From the Archives: Klan Kollege

Higher ed can be exclusionary. For students who don’t have the funds for tuition or the money for SAT prep classes or the ability to focus on four (or more) years of post-secondary education, college has always been out of reach. At some schools, though, there has been another sinister reason why college was not for everyone. Scott Jaschik reports today in Inside Higher Education about the Ku Klux Klan konnections of Wesleyan College in Atlanta. It’s an important story, but they left out the most extraordinary part.

Wesleyan’s story has plenty of shockers. Students had been proudly affiliated with the Klan since the late 1800s, with sports teams sporting the name “Tri-Ks” until the 1990s. Students hazed one another in masks with nooses. The school didn’t admit an African-American student until 1968. But the story of Wesleyan is not the most intriguing story of the Ku Klux Klan in higher education. At the height of its influence, the “second” Klan in the 1920s made plans to purchase its own Klan Kollege.Daily-Republican-Rushville-IN-August-16-1923

A little background: The 1920s Klan was very different than its earlier and later incarnations. As I note in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s the Klan was still violent and racist, but it had much more mainstream credibility than later Klan groups.

During the 1920s, ambitious leader Hiram Evans planned to use the issue of education to bring together the millions of Klan members nationwide. As I’ve argued in an academic article, the plan was to mimic anti-immigrant mainstream educational ideas left over from World War I. Public schools, Evans believed, could be the tool to “Americanize” the nation.

fiery cross pic valpo

Spoke a little too soon…

At the height of its popularity, the 1920s Klan ran the states of Indiana and Oregon. They were enormously politically powerful. As part of their soaring ambition, they hoped to invest in the future by building their own university.

How? They proposed to purchase the financially strapped Valparaiso University in Indiana. It would become a dedicated Klan school, an institution that would teach the principles of Ku Kluxism, Indiana-style. Valpo would become the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” Klan leaders promised. The school would teach the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the 1920s Klan. As they explained in their Indiana newspaper,

Those un-American and alien forces that would disrupt every move that is planned to better any Protestant undertaking are busy stirring up strife and discord where possible in an attempt to block the project. The futility of such attempts, however, is realized when it is noted that whatever the Ku Klux Klan starts out to do, it always does. In this instance, the Klan has started out to make Valparaiso a great national institution; to make it a monument to American ideals and principles.

Fiery-Cross-August-24-1923

Big dreams of Klan Kollege

It didn’t work. Due to feuding between the powerful leader of the Indiana Klan and the national leadership in Atlanta, the money fell through at the last minute. It still shows, though, how higher education has always been central to America’s long-running culture wars. For the 1920s Klan to cement its role as a real leader in American culture, it wanted to have its own college. Other conservative groups–from fundamentalists to free-marketeers–have had more success.

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