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In 'Life Of A Klansman,' Edward Ball Traces A Difficult Family History


There are stories families tell themselves about their ancestors, about their place in the world. Edward Ball has just written a history of a man his family called our Klansman.

EDWARD BALL: (Reading) Constant is one of 16 great-great-grandparents. The thought has a distancing effect. The reality is that Constant, my grandmother's grandfather, is a murderous actor on behalf of his family, on behalf of us. And it is a vile taste in the mouth. I must own it in some way. He was a fighter for our gain, for my benefit. To say anything else is to prevaricate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Edward Ball's book is called "Life Of A Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy," and he joins us now from his home in New Haven, Conn. Welcome to the program.

BALL: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Growing up, your Aunt Maud, the family historian, just put it out there, calling him our Klansman. This New Orleans ancestor, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, was someone that you heard about. What did that phrase our Klansman mean?

BALL: I first heard about our Klansman, Constant Lecorgne, when I was a boy in New Orleans. We were somewhat proud of him. We were somewhat ashamed of him because Klansmen were heroes to most white Southerners for most of the last 150 years. But in my childhood, that memory was changing. He was someone who had done things important. He had helped to restore white supremacy when it was threatened in Louisiana. And nevertheless, he was kind of a notorious figure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you view his place in the place of others like him who worked during Reconstruction to secure white supremacy? What was their role?

BALL: Well, it was the majority of white society that resisted the innovation of Reconstruction, which was an attempt to establish a place for African Americans as citizens. So he was working in concert with tens of thousands of other ordinary folks, some of whom joined the white militias and rampaged, like he did, and others who tried to block the implementation of policies that would allow Black men to vote and establish a new life after emancipation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. White fear of Black people, you write, is, quote, "so old and so established that it lies like an animal asleep in the mind." That racism leads to violence. The organization against the control of the federal government, the reassertion of power over Black people. And it doesn't happen in secret. Can you tell us about the sort of strange swell of volunteer firemen in New Orleans after the Civil War?

BALL: Yes, the fire departments became the place where the white militias were cultivated. After the Civil War, half a million embittered Confederate veterans were returned to their towns in the South. And in New Orleans, quite a lot of them enlisted in the volunteer fire departments. And these organizations turned into military like organizations. And Constant and many of his friends and family were active in fire department politics and in the drills of those units. And they - these fire departments were responsible for some of the early marauding assaults on Black society. And it was after a few years that a number of these fire departments became converted in a way into Ku Klux Klan units.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And can you tell us about his role in sort of a horrific massacre of African Americans and their allies?

BALL: In 1866, there was a rally for the African American vote, and several hundred Black people were gathered in an auditorium. The city sent waves of police and waves of firemen to break up this meeting. Within a couple of hours, hundreds of Black people were dead in the street, scattered throughout the streets, some of them beaten to death, most of them shot to death. It's likely that my ancestor was on the scene, though it cannot be determined with absolute certainty because in many massacres of this kind. And this was one of dozens that unfolded around the South during Reconstruction. There is no honor roll of killers that is preserved. And so this was the event that launched the thing we know as Radical Reconstruction. In response, Congress in Washington passed the Reconstruction Act and extended the right to vote to Black men. And it was a real pivot point in the history of U.S. politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story is resonant to this moment for many reasons, but one is because you write that many white Americans may have had a Klan member in their family at some point. And that is important to know.

BALL: It's hard to believe, but approximately one half of all white Americans have in their family tree a Klansman. But most of them don't know this. I think that there is a kind of healing that can come from facing the fact that you carry the legacy of white rule and white violence. That's what I'm trying to do is to claim this difficult history to show that it can be done and we can learn from it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, may I ask? How did your family react to your telling this story? Did it heal?

BALL: It depends on whom you ask. I have a lot of family in New Orleans. And, you know, the poet Czeslaw Milosz said that when a writer is born, his family is lost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love that quote.

BALL: Yeah. And condemned to exposure and embarrassment. Some in the family say, oh, he was a bad seed. You know, we are the good white people. He's not like us. So I think that's an understandable response that no one wants to hold at arm's length, a difficult story. And I think that there is some medicine that can be made from the poison that he spread.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Edward Ball. His new book is called "Life Of A Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy." Thank you very much.

BALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.