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aving the opportunity to

examine a rare find is every

historian’s dream. The prospect of

examining nearly 20,000 items from a rare

Reconstruction-era collection is the chance

of a lifetime, so when Michael W. Fitzgerald,

professor of history at St. Olaf College in

Northfield, Minn., brought the Pickens

family to my attention in April 2016, I

knew I needed to take advantage of this

extraordinary opportunity. Recognizing the

unique value of the collection, we agreed

to co-author a book exploring the Pickens

family and their world, which we soon

discovered included involvement in the Ku

Klux Klan.

As a cultural historian, I am particularly

interested in understanding why people

turn to violence and how they justify their

actions when they do. The Pickens family of

Hale County, Ala., maintained an extensive

correspondence that has survived unedited,

opening a rare window into the experiences

of a family with Klan connections.

Scholars still know very little about the

private lives of Klan sympathizers and

participants. Klan leaders encouraged

members to commit little to paper. The

Klan was, after all, a secret organization

engaged in criminal acts, for which

hundreds of people were arrested. Both

the secrecy of its operation and the shame

it now inspires obscure understanding of

the Klan and the human appetites that

powered it.

A rare window into the

H

By Sarah L. Silkey, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of History

CREATE THE COVETED

DEGREE OF THE FUTURE

16

F E AT U R E