In July 2017, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society invited members of the press to a private conference to discuss a sensitive pair of items from the organization’s collection: a pair of robes that might have originally belonged to founding members of the local Ku Klux Klan, established near Thomas Jefferson’s tomb in 1921.
The robes, which the society said were donated in 1993, drew attention when local activists and scholars started asking about them. “It’s probably some old respectable family name which adorns a current Charlottesville building, street or park,” speculated one of the scholars who’d requested more detail on the robes, according to Charlottesville’s Daily Progress. But Steven Meeks, the society’s president, declined to reveal who donated the artifacts. “I will tell you this much,” Meeks said to the newspaper, “neither one of them was a prominent person in the Charlottesville community.”
The tussle over revealing the identities of long-ago Klansmen in Charlottesville, the potential shame to their living relatives or descendants, feels itself like an artifact of history at this moment, when people unadorned by masks or hoods are marching for white supremacy openly on the city’s streets and lawns. It hearkens back to a time when the likes of the Klan achieved terror partially through a uniform that often obscured the face of its wearer. “Anonymity wasn’t quite the point,” as Alison Kinney pointed out in The New Republic. And indeed, in many places, for much of the Klan’s history, members marched openly. “While the hoods could assure their wearers’ personal anonymity, their force came from declaring membership in a safe, privileged identity that was anything but secret.” But where open racism was less acceptable, the hood offered a useful disguise. We could be anywhere, the uniform warned. We could be your neighbors.
But the images we saw in Charlottesville today and yesterday convey an entirely…