|Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com
Spring had just arrived in Cherrydale the day before, but the chill in the air still suggested winter to the crowds gathering along Lee Highway on March 22, 1922. The biting air didn’t stop the crowd of 600 including 20 or so reporters and at least one “movie man” to feel the electricity of anticipation. Around 10:30, the lights appeared on the hill above the hamlet and the crowd began to cry “They’re here! They’re here!”
On the crest of the hill the crowd saw the rambling stream of forty-six cars filled with 250 people puttering along Lee Highway with a Ford with DC plates at the lead. The cars had gathered at the Chain Bridge and made their way towards Cherrydale. Onlookers had not turned out at this late hour to see the usual civic or patriotic parade and the lead car carrying a “huge fiery cross” told them tonight would be different. As the cars pulled into the center of town, the white robed contingent piled out of the vehicles to walk by foot holding signs that said “We were here yesterday, we are here today and we will be here forever” and “Our officers are sworn to do their duty”.
This was the Ku Klux Klan’s first major march in the DC area and everything about the evening was chosen carefully for a spectacle of white protestant institutional power to everyone gathered. This would begin the Klan’s nadir of power as tens of thousands of men and women in DC and the close-in suburbs would flock to the organization. In Arlington alone, the Klan would claim, later in 1922, that “practically every male voter in good standing is a member”. This was boastful swagger, but the fact that the claim could be made with a straight face proves the unnerving reality that Arlington was a Klan town.
As the parade pulled into Cherrydale, the men alighted from the cars and one of the photographers in the crowd snapped a photograph of one of the cars in the parade. It is probably a Buick with a DC plate and a Maryland plate. The number 590 on the DC plate tells us that the driver was someone of prominence since the lower number plates were reserved for important people in the community.
Above the driver side of the car was a small badge that read “Motor Corps H.D.L M.D.”, which signified the driver was a member of the Home Defense League in Maryland. DC Commissioners formed the Home Defense League during World War I to serve as back up for the chronically under-manned and under-equipped DC police force during the strains for war. After the war, the Home Defense League continued as a citizen force made up of “public-spirited and patriotic men” that enforced traffic regulations and serve the police in times of crisis. During the war, most fraternal organizations formed units including many African Americans. Prominent auto dealers in DC worked to form the Motor Corps within the Home Defense League to serve as a rapid response group for police.
On January 25, 1919 a story appeared in the Washington Post declaring a “supposed maniac” had attacked three women in the city. Two women were shot and one was strangled during a daylong rampage by an unnamed man. The police force went into full alert and called out the Home Defense League for assistance. Evidently, the Home Defense League did not come through during the crisis and a month later, police held a reorganization meeting. Coming out of this meeting was a new Home Defense League that had dropped the “dead wood” from the organization.
In June 1919, the director of the Home Defense League called members to action after an anarchist bombed the home of Attorney General Palmer in DC. The notice in the paper asked members to report suspicious persons and
All statements and literature that is in any way un-American should be forwarded to police headquarters, giving names and addresses of persons handling same.
The “dead wood” purged during the reorganization had freed the Home Defense League to take on the role of enforces of the conservative order. During this time, many white Protestants joined conservative organizations fighting to preserve the social order against blacks demanding civil rights, immigrants fighting for a new political order, and radicals working to win a fairer economy. Many of these organizations were dominated by important Protestant small businessmen that sought an idyllic orderly society with their caste on top.
In July 1919, whites in DC formed mobs along Pennsylvania Ave. as news spread that a black man had been questioned by police for sexually assaulting a white woman, but police released him after finding no evidence. The whites marched into Southwest DC and began days of rioting quelled only by rain and cavalry. Unlike many race riots of 1919, DC blacks fought back and formed bands of armed men confronting mobs of whites with violence. The Home Defense League actively participated in the riots and was implicated in at least two murders. A black rioter had no doubt which side they were on when he gunned down two Home Defense League members in a gunfight at 9thand M, NW.
Shortly after the riots, the Home Defense League strengthened their organization by forming a Motor Corps led by prominent auto dealers in the city. The Motor Corps pledged to be ready at a moment’s notice to provide assistance to the police. Led by W Pearce Rayner, a local businessman and anti-socialist crusader, the Motor Corps became the backbone of law and order in the city.
These conservative organizations found their real strength in the suburbs, where vigilantism came in the form of a real war on the disorder of liquor, philandering, gambling, and other vices. The strip of land along the Potomac from Rosslyn south to Alexandria housed small hamlets built around vice and a large swath of marshy land perfect for bootleg liquor stills. Jackson City sat on the end of the Long Bridge where the new shiny Long Bridge Park sits and was a sanctuary of sin. Built with so much promise as a tribute to Andrew Jackson, the community became the District’s gambling hub and the owners had visions of a Monte Carlo on the Potomac. Conservative citizens formed a vigilante band and razed Jackson City to the ground. The vice simply picked up and moved to the African American slum called Hells Bottom located roughly at the base of the Air Force memorial. Police raided the area regularly and found illicit liquor production on barges along the Potomac and a booming gambling industry amid the garbage dumps and slum. This strip of vice spread up to Rosslyn where a few gambling and drinking establishments hugged the Aqueduct bridge operating openly through legal manipulation and graft.
These vigilantes were not just concerned with vice; they also worked to ensure that African Americans stayed in their place in the social order and showed a willingness to turn to violence if needed. In 1897 a crowd took a young black man out of his jail cell and carried him to the intersection of Lee St. and Cameron where they cheered as a group hanged him by a lamppost. The lynching shocked the community and led to a better protection of African American prisoners. Nonetheless, for decades to follow, law enforcement officials faced vigilante mobs threatening lynching. As late as 1917, officials had to hide smuggle out a black prisoner from a jail in Ft. Myer Heights as a mob gathered outside.
All of this led to this day in March and the Klan proudly flaunted its numerical strength as well as institutional power in the form of a Home Defense League badge. The Klan arrived in Cherrydale long enough to pose with an American flag and signs reading “We are for law and order” and “We were here yesterday. We are here today. We will be here forever.” The signs suggested the permanency of white protestant power while sending a warning to the “wets” that prohibition would be enforced by the Klan.
From there the parade took a snaking route through population centers in Ballston and Clarendon with the Klan stopping briefly in each place to display their signs. The stops in these places were for recruiting purposes because this was where the base of the Klan would have lived. Unlike the later Klan of the sixties, the twenties Klan consisted of well-placed small businessmen and tradesmen who were pillars of their community.
After this stop in friendly territory, the parade then took a purposeful route into the territory of the Klan’s enemies. The parade turned onto Key Boulevard and through the heart of the small African American quarter of Rosslyn. This would be a tense moment in the parade as the Klansmen stopped briefly for reasons left unexplained in newspaper accounts. Community members turned out in the streets to heckle the marchers and violence seemed a distinct possibility in the cool March night. The 1919 riots showed African Americans in the DC area that blacks could stand up against vigilante violence and gave the community a sense of pride as they faced such intimidation. In some cases, the black community in Northern Virginia organized armed bands to protect against lynching. In McLean in 1895, blacks armed with shotguns stood down a white lynch mob outside the constable’s house as a young African American suspect cowered inside. The Klansmen and the black residents of Rosslyn confronted each other with this history boiling inside.
Just as the friction between the two groups seemed headed to physical confrontation, the parade lurched forward towards its terminus at Dead Man’s Hollow. The Klansmen turned back to Lee Highway passing Dead Man’s Hollow, which was a notorious hideout of highwaymen and killers located roughly at the base of the Key Bridge Marriott’s parking garage. Here the ruffians from Rosslyn would dump bodies and roll cash-rich farmers as they left the markets of Washington. Did the local thugs watch the parade warily from their roosts and did the Klansmen gaze into the woods hoping no gunshots rang out? The spot frightened locals after dark, so even the numerically superior Klan marched cautiously past the hollow.
The parade was a brief moment in the struggle against disorder by conservatives in the DC area. As the Klan rocketed towards power, it appeared their vision of America could be a real possibility. Internal strife and corruption would split the Klan and Arlington would be no exception. However, their legacy would endure in both the positive and the negative. On the one hand racism and intolerance would persevere right up to the days of the Nazi Party in Arlington, but the Klan’s demands for a clean county government would also nourish the movement that brought Arlington a more open government.