Life of a Klansman


I am writing a nonfiction book with the working title “Life of a Klansman,” which traces the life of a foot soldier in the race battles that unfolded during Reconstruction in the American South. The vigilante in this story was an ordinary man, and my own great-great-grandfather, a French-speaking carpenter in New Orleans, who joined the White League, a militia in Louisiana equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan. The book follows the evolution of this white guerilla fighter as a way to explore the roots of American racial violence and ideology. Segregation and white supremacy have disfigured American life; this piece of history investigates how, why, and by whom they were shaped.

I would like to work with a research partner who concentrates in American studies, history, or African American studies to investigate primary sources in the history of white supremacy. The project also requires a person conversant with, or willing to learn, family history. One research challenge is to expose the ideological roots of American white supremacy, whose creed becomes explicit around the first years of the Ku Klux Klan, ca. 1865–1875. The research partner will also investigate family history, and use genealogical methods. The assignment will be to try to locate descendants of people who were victimized by the Klan in Louisiana during the 1870s. And to ask those descendants to share their family stories. We will begin by using public records to build family trees, ca. 1870–1970, and hope to end by finding people where they live.

The research partner’s work will deepen the storytelling in this project, “Life of a Klansman,” especially around the secretive Ku Klux Klan. And the discovery of living descendants of Klan victims is likely to have a positive impact well beyond the book project. The research partner will learn investigative skills that will help in the telling of other nonfiction stories, in history and in journalism. With the volatile and trenchant subject of the Klan, the research partner may feel satisfaction beyond the usual experienced in history projects. And to work on a project that grapples with trauma and historical memory may have another benefit, namely, that of helping people come to terms with a difficult history.