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Professor wins grant to study letters from family of KKK sympathizers

St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald
St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald reads one of the Pickens family letters from a digital database. Fitzgerald and Lycoming College Associate Professor of History Sarah Silkey have been awarded a prestigious grant to study thousands of letters the family wrote during the Reconstruction era.

St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald has been awarded a prestigious grant by the American Council of Learned Societies to study a newly accessible trove of correspondence between a family of Ku Klux Klan supporters.

Fitzgerald will work with Lycoming College Associate Professor of History Sarah Silkey on the project, titled Wild Adolescence: The Pickens Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Racial Terrorism in the Alabama Black Belt, and together they will examine thousands of letters that one family sent to each other throughout the Reconstruction era.

Their project, which received a $136,000 grant, is one of only nine selected for support from the ACLS Collaborative Research Award. It is especially rare that this award is granted to faculty at undergraduate institutions.

The reviewers of Fitzgerald’s award say, “This is an interesting and important study that uses newly available sources to enable a deeper understandings of KKK membership in a broad social context.”

St. Olaf Professor of History Mike Fitzgerald
Professor of History Mike Fitzgerald

The correspondence is from the Pickens family of Hale County, Alabama. Several teenaged Pickens relatives were implicated with the Klan, and witnessed and possibly engaged in terrorist acts. Two of the younger siblings were enthusiastic supporters of the Klan — a connection that made their mother and older siblings quite nervous.

These letters “provide a window into how a family’s day-to-day life intersects with their support of racial terrorism,” says Fitzgerald.

The Pickens family wrote thousands of letters from the 1840s to the 1890s. “This is a family of obsessive letter-keepers,” Fitzgerald says. “They were intensely focused on each other and quite close, and they kept every scrap of paper they wrote to each other.”

Fitzgerald believes that the letters survived as long as they did — largely untouched — because it was such a large collection that no one knew what was in them.

The letters were donated to the University of South Alabama, located in Mobile, a previous research area of Fitzgerald’s. This prior connection allowed him ready access to the recently acquired materials, which is where Fitzgerald and Silkey came in.

Collaboration on the project began in 2016, when Fitzgerald and Silkey began reviewing correspondence and mapping the Pickens family genealogy. The project builds on significant research each scholar has conducted separately, and it is grounded in a friendship of 20 years that began when Silkey was a student in a history class taught by Fitzgerald at Carleton College.

With a strong publication record bearing on the Alabama Klan, Fitzgerald has a deep knowledge of the social, economic, and political world in which the Pickens family operated. As a leading expert in Reconstruction-era history, he says that the insight that the letters provide is “really quite a dream.”

Silkey has a strong command of digital history techniques, enabling her to design a workflow management plan and a OneNote digital collaborative workspace for the project. Their team will be joined by five undergraduate researchers from St. Olaf and Lycoming.

“How can you beat this?” Fitzgerald says. “This is my speciality, and these letters just fell into my lap. And with this grant, I’ll have the resources to finish this.”