Why visit Catholic archives to research projects that aren't overtly Catholic? Research Travel Grant recipient Sean Rost explains

Author: Heather Gary

Sean Rost

Sean Rost is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Missouri. As a recipient of a Cushwa Center Research Travel Grant this year, he traveled to South Bend for a few days this summer to work in the archives for his dissertation on anti-Klan activism in 1920s Missouri.

What kinds of efforts were most successful by anti-Klan activists in Missouri? How was activism there distinct from efforts in other parts of the country during this time?

In many cases, the earliest effort to stop the Klan was simply to rally local opposition at the sign of Klan recruitment in a community. This could be achieved by shaping the public’s perception of the Klan through petitions and the local press. If one knew little about the Klan, their interpretation could certainly be impacted by a series of negative articles on the Klan in the newspaper. Editors would also issue scathing editorials about why a particular town did not need a Klan chapter.

Beyond this initial approach, the most successful effort by activists was to influence municipal, county, and statewide elections. The Klan could gain a large membership in counties and communities, but this would be largely ceremonial if it could not wield political power. In states like Indiana and Colorado, the Klan succeeded in politics and thus placed affiliated candidates into positions of power within the states. This was not the case in Missouri. In Missouri, both Democratic and Republican state parties officially denounced the Klan in 1924. Many of the state’s top politicians spoke out against the Klan, and while the Klan did achieve success in some local elections, overall, it was not able to wield much power within the state.

Many scholars who have examined opposition to the 1920s Klan have focused on violent responses from groups such as the Knights of the Flaming Circle. While there certainly were a few violent attacks directed at Klansmen in Missouri, I have not yet found a similar organization within the state. In fact, the state experienced very little violence from Klan or Anti-Klan groups. For the most part, Klan opponents prevailed within the state simply by taking to the ballot box and the editorial pages to voice their opposition to the Klan.

What first piqued your interest in this topic?

I first came across the 1920s Ku Klux Klan while researching and writing my master’s thesis. My focus was on efforts by local officials and private citizens to remove vice (gambling, drinking, and prostitution) from the town of Jefferson City, Missouri. I surveyed this fight over a roughly 60-year period. As I was wrapping up my research, I came across the local Klan’s visit to a neighborhood brothel. The Klan burned a cross in the brothel’s front yard and ordered all of its inhabitants to leave town—and they did, very quickly.

At the time I had little knowledge about the Klan’s history beyond the racial violence of the Reconstruction and Civil Rights Movement eras, so I wanted to find out why the Klan would be so concerned about the inhabitants of a brothel. It was from a deeper reading into the historiography of the Klan and follow-up research on the Klan in Jefferson City that my dissertation really took root. I expected to find the same level of the Klan’s statewide dominance in Missouri as in other states, but instead, I discovered how important anti-Klan activism was in the rise and fall of the Klan in Missouri.

Since your project doesn't have a specifically Catholic focus, what led you to the Notre Dame Archives? How did you use the material here?

I first began to contemplate visiting the University of Notre Dame’s Archives after I read Kelly J. Baker’s dissertation and her book The Gospel According to the Klan (2011). Not only had she accessed the Notre Dame Archives for her own research, but she was also a recipient of a Cushwa Center Research Travel Grant. So in a way, her work introduced me not only to the collections of the Notre Dame Archives, but also to the mission of the Cushwa Center. 

While my project does not focus specifically on Catholicism, I think that accessing the Notre Dame Archives was important because of the Klan’s views on Catholicism. Additionally, since my work looks at anti-Klan activism, I needed to examine collections related to groups that would have opposed the Klan. On top of all this, my research is centered in a part of Missouri that had—and continues to have—a large Catholic population.

As an example, one of the first projects I did in my PhD program was a research paper on the 1924 Cole County Sheriff’s Election. In this particular election, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for sheriff were affiliated with the Klan. A nonpartisan group got together and selected an anti-Klan candidate to run for sheriff. In order to get his name on the ballot, the group had to obtain a certain number of signatures from people who had not voted in the August primary election. As I read through the petition, I noticed that a majority of the signers were women. I thought this was really interesting so I decided to construct mini biographies about the signers to try to figure out why they signed the petition. Using church records, obituaries, and newspapers, I was able to confirm that a large number of the signers were not only women but also Catholic. Included among these signers, I discovered, were members of my own family. 

When the votes were cast in the election, the anti-Klan candidate ultimately lost by a slim margin; but the voting returns showed a landslide of support for many of the anti-Klan candidates in the sections of the county with high Catholic residency. Local newspapers even reported that some Catholics had switched political party affiliation to vote against the local Democratic Party, which had sided with the Klan.

What collections did you look at while you were at Notre Dame? Were there any surprises or particularly valuable documents you uncovered?

One of my first goals was to look through collections related to anti-Catholicism. These collections included materials related to the Ku Klux Klan and the Menace. The Menace was an anti-Catholic newspaper published in southwestern Missouri that had a nationwide readership.

Those collections proved to be extremely beneficial, but the material that really surprised me came from the Catholic Central Verein Records. In going through this material, I found that the Central Verein, which was headquartered in St. Louis, received numerous letters throughout the first half of the 20th century related to lectures given by “phony” priests and nuns. What particularly struck me about this collection was the sheer number of letters the Central Verein received during this period. Many of these letters inquired about the credentials of the speakers since a majority of the lectures were decidedly anti-Catholic in nature. After investigating, the Central Verein would provide background information on the speakers such as education, hometown, previous complaints, and religious affiliation. 

When I came to the Archives I wanted to find the Catholic voice in Missouri. I had already found newspaper editorials, private letters from politicians, commentaries from African Americans, and the minutes of Protestant church meetings, but I had yet to find a sufficient voice for Catholics. By discovering the letters sent to and from the Central Verein as well as the records of the Catholic Union of Missouri, I finally found that voice.

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