murder of Father Arthur Belknap, of Lead, who they believed was attempting to convert local youth to Catholicism, Rambow said.
The Black Hills Klans began to dissipate by 1929.
“Many of the local people had become disenchanted by the Klan,” he said. Businesses owned by Klan members were being boycotted, and more and more people began to react against the organization.
Today, there is little evidence of the reign of the KKK in the Black Hills aside from some materials found in libraries such as the Case Library and leftover paraphernalia found in closets, but it remains a part, though not a proud one, of the area’s history.