Many people – even those with more than a passing interest in Sullivan County history – are surprised to learn that the Ku Klux Klan was once fairly active in parts of the county. And yet, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, there were several chapters in the Catskills, most set up by recruiters from the Binghamton area.
These Klan chapters, whether in Livingston Manor, Jeffersonville, Liberty, Woodbourne or some other hamlet, often started out as social organizations, and it was not unusual to see newspaper articles and even advertisements about their charitable activities or their clambakes, sometimes in conjunction with the Kamelias, the organization’s women’s auxiliary.
In that sense, the Klan was often treated in the local press much like other civic organizations, and at least one obituary listed among the deceased’s accomplishments in life that he had been a member of
“the Red Men, the Odd Fellows, and the Ku Klux Klan.”
Of course, most people associate the Klan with brutalities aimed at African Americans, but that was not the motivation for the formation of chapters in Sullivan County, since even as late as 1930 there were
only 91 African Americans living in the County, just about one quarter of one per cent of the population.
Occasionally there would appear in a local weekly a short article about a cross burning on Round Top or Revonah or some other summit, but those kinds of articles seem to have been few and far between. That’s why a front page story in the Liberty Register newspaper on June 19, 1924 stands out.
“Livingston Manor seethes with excitement this morning as the result of an assault upon two of its citizens by supposed members of the Ku Klux Klan,” the Register reported. “Sheriff [Fletcher] Rhodes
and a staff of deputies went to the village last night and up to ten o’clock this morning had made six arrests and were searching for 30 or 40 other men alleged to have been involved in the assault.”
The article went on to describe a series of events that began when a group of perhaps as many as 100 Klansmen began burning a cross near Lew Beach.
“Lester Bourke, brother to Dr. V.G. Bourke of Livingston Manor, was driving by, and seeing the cross started to tear it down when voices from the woods nearby warned him to leave the scene. “Mr. Bourke continued to demolish the burning symbol and was soon surrounded by between 50 and 100 Klansmen, many of whom, according to his story, he was able to recognize. He was seized and beaten to unconsciousness by members of the mob and left in a ditch nearby.
“Dr. V.G. Bourke was in Liberty when informed of the attack, and hastened immediately to the Manor and proceeded to the spot to get his brother, who was still lying unconscious on the earth with several broken ribs and a nasty scalp wound.
“As he neared the spot, indicated by the still glowing embers of the cross, two of the windows in the doctor’s car were shattered by bullets fired from within the woods. Two shots were fired, none of them reaching their apparent destination, however. When the doctor alighted from his car, he too was set upon by the mob and assaulted. Though he is not seriously injured, the doctor’s body is covered in bruises and abrasions received in the fight.”
The Register article went on to speculate that incidents such as the one described were actually working against the Klan, as they galvanized the mainstream population against the organization.
“The increased activity of the Klan in this section and the increasing hostility to it have several times brought the opposing elements to the verge of an out-and-out fight such as that at Livingston Manor last night,” the article concluded.
Klan activity did not end in Sullivan County with that incident, but few reports exist today of their blatant interference in everyday life. While more than 300 Klansmen marched in the streets of Port Jervis in 1924, in Sullivan County, at least, the organization had mostly disappeared from public view within a decade, and little mention can be found in the local press after that time.
Nationwide, Klan membership was seriously diminished by the Great Depression, and the organization largely disbanded in the north at the time of the Second World War. There was a resurgence of Klan activity in the Southern United States in the 1960s however, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, and while the beatings and bombings and other violent atrocities perpetrated by these reconstituted chapters took a devastating toll on many African American communities, they also sparked outrage throughout the country that eventually blunted much of the Klan’s power.
Illustrations: a cross burning, location unknown (courtesy Library of Congress); and a headline from the June 19, 1924 edition of the Liberty Register newspaper.