Courtesy of Bill Coate
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival and made its presence felt in communities all over the country. This group, shown here in Lakeland, Florida, was typical of the marches conducted by the robed and masked bigots. Madera was not immune from the contagion that infected the nation as today’s Coate Tales shows.
Any look at Madera during the Roaring Twenties will include politics, prohibition and prostitution. Women won the right to vote; moonshine flowed freely, and prostitution, recently outlawed, flourished, especially on the west side of the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.
It was indeed a roaring time, but there is another piece of our past that recent research has brought to light. In addition to bad booze, bigotry in bedsheets raised its ugly head and tried to reach its hands into Madera High School.
The revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was not without some influence in Madera. Representatives of the “Invisible Empire” infected local politics and even brought their message to some of the town’s churches.
The Tribune reprinted speeches given by Klan leaders in Madera’s Baptist, Christian, and Methodist churches. One I.C. Smith, a local clergyman, even presided over a Klan picnic in Madera.
There was, however, one institution that resisted the pressure tactics of the Klan. Madera High School principal Robert J. Teall was assailed by a Klan leader in print, but the educator didn’t take it lying down.
What follows is the exchange that took place between them in 1924 and was published on the front page of the Tribune.
“Principal Robert J. Teall of the Madera Union High School yesterday received a letter from M. B. Haver, of Merced, who signs himself ‘Kleagle of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.,’ calling him to task for ‘aiding the program of propaganda’, relative to the Klan. The letter to Mr. Teall, with his reply, is as follows:
“Merced California, March 31, 1924. Mr. R. J. Teall, Principal, Madera Union High School, Madera California,
“Dear Sir: It has been brought to the attention of the writer that you are aiding the program of propaganda as indulged in newspapers and magazines in your teaching of history relative to the Ku Klux Klan of today.
“It matters not what the motive may be behind your particular effort, but I can assure you that if you wish harmony in the district in which you teach you will not continue the attempt at belittling the white, American-born Protestants of your community. The literature herewith enclosed is authoritative and official, and if you can find one line that will substantiate the current gossip of those who would again crucify Christ and all that is worthwhile in this nation of ours, you will have performed a task that many a clean thinking person has been unable to do.
“I trust you may read this literature with profit both to yourself and the future welfare of the community.
— “Very truly yours, (Signed) M. B. HAVER.
“Kleagle of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.”
The Principal’s answer:
“April 1, 1924. M. B. Haver, Kleagle of Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. Incorporated Realms of Calif., and Nevada.
“My Dear Mr. Haver: I am in receipt of your communication of March 31st in which you inform me that I am engaged in an attempt to belittle the white American-born Protestants of the community in which I live. To say that I am dumbfounded by such a charge is putting it mildly. Either you have misinterpreted information that has been given to you or your informant has lied.
“I am not sympathetic with the Ku Klux Klan as an organization and I have no hesitancy in saying so. I do not believe in any organization which skulks behind a mask of secrecy and refuses to accept responsibility for its opinions and its actions. I do not believe in any organization which would seek to deny civil rights to reputable citizens who are adherents of any particular religious faith or creed. I do not hesitate to announce my position and maintain it publicly or privately. Your charge that I am belittling American-born Protestants of this community is so puerile as hardly to merit attention, particularly since I am an American-born white Protestant myself. I desire to add further that your action in attempting to intimidate me helps to confirm the impression I have already formed of the methods of the Klan as an organization. I regard the procedure you have adopted as a representative of your organization as thoroughly contemptible and entirely un-American. As a member myself of the Masonic order, I particularly object also to the fact that you have used a Masonic letterhead in the transmission of the message I have received from you.
I have no quarrel with any man who chooses to join the Ku Klux Klan and defend it. Some of my personal friends in this community are reputed to be members. But I must respectfully decline either to be muzzled or to be intimidated in my own opinions and attitude.
— “Very truly, Robert J. Teall, Principal, Madera Union High School.”
And there it stood. Madera was no different from every other community in America in the 1920s. There were indeed some who for a time fell victim to the prejudices of the Ku Klux Klan. However, there were others, like Mr. Teall, who refused to be intimidated and took a public stand against racial and religious bigotry.