An artifact of racism

a Connecticut Klan robe as stark reminder

Ku Klux Klan robe, c. 1928 (The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford). Speakers: Dr. William Frank Mitchell, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

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KKK Uniform

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Key points

  • The Ku Klux Klan was a significant presence throughout the United States in the early 20th century, and not, as is often assumed, in just the southern states. The KKK used terror to ensure white supremacy. Although African-Americans were their primary target, they also terrorized Catholics, Jews, and Eastern and Southern Europeans, all of whom they considered non-white.
  • The Klan enforced white supremacy in southern states in the wake of the Civil War but largely consisted of local groups without a national profile or organization. D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation was a major impetus for the growth and centralization of the KKK in the early 20th century. At the same time, backlash to the film propelled the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and civil rights activists to fight against circulation of the film and its negative portrayal of African-Americans.
  • This robe, and others like it, were mass-produced and widely available. This particular model was constructed of plain cotton and included minimal ornamentation. It sold for five dollars. The design of the robe and hood was intended to represent its wearer as a larger-than-life figure and hide the wearer’s identity.

Go deeper

Learn more about the collections at the Amistad Center for Art and Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Learn more about the Ku Klux Klan’s history

Learn more about the struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S.

Learn more about the making, impact, and response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation

Read archived copies and learn about the founding in 1910 of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP

Artist Kara Walker discusses her interest in popular literature, including romance novels, slave narratives, and even Thomas F. Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman, and how all of these have influenced her work.


More to think about

How would you feel if you saw this object displayed in a museum? Do you think museums should, or should not, preserve and display artefacts with violent or racist histories? What are some arguments for and against doing so?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.