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Grandma and the KKK

Photo: qubodup. CC-BY.

Grandma, more popularly referred to in the family as ‘Mamaw’, finally decided to get remarried. To be precise it was 1955, the same year we got our first black and white TV. A lengthy passage of time had passed since she and grandpa parted company. Alone in an empty house for longer than anyone could remember, the clock ticking and while she still had most of her own teeth, marrying Doc Frankston appeared to be the right thing to do, or so it seemed without the benefit of hindsight or foreknowledge of Doc’s membership in the KKK or Ku Klux Klan.

Why Doc was referred to as ‘Doc’, I can’t rightly say. You wouldn’t want him to take out your tonsils but he could do a good job painting your house. Mamaw’s first husband, my papaw, also had a nickname – ‘Bear’, acquired after surviving a confrontation with a Grizzly while hunting Elk in Montana. In fairness to Doc, who everyone knew was no Doc, most levelheaded folks were fairly certain Bear was no Grizzly.

It would be fair to say Mamaw and Bear were two shoes of a pair, stubborn as a mule, a polite way of saying both were a tad pigheaded, which helped to explain why they couldn’t reside under the same rooftop. Strange it was how they remained best of friends after they went their separate ways. I guess living in the same small town it was inevitable that they would show up, if not together, at the same time at family gatherings. Soon that was the expected course of action. On occasion they were spotted sharing a couch, and with a little stretch of mamma’s wishful imagination her mom and dad appeared flirtatious, seemingly rubbing elbows while engaging in an easy-going chat. It came across to most everyone present like Mamaw had two husbands, Bear, a set-in-his-ways, two-legged Grizzly and Doc, a compliant, lethargic kind of guy my uncle said either emanated from the booze or from sniffing too many paint fumes. That having been said, Doc could always be awakened from his slumberous state if challenged to a game of horse shoes, washers or yard darts, any game whose aim was a stake, a hole in the ground or a circle. Few better in all of Texas at pitching such accouterments.

Given Doc’s membership in the Klan, you are perchance wondering if he paraded around the East Texas backwoods carrying a pitchfork or had devil’s horns protruding from his forehead. To the best of my recollection he sported neither. Nor was Doc a big cusser, leastwise not like Bear who was partial to using metaphorical swearwords, like a poet might use in a more pleasing manner to create the right imagery to drive home a point. That said, on a couple of occasions I did overhear Doc using the ‘N’ word, only to have his tongue put on the breaks before reaching the second syllable, like he’d just touched a hotplate. Mamma kept the symbolic ‘bar of soap and frying pan’ handy, and if that didn’t do the trick a very real switch residing on top of the refrigerator was always within easy reach to enforce the negation of certain unpardonable sins, one of those being the use of the ‘N’ word. When he was awake and sober, which was a fair amount of the time Doc was visiting with the family, you could catch him patting the little ones on their head, telling jokes and the like. As you can see, Doc appeared to be fairly normal, no apparent signals to give him away as a sheet wearing, cone headed Klansman.

Most of what was learned about Doc, his Klan membership and Mamaw’s way of dealing with this new found knowledge, came from the lips of her sister, my Great Auntie. According to Great Auntie, it was quite by accident the day Mamaw learned of Doc’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact it was Mamaw’s colored maid and fruit and vegetable canning business partner of many years, Alice, who found Doc’s Klan robe and hood while cleaning out the closet, supposedly well hidden from prying eyes. She laid it out on the bed, screaming to the high heavens once she realized what was staring back at her in all its gory. Fortunately Doc was off on a painting job but Mamaw and Great Auntie, who was visiting, were in the kitchen and came running when they heard Alice’s scream.

Alice was standing when they entered the bedroom, as if in a trance, visibly upset, tears running down her cheeks. Mamaw grabbed Alice’s arm to help steady her, helping her to the edge of the bed. When Alice’s hand brushed against the Klan robe it was as if a snake had curled up beside her and was about to strike. A momentary bout of reality caused her to bolt upright. Not until then did Mamaw and Great Auntie notice the Klan robe and hood on the bed. The three stood speechless, all eyes fixated on the Klan garment, gawking at the monstrosity that lay before them. For Mamaw and Great Auntie it conjured up horrific memories implanted in early childhood of stories told about the Klan, most revolting but unfortunately not all of them were of an atrocious nature. Generally speaking, white folks in the South during the Reconstruction era were brought up to believe the Klan came into existence shortly after the Civil War or The War of Northern Aggression, as it was referred to by many Southerns at the time, to stand up against Yankee Carpetbagger abuses and defend a way of life which included protecting the virtue and honor of it’s Southern belles. For dyed-in-the-wool Klan supporters the Klan was not the bogeyman.

It would be a stretch to say Mamaw had been a lifelong member of the NAACP or that she participated in sit-ins to integrate the local Woolworth lunch counter, most of which took place in her waning days. She was no doubt the product of her upbringing, brought up to reflect many of the biases and prejudices preached when she was growing up. That said, she had no tolerance for organizations like the KKK and for what they stood, and that pronouncement comes not from someone else’s pass-me-down recollection but from my memory of her. The wide spread poverty in East Texas, found among a fair number of whites, in some circles known as ‘poor white trash’, and most coloreds, as they were referred to back yonder when, substandard schools, shanty towns and the like, to her way of thinking had no place in a Christian society, including organizations like the KKK. Mamaw believed the Klan’s real purpose was not only to keep non-whites and other “undesirables”, like “Pope Worshippers”, in their ‘rightful place’, separate and unequal, but also to ensure whites did not deviate too far from the ‘straight and narrow’.

The Klan hood and robe and all the appalling gutless evils it represented brought up for Alice more than unpleasant childhood dreams. It was up close and personal, with a historical connection. Known acquaintances, friends and in one case a family member, had suffered at the hands of assailants whose identities were shrouded in secrecy behind hooded robes… Her brother had been threatened within the proverbial inch of his life by the Klan. His crime, asking a white woman for directions. A country mile up the road, give or take, not far from Cut and Shoot in the Big Thicket, a heavily wooded national forest where even alligators have been known to get lost, an acquaintance was tied behind a pickup and dragged to his death. Little doubt, after all the evidence was collected, that it was the work of the Klan. Uncertain as to why, except that he was black, alone on a country road and it was a Saturday night. The Klan, at one point boasting a membership exceeding four million, provided a constant threat of bodily harm and death to the colored population, at times committing such villainous acts as lynchings, burning at the stake and other forms of torture. The Devil incarnate himself was implanted in every black person’s psychic.

Mamaw, Alice and Great Auntie needed time to gather their wits about them, to think things through and discuss what to do next, so they placed Doc’s hood and robe back in the closet, like before it was disturbed. Seldom talked about between whites and coloreds was the built in racism found in society. While the Klan may have been the worst of the worst, society in general, be it in the South or the North, perhaps more polished in a ‘refined’ genteel sort of way north of the Mason-Dixon, separate but unequal prejudice against coloreds permeated the daily life of everyone, often just below the surface but there none the less.

The ladies found a shady area under a large oak to deliberate, a favorite spot used by Mamaw and Alice for seasonal canning – jams, jellies, tomatoes and fruit – my favorite, ten times over, was peaches. Nearby Honeysuckle Creek provided the sweet smell of Texas, a perfumery of honey and ripe citrus rolled into one, puttering and meandering its way through the countryside to empty into Lake of the Pines some miles distance. Butterflies and a smattering of hummingbirds would do their thing if left undisturbed, providing the bumble bees were taking a nap. If you were really lucky you’d be entertained when a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showed up at the same time as a Tufted Titmouse. I witnessed this occasion only twice, where when done together they could produce a sound worth listening to, the rat-tat-tat of the woodpecker and the “peter-peter-peter” clear whistle of the Titmouse. Throw in the smell of smoke from a small crackling wood burning fire used in preparation for canning and there was no better place to hang your hat…

They discussed their Klan discovery and its possible ramifications over glasses of cool lemonade. Over the years Mamaw and Alice found the time to discuss pretty much everything under the sun, including subjects dealing with race. The most opportune moment was during the canning season, a time consuming process – to start things off,

you’d spit over your shoulder to help insure a successful endeavor, then build a fire, boil water, wash and sterilize the Mason jars, prepare the fruit or whatever it happened to be, fill and seal the jars, add labels, and lastly store the jars in a cool dark place for future eating.

Betwixt and between the start and finish of canning a lot of time was available for talking. This time around, the conversation, which included Great Auntie, forced them to deal with issues previously left untouched. Emotions ran rampant that day, from hither to tither, from hurt, anger, fear and revenge – revenge against whom and how that might be accomplished had yet to be decided. Mamaw was tongue in cheek contemplating hitting Doc over the head and burying him in the back yard. A more realistic consideration was throwing him out of house and home on his cone head along with his Klan paraphernalia, then filing for divorce. Married just under two years duration and here she was giving thought of divorcing her second husband.

Gin was available to those that wanted to add to their refreshment. All wanted to, including Alice who was a teetotaling Baptist on most occasions, but if ever there was a special occasion to partake, when not even Jesus who turned water into wine would object, this was it. She wasn’t all that sure, however, that her husband who was a preacher would be as understanding.

Cooler heads prevailed after the shock and anger subsided, helped along by the Gin. The thought of burying Doc’s body in the backyard was put on the back burner. However, everything else was on the menu. Initially Alice was all ears to what was being said, choosing instead to remain silent. According to Great Auntie, her sister was anything but quiet, doing enough talking for all three of them, and then some. For Mamaw, a loving and forgiving heart was not the prime motivator for what she had to say. She wanted to expose the members of the local Klan, to force them to come out from behind their hoods and face the music. She believed that once out in the open those exposed could not continue to act in such a manner. The problem was, no one seemed to have an idea on how to make it happen, except maybe Great Auntie, who looked like she had something to say but all she did was squirm and tap her foot.

“Stop fidgeting,” Mamaw snapped at her sister. “Spit it out,” she said. As it turned out Great Auntie knew of a lady who knew a lady whose husband had also been a Klan member, before his untimely demise. Apparently the wives took turns washing the local members Klan hoodies and robes, helping to keep them ‘white and pure as the driven snow’.

“Not sure how to go about exposing the local members of the Klan but we can make their life miserable for a couple days….”. She stopped herself in mid sentence, to make sure she had their undivided attention, which she did. “Wash their garments in Bull nettle, covered in stinging hairs… but of course you would have to volunteer to wash their outfits,” she said. prepared to run if Mamaw took off after her. After no such chase was initiated and after having built up a head of steam she took the plunge, “Given your man is in good standing with you-know-who you shouldn’t have no problem doing their laundry.”

Mamaw listen to her sister’s proposal, tranquil as a church mouse, but as soon as she was all done the quiet little rodent transmogrified into the mouse that roared, “I don’t want to just put fire ants in their underwear. I want to expose these Sons of Bitches to the folks who live here, white and colored… Run ‘em out of town or better yet, string ‘em up by their ying yang.”

By this time Alice was itching to say something but she held back. Mamaw knew Alice well enough to know when she had something that needed saying.

“Ok, what’s all this?” she asked. “I gotta also pull words out of your mouth Mrs. Alice?”

“Great Auntie got the right idea,” Alice said, a little sheepishly… “Bull Nettle is sometimes called Satan’s Dandelion but to my way of thinking it’s just a bad case of the itchy’s. After a day or two it’s gone and nobody is any the smarter on who they were that had it. If you’se really want to expose..,” Alice stopped herself from continuing, like she already spoke more than she shoulda. Mamaw tried nudging her to keep going but she was resisting.

It was obvious Alice was scared. So were they all but if the Klan got wind of her conspiring a’ginst them she would be tarred, feathered, lynched and that was just a beginning. Who knows what else they’d do?

“Alice, what we say here goes no further than between us in the here and now, well maybe Bear, just in case we need his assistance,” Mamaw said, attempting to reassure her friend. “In fact, whatever we say or a plan of action we come up with can only be revealed to anyone else, if ever, by the last one of us that’s still living. How does that sound?” Great Auntie agreed but it seemed like forever before Alice nodded her head.

“What’s ya’ll been talking about got me to thinking. Posen Ivy rash and blisters takes awhile to fully go away. Unlike Bull Nettle, in worst of cases it can take three, maybe four weeks to be full rid of. What you needs to do is build a fire and boil a large pot of water, like we do when canning, mix it up with Poson Ivy, Poson Oak and Poson Sumac leaves, which there ain’t no shortage of near my house. Let it stew for awhile and fore you know it you’ll have a sho’nuff Devil’s brew that the Almighty himself, had he been of a mind, could have used as an eleventh plague in Egypt. Course ten was sufficient for his purposes.” Alice glanced up at the others, making sure she hadn’t said too much already. They were anxious to see where this was going, you might say were egging her on to continue. “Throw in them Klan robes and hoods and let them get good and soaked,” Alice said, grinning like a Cheshire who swallowed the catnip, trying to hold back a snicker.

I’d be lying if I claimed to know all the juicy details that was said that day during their conniving to come up with a plan of action but what they ended up with would no doubt have made Jesus proud. As it was, Alice knew firsthand the pain and suffering, itching, rashes, blisters and whatnot associated with becoming too intimate with such ferocious flora. Over the years her kids, grand-kids, great grand-kids and a few adults got tangled up with one or the other. She was a walking encyclopedia. On top of that Great Auntie made several trips to the local library, sharing what she learned with her potential partners in crime.

What I learned I now pass along to you – the key greasy irritant in all three plants is called urushiol. The oil penetrates the skin and can remain on clothing and other surfaces for months, even years, which cause painful rashes, blisters, and itching. Just shows to go you, believe it or not, the amount of urishiol on the head of a pin is enough to cause 500 persons to itch, or better yet ¼ ounce of urushiol is all that is needed to cause a rash in every person on earth. It’s also normal for urushiol oil to stay active on any surface including dead plants from 1 to 5 years.

Mamaw and Great Auntie were worried about getting Alice involved anymore than she already was. They offered her to be a silent partner from there on out but she refused. She said another opportunity like this would never happen again. Mum would be the word, action was the walk. So with that in mind three ladies from the Deep East Texas pineywoods, laden with high-mindedness and a vengeful spirit and loaded for bear, with a concoction of Devil’s brew itself, were about to be turned lose on the local Ku Klux Klan…

Swallowing her pride, Mamaw somehow or other convinced Doc that she was willing to wash the Klan’s paraphernalia. How she accomplished this task Great Auntie didn’t elaborate. I suspect she was sworn to secrecy. She wasn’t sure when her Klan laundrizing duties would befall on her so there was no time to waste.

Mamaw borrowed a rubber apron and elbow length rubber cleaning gloves from a local restaurant, no explanation offered. Poison oak, ivy and sumac leaves carefully gathered together by Alice from her land was dumped into an oil drum that had been cut in half and scrubbed of its oily residue, then filled with water and brought to a boil over the fire pit normally used for canning. Great Aunte threw in a little Bull Nettle, as an added sweeter, if you will. The pot was stirred on occasion and allowed it to simmer until the urushiol oil floated to the top, a goodly amount anyways. A cloth netting contraption they made themselves was used to filter the leaves and other pulp to be thrown away.

Doc brought home eleven Klan robes and hoods, one no bigger than a child might wear. The Devil’s brew was reheated and the clothing added to the mix after Doc left for work. Mamaw and Great Auntie felt it best if Alice wasn’t there when the dastardly deed was done, especially when the hoods and robes were hung out on the clothes line to dry. Mamaw’s 40 acre spread all but guaranteed no nosy neighbors would be looking over the fence. Unable to talk the ladies out of what they had already made up their minds to do, Bear offered to help in any way they saw fit, like parking his pickup at the end of the long drive-way, with the hood up, like it was broken down, while keeping watch to ensure no one would inadvertently drive up to the house and receive the surprise of their life. It was almost certain the Klan would trace what they were doing back to the guilty parties and for that reason Mamaw had insisted she was the only one involved should it come down to that. With Bear’s help she probably could survive but probably not Great Auntie and certainly not Alice.

Obviously Doc could not be told of their efforts against the Klan. He was one of them and to Mamaw’s way of thinking her husband was just as deserving to suffer the consequences of Hell-Fire and Brimstone as were rest of his buddies. After a restless nights sleep and a tinge of guilt thrown in to the equation, Mamaw made the decision to water down the contamination, so to speak, of Doc’s hood and robe. After a good soaking in combination with the other’s Klan garb, she removed Doc’s clothing contribution and gave it a light rinse to dilute the worst of the urushiol. Although a fair-to-middling Baptist who didn’t believe in Purgatory per se, she hoped Doc’s suffering would be more of a cleansing where maybe just the hair on his head was singed rather than an eternal damnation.

Two days after the hoods and gowns were returned to their rightful owners Doc made himself scarce for the evening, only saying he was going over the house of one of his buddies. Upon his return he let slip that his robe and hood were covered in mud, blaming it on the rain earlier in the day. In Doc’s sheepish kind of way, as Mamaw later relayed to her sister, he wondered if perhaps his wife would be willing to again wash everyone’s robes and hoods. “I told you then and don’t make me tell you again, that was a one time event,” she said. Get one of the other ladies to wash your stuff… or better yet, do it yourself.”

No one was at all certain when rashes and blisters would appear. According to the information found in the library, if a person had a rash from one of the plants before, it usually appeared within four to forty eight hours. It could take anywhere from two to three weeks time had they never had a rash from poison ivy, oak or sumac. Doc may have let the cat out of the bag when he said one of his buddies who cut pulpwood for a living for the paper mill, Henry Andrews, had broken out with a bad rash on his face and arms, having blisters on his blisters and itching to the high heavens. The clock was now ticking…

It was the irony of ironies that the wife of another Klan member who handled and rewashed the muddy hoods and robes a couple of weeks after they were washed in the Devil’s Brew broke out in blisters and rashes all over her body. This occurred about the same time three others began standing out in the crowd, one a local pharmacist, another the town’s fine, upstanding ambulance chaser, a lawyer with less than a stellar reputation in the community. The third person was not mentioned by name but forgetting himself Doc let it be known that the fellow was covered from head to toes, including his crotch area, with a nasty rash, oozing blisters and an itch that was driving him up a wall. Doc laughed out loud when he mentioned the fellow liked to wear nothing but his birthday suite when wearing his Klan robe. Unbeknownst to Doc how all these unknown manifestations came to be, he was providing a heads up to Mamaw, Alice and Great Auntie of the names of several of the local Klan members.

As you may recall, the ladies made a pact between themselves, and Bear, to not reveal their involvement of you know what against you know who, leaving it to the last one alive, even if then, to reveal or not reveal you know what. Of course as secrets go, their secret was not foolproof, nor was it meant to be. Somehow word leaked out in both the colored and white communities that for the next couple of weeks they should be on the lookout for white guys exposed to some unknown substance that produced bad rashes and blisters, most pronounced on their face – good chance they might be KKK. As to Doc’s punishment, he suffered from rashes on his face and arms, with only one or two blisters. Upon its first appearance Mamaw had him take a shower, then rubbed him down with alcohol and calamine lotion.

As luck would have it or maybe it was Providence from Above, given all but one of the infections occurred two to three weeks after Mamaw’s washing and just one week after the re-wash, attention was focused elsewhere on how their robes and hood might have been exposed. Well that’s not one hundred percent correct. According to Doc the pharmacist suspected Mamaw as the culprit but he was cut off at the pass when Bear had a friendly chat with him regarding such preposterousness. Bear purportedly reminded him that the Colored folks now knew he was a Klansman, that he heard through the grapevine that there was talk going around and his name came up. No more was said. Probably unrelated to his and Bear’s little talk, the pharmacist shortly relocated to another part of the state to set up a new practice. The lawyer fellow also took down his shingle to practice law and rehung it in a friendlier location, more accepting to his particular proclivity. The Klan decided there were healthier pastures to graze so they moved on. Mamaw gave Doc an ultimatum, give up his membership in the Klan, either that or he could pack his bags. He supposedly changed his ways. In a small private ceremony, with Mamaw, Bear, Great Auntie and Alice attending, he burned his Klan hood and robe.

Great Auntie was the last of the three Amigas to pass on to the Sweet By and By. Why she picked me to pass along her story is anybody’s guess but I suspect it might have been cause I had a reputation of being the nosiest of the bunch on her side of the family. Instead of, as the ole saying goes, letting sleeping dogs lie I more often than not could be spotted shaking the dog from his slumber. Rumors kept circulating in the family over the years about our grandma and the Klan but the doors would always slam shut before anything worthwhile got out. But no matter, be it right as rain or just a tall tale is anybody’s guess.

After Great Auntie passed on I had an opportunity to browse through her small library where I found a copy of a Bible. Mamaw’s name was written on the inside cover. While thumbing through the pages I came across a book marker, a folded piece of yellow tinged paper. When I carefully pried it apart I found three small dry leaves with the following words written on the inside – p. ivy, p. oak, p. sumac.


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