Thank God! This is such an amazing story. I’m so fascinated. Not only by the bravery of a little white girl who crossed KKK, but also the shades of “mulatto” history sprinkled throughout. Coon-hunting based on the supposed threat that black males posed to white women. The “black” member of the Klan. Passing. Male chauvinism. Homophobia. This is our sordid past. And it is still haunting us.
Taking on the Klan
One summer night in 1965, 12-year-old Carolyn Wagner watched as Klansmen bound a young black man to a tree in her father’s field, accused him of violating the “sundown” rules in nearby Booneville, Ark., that forbade blacks from staying in town after dark, and lashed him a few times with a bullwhip as he cried out in pain and fear.
It was no different from beatings at other Klan gatherings her father had attended, but what happened next remains vivid in her memory: the Klansmen decided to tie the man to the railroad tracks below the pasture. When they were done, they ambled back to the field to discuss crops and politics. Wagner, a reluctant witness to her father’s Klan meetings, couldn’t stand it anymore. She stole down to the tracks, used a knife she kept in her boot to slash the rope that bound the man, and told him he could follow the tracks to Fort Smith, the nearest large town.
“That was a turning point,” recalled Wagner, now 56 and living in Tulsa, Okla. “I felt like I had made a difference when I was able to cut that man free. I realized I can make a choice to be a passive observer or I can become involved to diminish the harm that they’re doing. And that’s what I did from that night on, and that’s what I’m still doing.”
After years working for civil rights and children’s organizations, Wagner co-founded Families United Against Hate, a nonprofit group that helps people affected by bias incidents. Her experience growing up with a father in the Klan made her determined and fearless in her fight against hate. “That image of my dad and those men, and even the smells, are still with me, and they’ll always be with me. And it was very important that my children never know the world I knew when I was growing up.”
It was a world where Wagner’s father, Edward Greenwood, and his acquaintances gathered at least once a month at each other’s farms for Klan meetings, often bringing their children and grandkids. Because her father, then in his late 50s, couldn’t see well enough to drive at night, Wagner ferried him to meetings in a 1951 Chevy pickup. (Back then in rural Arkansas, it wasn’t unusual for children as young as 12 to drive on country roads.) The men — including lawyers, judges, cops and pastors — would begin their gatherings with a prayer and eschew alcohol. “They felt like they were doing God’s work,” Wagner said.
Sometimes, the gatherings would feature a beating like the one Wagner witnessed at her family’s farm. The victims were usually young men who’d been picked up on a pretext, such as paying too much attention to a white woman. “We would hear terms like ‘coon’ hunting,” she said. “My father would say, ‘I’m going ‘coon’ hunting.’”
But more often, the men would talk big, complaining about Presidents John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson or even threatening to blow up the Supreme Court building. They’d eat bologna sandwiches that Wagner had prepared. Campfire smoke would mingle with the sweet-sour odor of Brylcreem, sweat and Old Spice. It was the one place where her father seemed happy. “I don’t remember seeing him smile or laugh unless he was with those goons,” she said.
…But her father probably would not have found a home in the Klan if his comrades had known about his heritage. “We knew there was this dirty secret in the family,” Wagner said.
In fact, her father’s great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Greenwood, was part Cherokee and part black, a former slave who’d settled in Arkansas when it was still part of France’s Louisiana Territory, according to family lore. Her father had cousins who identified as black, though he would have nothing to do with them. Wagner believes part of his racism stemmed from shame about his origins.
Wagner’s mother didn’t share her husband’s views about race, but she felt powerless to oppose him. Divorce was taboo in her family; resources for victims of domestic abuse were nearly nonexistent. “Mother never asked what he did [at Klan meetings],” Wagner said. “It was like she couldn’t bear to know.”
Wagner did receive support from her maternal grandparents, who passionately disliked her father. After Wagner secretly untied the black man from the railroad tracks, her maternal grandfather taught her how to use a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun. She cut away the springs in the seat of the pickup to create a compartment where she hid the weapon, loaded and wrapped in a blanket. Though she never used it, she says she would have done so to defend herself or to help a potential Klan victim.
It wasn’t the last time she would defy all that her father represented. In April 1968, Wagner drove him to Memphis to take part in a Klan protest during the sanitation workers strike made famous by the appearance of Martin Luther King Jr. She was there when the civil rights leader was assassinated. In a Memphis newspaper, she read that the Department of Justice was planning a crackdown on the perpetrators of civil-rights era violence. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later, Wagner, then 15, wrote a letter to the FBI accompanied by a list of names and addresses she’d copied from her father’s Klan directory. She wanted to get them all arrested. “I included my dad on that list,” she said.
Wagner, who used her maternal grandparents’ home as the return address, never heard back from the FBI.
She left home the day she finished high school and at 19 eloped with Bill Wagner, now her husband of 37 years. Her father died in 1980 when she was pregnant with her younger child, William. “I am so grateful that my children will have no memory of him or his politics,” she said.
But her own memories of her father came back strongly on William’s 14th birthday, the day he told his parents that he was gay. That day she and her husband’s biggest concern was for their son’s safety. “I had a very clear understanding of who the hatemongers were,” she said. They decided to move from their farm in tiny Booneville, a conservative town where homosexuality was widely condemned, to the more liberal university town of Fayetteville, some 120 miles away.
Still, they couldn’t protect their son from hate. Harassment at school culminated in a brutal assault in 1996. William, then 16, left school with friends to get lunch at a nearby convenience store when six teenagers shouted anti-gay slurs. They knocked him off his feet, then kicked him as he lay bleeding on the ground. “I thought about how easily that could have been my father’s group,” Wagner recalled. “And I wasn’t there.”
Two of the attackers were convicted of assault. After the Wagners filed a complaint on behalf of their son under Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law, Fayetteville became the first public school district in the nation to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that required it to protect all students, including gays and lesbians, from harassment. The Wagners continue to advocate for young people who are targeted because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Looking back on her childhood, Wagner remembers reading novels by Pearl S. Buck and biographies about women such as Harriet Tubman and Florence Nightingale. She wanted to learn about people who had survived difficult circumstances to help others, because she was determined to do the same.
“I found ways to survive,” she said. “I found ways to more than survive — to endure, to become stronger and to make our little corner of the world in the South a little better.”