Breaking up a cross burning near Fort Meade

If you’ve never had a chance to visit the Old Fort Meade Museum, there are some treasures to see. Every time I go through it, I learn something new and walk away wondering how I missed those lessons in history.

On my latest visit, I came across information about an intended cross burning by – you guessed it – local Klansmen, which was thwarted by a group of troopers at Fort Meade who decided to “borrow” some high-caliber machine guns and scare them off.

An article in the exhibit at the museum, “Ku Klux Klan in the Black Hills,” explains that the KKK, formed in Tennessee in the aftermath of the Civil War, organized in the Black Hills around 1922. “Opposition to bootlegging, prostitution and other vices paired with the rumors of black troops being sent to Ft. Meade were reasons for its growth,” the article state. “The Klaverns (local units of the KKK) also became known for sponsoring social events, such as picnics, sewing circles organized by ladies auxiliary and by charitable acts. But it was the anti-Catholic nature of the Klan that was most prominent in the Hills area.”

Sturgis had a Catholic school and convent and so became a site for many Klan displays, the article describes, with crosses up to 25 feet tall wrapped with oil-soaked gunnysacks burned on a hillside within view of St. Martin’s Academy. “Many burnings were announced with three blasts of dynamite,” the article adds.

Of course, those of the Catholic persuasion weren’t excited by these displays and responded by burning a circle on a hill opposite the cross burnings. “The circle was inspired by the Klan’s name, derived from the Greek word, ‘klukos,’ meaning circle,” the article explains.

The article, “Fort Meade and the Ku Klux Klan” in the museum exhibit, describes that in the early 1920s, cattle rustling was a popular criminal activity in Meade County. Apparently, a suspected rustler was wounded during his capture in early 1924, and because the only available medical facility was at Fort Meade, that’s where he was taken. When the local Key City Klavern heard that the suspect was in the infirmary, they demanded he “be turned over to them for their brand of court justice,” the article describes. The commanding officer refused; the Klan threatened to march on the fort to force his hand; and the commander put armed troopers around the fort’s perimeter. “There was the threat of violence over the issue,” the article states. “Relations continued to deteriorate until 1925, when it was learned that the Klan would have a cross burning between Sturgis and Fort Meade.”

Apparently, there was a community dance in Sturgis occurring, which was well-attended, and while that was happening, Klansmen several blocks away wrapped three large crosses in preparation for the burning, the article describes. “Suddenly a clattering broke out from two Browning automatic .38 caliber water cooled machine guns which had been mounted the hill south of Bear Butte Creek where the crosses were to be set up,” the article describes. “Three cavalrymen, resentful over the way they had been treated by the Klan, decided to teach the Klan a lesson. The firing was well above the heads of the Klansmen but they took cover and returned fire with hand weapons.”

The article explains that the troopers only wanted to scare those involved with the cross burning, and they fell back from the hill, only to be captured by a group of townsmen “who were attracted to the scene by the noise of the rapid-fire machine guns. It was later learned that some cavalrymen had considered bringing up a piece of light artillery but had providently reconsidered. The incident caused many Klansmen to realize that the potential for more violence was very apparent.”

The “Ku Klux Klan in the Black Hills” article adds that Klan activity peaked in South Dakota in 1925, when the National Klan Klonklave convention was held on July 4 in Belle Fourche. “Publicity said there would be 3000 hooded and mounted horsemen, but newspapers reported a few hundred,” the article states.

See what I mean about learning something new in the Old Fort Meade Museum?

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