That Time the KKK Held a Rally in my Hometown
I don’t know about you, but when I think about the KKK—which admittedly isn’t very often—I think of their presence as something that happens in the southern states. I didn’t grow up with the sight of the white robes as kids my age may have in the south. The KKK didn’t really have, that I noticed, a strong presence in Connecticut—where I grew up.
Except for that one time.
With recent events, and the media talking about this person and that person having ties to the organization, the memory of the KKK rally in my hometown in East Windsor, Connecticut came flooding back to me. I was 10 years old when it happened.
Why did the KKK come to Connecticut for a weekend in the fall of 1984? East Windsor is a small town in north central Connecticut. Barely a spot in the map. When you drive through it, don’t blink, you’ll miss it. But it was a beautiful place to grow up, with the farms and rolling hills and the quiet. There was a man who lived on the eastern edge of the town. We used to drive by his place when we’d go to neighboring town Ellington. His property was on a flat and straight road, surrounded by farms that grew row after row of shrubs for commercial landscapers.
His name was Ed Thrall, and he built a dance hall on his property. I remember seeing it from the road, it had a sign on it that said “Gay Antics Dancing” on it. He wanted to open the hall so that he could hold dances there, and he built the whole thing with his own two hands. The problem was, it wasn’t built to code. He fought with the town for decades, yet it never opened. He dug his heels in, so did the town.
By 1984 he’d gotten so frustrated he took it up a notch and called the KKK. And they came up to hold a demonstration on his land. We whispered about it in school, we didn’t really know what it meant. We heard stories about cross burnings. But I didn’t realize that it was a cross that stood upright, like a sign, I thought it was just an image of it burned into the grass. What the hell did I know? I didn’t understand why they burned crosses anyway? Isn’t that sacrilegious? We had pictures of Jesus and the Pope all over our house, with crucifixes everywhere, and I knew that those weren’t to be messed with.
On a Saturday I was outside washing my Mom’s car. It was a nice day so I decided to wax it too. She used to joke about how waxing her car made it go faster. We lived on a road that, while wasn’t super busy, it was an artery that got you from one side of town to the other. On that Saturday I noticed that there was more traffic than normal. I stopped working and watched the cars go by. Many had Alabama license plates, Mississippi too. I put two and two together, and realized that KKK members were driving past my house to get over to the east side of town to the dance hall.
The KKK, an organization I knew to promote hate and racism, was invading my town. I was scared of what it would mean. I smeared wax on the side of my Mom’s car that was facing the street. Once it dried I wrote in it with my finger “Go home, Klan!” just hoping they’d see it, turn around and drive back to where they came from. I worked on the side facing the house. When a car with an Alabama or Mississippi plate drove by, I showed it my middle finger from the safety of the other side of Mom’s car.
That afternoon we went up to our land in Ellington. We used to tromp around in the woods. Chop and split some wood from a felled tree to heat our house. Mostly me and my cousins ran wild. We passed by the dance hall on the way there. I kept my eyes fixed on it from the backseat of the station wagon. Were they erecting a cross? Were they planning something hateful and terrible inside those walls? I didn’t see anything. Just another day at the dilapidated dance hall.
On the way back, it was dark, my cousin Ann came home with us to sleep over. We drove by the dance hall on the way back. There were two men in robes at the end of the driveway, the white of their robes bright in our headlights. They faced the road, arms folded across their chest. I gulped. Would they stop our car? Would they search us to see if we had any African Americans with us? I stared at them, heart pounding. I glanced at the dance hall to see if there were any signs of fire. None. Ann asked me what they were doing there. I couldn't respond, I was scared and embarrassed. She lived in a nice cul-de-sac in Westfield, Massachusetts where nobody would ever call the KKK.
When we got home we looked up the Ku Klux Klan in the encyclopedia, there was a black and white picture of hundreds of robed men surrounding a burning cross. Oh, so it is upright, and not just burned into the grass. We read the blurb and learned that picture was taken in the early 1960s. The encyclopedia didn’t tell me what they could possibly do to East Windsor, though. That’s kind of what I was hoping for. Ann told me she didn’t get it. I didn’t either.
The following weekend my town organized an ice skating outing on the night of the rally, to distract the children and get them out of town. Were the parents afraid of men in white robes marching through the streets? I boarded the bus bound for the Enfield Twin Rinks with my friends from school. We ice skated, ate snacks, had a great time. Then a reporter from the local newspaper, the Journal Inquirer (I used to deliver the JI on my bike every day after school) asked me and a few of my classmates what we thought about the rally. I was quoted as saying that it was stupid. I didn’t tell the reporter about flipping them off, though. My Mom clipped the article out of the paper and hung it on the fridge, then she sent a copy of it to my sister Margaret in Arizona. Marg wrote back and told me how proud she was that I stood up and said something about it.
A few months ago we were talking about it on Facebook, me and some other kids from East Windsor. There was a boy my brother Kaz was friends with, Darrell. Darrell posted to me that he and Kaz and some other boys, who were too old to go to the ice skating event, watched from afar as the KKK burned a cross in our town. I never knew that Kaz went and saw that. He never told me, I never thought to ask. Darrell said they were all scared and frustrated that this was happening. Would East Windsor become a Klan outpost? Would local people join? These were questions that we wanted answers for, but we couldn’t possibly know at that point.
The KKK members packed up their things. The cars from Alabama and Mississippi, presumably, drove back in the other direction past my house. I didn’t see them go. The hubbub died down. I had a few nightmares, and I am sure other kids did too, about the boogey men in the robes—the same nightmares that I am sure so many other people had as well. The organization has largely, I thought, existed in the fringes. In this day and age who would possibly stand up and admit they are members of this group with such a terrible reputation? And in light of recent events it is my sincere hope it remains in the fringes, it’s membership ever dwindling.
added on 11.21.16