In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was forced out of New York City due to fierce opposition, and as a result, they moved their state headquarters to the Binghamton area.
On Thursday afternoon Binghamton University alum Jay Rubin, author of “The Forgotten Kapital: The Ku Klux Klan in Binghamton, 1923-1928,” held a book talk in the Library Tower of Glenn G. Bartle Library to educate Binghamton University community on this aspect of the area’s past.
The KKK originated in the late 1860s as a response to the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War. This first wave of Klansmen operated mainly in the South and targeted newly freed slaves and Republicans coming from the north to assist with Reconstruction. The second wave of Klansmen originated in the early 1900s near Atlanta, Georgia.
Unlike in the 1860s, the message of the KKK was not specifically targeted against African Americans. According to Rubin, the platform of the KKK during the early 1900s was against immigrants; specifically against Catholic and Jewish immigrants.
By the 1920s, the KKK had expanded to become a national movement. Originally, the KKK tried to set up their state headquarters in New York City, because it was the epicenter of immigration at the time. However, the group experienced so much resistance from immigrant communities, non-Protestant churches, media outlets and politicians that it was forced to relocate to the Binghamton area in 1923.
“At a point in 1923, they began looking for a quieter place with less opposition,” Rubin said. “They ended up coming to Binghamton because the demographics fit well. Binghamton had a significant foreign population working in factories, but it was not overwhelming like it had been in the city.”
During the height of Klan activity in the 1920s, the KKK had between 3 and 6 million members. In the Binghamton area, it is estimated that the KKK had 2,500 members. The group gained power in Binghamton for a short period, even openly backing a mayoral candidate in the 1925 election; however, Rubin was unable to find any evidence that they perpetrated any violent acts in the area during this time.
“They portrayed themselves as a law and order organization,” Rubin said. “In 1924, acts were passed to limit immigration, and the KKK was gone by 1928. Most people forgot about it.”
The event was organized by Andrew Pragacz, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in sociology and a researcher at the Bundy Museum of History and Art.
“We decided to put on an exhibit [in the museum] about the Klan in Binghamton,” Pragacz said. “I think that as University students, we should know the history of Binghamton. It’s important that students are involved locally and students should know that they can do good research on the history of the area.”
Dael Norwood, an assistant professor in the history department, said that he came to the talk to learn more about local history.
“A lot of national trends were happening here, and still are today,” Norwood said. “The presence of the KKK in contemporary politics makes this event very timely.”
Today, the former headquarters of the KKK in Downtown Binghamton, on the corner of Wall Street and Henry Street, is a parking lot located directly across from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Promenade. There is currently no KKK presence in the Binghamton area, and Rubin does not see the KKK reemerging as a mass movement in the United States today; however, he believes there are lessons to be learned from the past.
“I think that currently, we are dealing with a lot of copycats and people with the power of the internet to make things seem bigger than they actually are,” Rubin said. “It’s a very different world now, and it’s important that we learn about this history to ensure that it never repeats itself.”