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‘Harvard University Branch of the Ku Klux Klan’ in 1924

Claim

"Members of the Harvard University branch of the Ku Klux Klan pose for a graduation photo on Class Day 1924 at the foot of the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard."

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Reporting

On March 28 2021, the Facebook page “Bread and Roses 1912-2012” shared the following post, purportedly showing a Harvard University branch of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924:

A status update/caption asserted:

Members of the Harvard University branch of the Ku Klux Klan pose for a graduation photo on Class Day 1924 at the foot of the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard. By Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Commenters on the post weighed in on the image and its purported explanation, referencing elements such as social and political context of the time, the idea that the Ku Klux Klan or KKK was only a Southern issue, contemporaneous anecdotes about racism at universities and elsewhere, and general institutional racism in higher education and the Ivy League:

“That was around the time they were at their height. After World War I fears of Communism, immigration, Catholicism, and people of color drove their numbers to their highest.”

“Harvard. Lest we forget this stuff doesn’t only happen in the south[.]”

“I am Alabama born, trying to think of an appropriate comment, endless head shaking and eye rolling, this is the legacy that shaped this country and it sickens me, too many will never rise above it and claim it proudly. 🙁 We can and will do better, hopefully.”

“Everyone in this picture was already in a more dangerous gang. Old white money.”

“The Klan in Boston. It’s amazing how far virulence can spread.”

“Another hugely disappointing chapter of Harvard’s enduring role in perpetuating slavery, Jim Crow, contemporary racism and racial discrimination.”

“During the 20’s, the klan burned a cross on my grandfather’s farm in Michigan because he “sold to jews”.”

“University of Wisconsin had an on Campus Chapter of the KKK also in 1923. I have the yearbook showing it.”

An initial reverse image search was not very helpful, and Google returned no results. A separate tool with a similar function showed that the image was not newly unearthed in 2021, as it was shared to Reddit’s r/HistoryPorn in September 2014:

Harvard Class Day: Harvard Klass Kow & Klans – students having fun on Class Day 1924. [1181×921] from HistoryPorn

Only five comments appeared in the archived thread, and one of the comments disputed the assertion:

There was never any klan in Massachusetts.

Are these students part of a club of Southern assholes?

I’m sure there’s a story there.

A commenter responded to the above: “A little more context here, still not clear whether this photo was a joke.” That comment linked to an August 2011 UniversalHub.com post, “Toga parties at Harvard used to look a bit different,” featuring the image:

The Boston Public Library has posted a ton of Leslie Jones photos from Harvard, MIT and Wellesley, including this June, 1924 charmer, titled, “Harvard Class Day: Harvard Klass Kow & Klans – students having fun on Class Day.”

Some context: The Klan was in the news at Harvard in the 1923-24 school year. In October, 1923, the Crimson reported on Klan recruitment among Harvard men. A local Klansman claimed 300 Harvard men had attended a session in Boston; the year before, some Harvard Klansman switched allegiance from the Cambridge Klan to the Brookline chapter, because the latter was “sufficiently intellectual” for them. But, still that wasn’t good enough for the Harvardians, some of whom wanted to organize their own chapter.

We finally were able to nail down the context. An earlier version of the image offered a source and an explanation posted to Flickr in June 2009, originally shared by the Boston Public Library, which added information matching the content of the Facebook post:

Harvard Class Day: Harvard Klass Kow & Klans – students having fun on Class Day
File name: 08_06_015111

Title: Harvard Class Day: Harvard Klass Kow & Klans – students having fun on Class Day

Creator/Contributor: Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (photographer)

Date created: 1924-06-17

[…]

Subjects: Harvard University; Universities & colleges; Students; Costumes

Notes: Title and date from information provided by Leslie Jones or the Boston Public Library on the negative or negative sleeve.

Collection: Leslie Jones Collection

Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department

The sole comment requested “a little context” — something that appeared to be in short shrift on early iterations of the image:

“fun” must have had a slightly different meaning then? Can a little context be provided?

On Facebook, “Bread and Roses 1912-2012” linked to a March 25 2021 article from the Harvard Crimson. It was published three days before to the Facebook post, indicating that it wasn’t just randomly shared and was in fact a topic of discussion at that time, and bore the headline, “The Crimson Klan.”

The same image was featured at the top; it had a caption with the following description:

Members of the Harvard branch of the Ku Klux Klan pose for a graduation photo on Class Day 1924 at the foot of the John Harvard Statue in Harvard Yard. By Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Journalist Simon J. Levien began the piece by describing a February 1952 incident involving a burning cross and the harassment of a Black student at Harvard, quoting a letter written by alumnus J. Max Bond that year. Bond’s words echoed the 2021 Facebook comment about racism in Northern states:

“Some of the onlookers cheered when, after ten minutes, the cross was knocked down,” Bond and his Black classmate wrote in a letter to The Crimson at the time. “But we are sorry to say that others expressed indignation at its destruction. Minutes later a Negro student passing thru the Yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated States of the South.

In the next section of the Crimson piece, “A Burning Cross in the Ivory Tower,” Levien addressed the photograph, its authenticity, and its rarity:

Tucked away in the Boston Public Library’s digital archives are a pair of photo negatives. They depict 10 men in bright white sheets, pointy hats, and cut-out eye holes, posed around the John Harvard Statue. In one shot, a hunching Klansman, propped up in the statue’s lap, turns his body to face the statue, staring down the cameraman.

There are hints of formal wear; dress shoes and slacks peek out underneath the white robes. A man on the far right holds a boater hat, historically synonymous with Harvard Class Day attire. This was Class Day 1924. At Harvard’s graduation, students took a break from midday commencement exercises, donned sheets, and celebrated by playing dress-up as the Klan.

The photo description read: “Harvard Klass Kow & Klans — students having fun.”

A friend had alerted me to these photos last summer [in 2020] — their existence, and the lack of immediately available information about the Klan at Harvard, were alarming.

Levien quoted history lecturer Zachary B. Nowak, who teaches “History 1636: ‘Intro to Harvard History: Beyond the Three Lies,” “and is writing a book on the ‘people’s history’ of Harvard’s 385-year past.” Despite Nowak’s focus and stated areas of specialization, the photograph was both new to him and unsurprising.

Both men addressed the climate at Harvard University “in the 1920s under University President A. Lawrence Lowell”:

Nowak, alongside almost every scholar I asked, was not aware of the KKK’s presence at Harvard.

He was stunned when I showed him the photos of the Klan at Harvard, yet viewed their existence with “less surprise.”

“This is part and parcel of a long Harvard tradition of support for white supremacy,” Nowak says, calling the Lowell years some of Harvard’s most regressive.

Professor Evelynn M. Hammonds was described as “former Dean of Harvard College,” and she said she was “shocked” when she saw the images. The piece referenced a February 1999 Crimson article by alumnus Lauren E. Baer; Baer relayed to Levien that unearthing “evidence of [a KKK presence or other racism] in the University archives was a surreal and unsettling experience, and pointed to a history of racism and anti-Semitism at Harvard that had gone unexamined.”

Of Baer’s findings, Levien referenced a number of documents — among them, a 1923 Crimson article reporting Klan activity at Harvard:

After her article’s publication [in February 1999], however, she wrote that it went largely unnoticed by students and administrators.

The library docket of evidence she refers to, HUD 3502, contains a Crimson article on the Harvard Klan which lay it bare in portentous detail.

HUD 3502, dated in the fall semester of 1923, sets the stage for the aforementioned Klan commencement photos in 1924.

Purportedly founded on campus in 1921, Harvard’s KKK chapter arose at the same time as the reviled, second iteration of the nationwide Ku Klux Klan took prominence during and after World War I.

According to the docket from 1923, the Harvard KKK, while not on the fringes of University life, was leading a half-existence with its “shadow” hanging over campus.

“The Harvard Klan is inactive. But it is very far from being disorganized, nor can I say that even now its influence is unfelt,” an unnamed Harvard Klan member said of his organization. The Crimson’s “traditional policy” at the time awarded all of the Klan members anonymity.

Levien cited a flurry of activity both in and outside Harvard following the Crimson Klan article in 1923:

A day after the article’s publication, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson sent a telegram to Lowell and the Harvard Board of Overseers condemning their college’s outgrowth of the KKK.

[…]

Neither Baer nor I could find any record of Lowell responding to the telegram or otherwise acknowledging the Klan’s presence on campus. According to SUNY Plattsburgh historian Mark P. Richard, many Massachusetts college presidents joined together in an anti-Klan effort to identify and prosecute found-out Klansmen in November 1923. I could not find any record of Lowell joining such a cause.

One month earlier, October 1923, the Cambridge Chronicle reported on two KKK meetings in North Cambridge, Mass … Many Harvard students attended these biweekly meetings of the Cambridge chapter of the KKK, according to The Crimson, revealing the existence of pro-Klan sentiment despite the lack of a formally-recognized branch at the College.

The March 2021 article about the image extensively documented evidence of the Klan’s Harvard chapter in the years around 1923 and 1924, and noted that the paper trail appeared to fall off after the 1924 image was captured:

Mostly unchecked and unashamed by the academic year’s end, Harvard Klansmen posed for that photo-op in front of the John Harvard Statue. The Blue Shirt Club, meanwhile, apparently sloughed off into inactivity. And there, public records of the Klan at Harvard in the 1920s seem to stop.

Levien’s reporting was thorough and extensive, and the article is well worth reading. Although scholars of Harvard history were sometimes unaware of the image’s existence, neither were they “surprised” when they saw it.

The Harvard Ku Klux Klan photograph made its first internet appearance no later than June 2009, when the Boston Public Library uploaded it to Flickr with contextual information. It made its way to Facebook in March 2021, a few days after Harvard’s Crimson published a long-form piece about both open Klan activity at Harvard and longstanding indifference to that history. The Crimson piece drew from extensive documentation by lecturers, historians, and accessible records, evidencing a known Klan presence at Harvard in 1923 and 1934. Although the image was not necessarily well known, as of March 2021, its veracity was well documented.