Updated: Jun 19, 2019
It was 1923. World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars, was over; Prohibition was getting underway; and the 1920s were beginning to roar. It was also the second era of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, which was beginning to increase its activity in a big way. This infamous organization was held together by secret oaths and member anonymity assured by robes, masks, and conical hats. It was formed around the time of the Civil War when slavery was being abolished and many held on to the theory that whites, especially those who came from northern Europe were superior to people of color or religions that they did not support. Most KKK members were Protestant, so non-whites, Jews, Catholics, and other religions were enemies of the KKK. The Klan used violence and threats against people who did not take their oath and promote their values. They included murder, often by lynching, in their repertoire of disdainful acts.
In the 1920s, there was a wave of immigration into the US, mainly from Europe, and the KKK and others were concerned that some of the immigrants were not white or of their religion. These immigrants, in their view, represented a threat to America. It became a time of anti-immigration. President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted southern Europeans and Asians from emigrating to America. While not explicitly stating it, the law also supported the beliefs of the KKK who desired our nation to become a white, so-called Aryan race. The government especially encouraged immigration from the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia, which kept out people from what some called “inferior” races and religious sects. The theory that northern European whites were superior became known as Nordicism, and it was embraced by the KKK. The Ku Klux Klan supported white nationalism, Prohibition, and upholding Christian values. Today, virtually all Christian denominations denounce the KKK’s views as antithetical to Christian beliefs.
The rise of opposition groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought the names of many of the people behind the KKK masks to public attention. These listings and the increasing violence by the robed marauders led to the decline of the organization in the 1930s.
The 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation, is said to have fueled the second era of the KKK. It promoted Klan values and portrayed black people as unintelligent and abusive toward women. It was both highly controversial and financially successful.
The third era of the KKK arose after World War II and continues today in a more localized and isolated way. In recent years, they have opposed the Civil Rights Movement and continue to promote white nationalism. Today there are also other so-called hate groups who promote white supremacy but are not associated with the KKK.
A Funeral in Blawenburg
In November, 1923, the KKK visited Blawenburg. A former resident had died, and, according to an article in the New York Times on November 28, 1923, had been buried in Blawenburg Cemetery the previous day. He had a traditional graveside service led by a pastor from Warren, NJ. What happened next is best told by the Times article:
Somerville, N. J., Nov. 27 (1923) – What is believed to have been the first Ku Klux Klan funeral ever held in New Jersey took place this afternoon in the cemetery of the Reformed Church at Blawenburg, ten miles from here, just before the body of Theodore L. Duryea, 59, and ex-resident, was lowered into the grave.
Seventeen robed and hooded Klansmen, apparently led by the Kleagle (recruiting officer) of the Martinsville district, participated in the service, while members of the family and friends stood by. The Klansmen arrived in automobiles and remained in the garage across from the church yard while the Rev. Carl Milberb, pastor of the Mount Horeb Methodist Episcopal Church, conducted the religious services.
As the minister concluded, there was a signal and a Klansman appeared midway between the garage and the cemetery with a bugle. As he blew it, the other sixteen Klansmen slowly marched to the grave.
They grouped themselves about the casket. One advanced carrying a small American flag and a Bible. He took up a position at the head of the casket, after placing the flag upon it, and then read from the twelfth chapter of the Romans. This finished, he offered a prayer. At the conclusion of the ritual another Klansman urged faithfulness to the “Invisible Empire,” which, he said, “was chiefly interested in upholding the Constitution and having its members work for the betterment of the country.”
The bugler sounded “taps” and the Klansmen, after disrobing, dispersed in their motor cars. None were recognized. Neither the family nor the minister would comment on the incident.
While this KKK funeral did not take place in Blawenburg, the local funeral service might have looked similar this.
Other KKK Events in Central New Jersey
The event in Blawenburg was relatively minor compared with other recorded events in the area; however, it revealed that the KKK was active in the Montgomery area at that time. In their book, If These Stones Could Talk, Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills report intimidation of the black population in the Hopewell Valley by this group. Numerous events in 1924 were aimed at justifying the Klan and showing its might:
The book reports an Easter morning service at midnight on April 23, complete with a cross burning.
A week later, another service was held at the United Methodist Church in Hopewell. Sixty Klansmen in robes and 400+ of their supporters attended.
A month later, a 30-foot high cross was burned at a local business.
In nearby East Amwell, a KKK clubhouse was built along Route 202, and it is still there today, serving as a Presbyterian Church.
In Flemington, it was common for the Klan to have as many as 800 marchers in full regalia in parades on Main Street.
In Somerset County, the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath held Klan services and published “The Good Citizen”, the national publication of the Klan.
In Bound Brook, the Klan held a rally in protest of Jews and Catholics, and 12,000 robed Klansmen showed up.
Perhaps the most widespread show of power by the KKK was held almost a month after the Blawenburg funeral throughout Somerset County and was reported in the Somerset Democrat.
“The heavens over Somerset county were lighted on Christmas Eve with the light from more than a score of flaming crosses, the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. Every town in the county was visited by Klan members, who erected and lighted the crosses. The word had somehow spread around that there would be a demonstration, so it was not a great surprise to many when at 10 o'clock, the torches were applied and crosses blazed forth…."
The Somerville fire department assisted in this well-orchestrated event by ringing the fire bell at all three companies to indicate that it was time to light the crosses.
The Democrat reporter wondered like many people what this demonstration at this particular time was all about. “Just what the idea of the demonstration was is not known, unless it was to show the people how widespread the Klan is in this state. One thing is certain, a considerable number of people were considerably frightened at the time of the year when every man (and woman) is supposed to be helping his (/her) neighbor obtain happiness.”
On Christmas morning in 1923, there was a 5 am KKK Christmas service at the United Methodist Episcopal Church near Martinsville, the church served by the same minister who conducted the funeral in Blawenburg.
A Climate of Fear
The founders of our nation declared in the Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”
Hate groups then and now seek to hide behind masks, oaths, and secret codes to deny people these rights because of their race, religion, and gender. What’s worse is their use of intimidation and violence to create a climate of fear so they can promote their values.
When people deliberately seek to discriminate and intimidate for any reason, it diminishes all of us. It seems that we still have a lot of work to do to heal the divisions that exist among our citizens. Perhaps this look at the how the KKK operated in the past will help avoid repeating past injustices and enable us to move forward.
The Stoutsburg Cemetery, just a mile or so west of Blawenburg on Provinceline Road, is an African American cemetery whose graves go back almost 300 years. Many graves are unmarked because the interred were slaves, and they had few rights in life or death.
Slaves were often given the surnames of their masters, many of whom were of Dutch origin. Two names at the cemetery are probably linked to Blawenburg. There are Blews (a derivation of Blaw) and Neviuses (owners of the first farm in Blawenburg). How many actual slaves are buried there or in other unmarked graves and unmarked cemeteries is unknown.
Blog 17 – Stryker’s Store, The First Store in Blawenburg
Blawenburg’s first store, having had many owners and businesses, is still operational today.
Baker, Walter. Family Burying Grounds, Montgomery Township, Somerset County, New Jersey, 2nd Edition, Belle Mead, NJ, The Van Harlingen Historical Society, Inc., 2008.
Buck, Elaine and Mills, Beverly. If These Stones Could Talk. Lambertville, NJ, Wild River Books, 2018.
Coolidge, Calvin. "Whose Country is This?" Good Housekeeping, 1921.
“First Klan Funeral is Held in Jersey,” New York Times, Page 19, November 28, 1923.
Guterl, Matthew Pratt. The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940. USA, Harvard University Press, 2004.
“Ku Klux Klan Burn Many Crosses,” The Somerset Democrat, December 28, 1923.
The Declaration of Independence
Birth of a Nation poster – public domain
KKK Funeral – Pinterest
New York Times, November 28, 1923
Somerset Democrat, December 28, 1923