M.W. Mowry — and the Klan????

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M.W. Mowry’s autograph book, 1878. Author’s Collection.

M. W. Mowry is a name known so far only through a small book of autographs that he passed amongst his schoolmates just before graduation in 1878.  He may be from one of the Mowry families of Rhode Island, or he may be the “M.W. Mowry” who died in Montgomery County, NY in January 1902.  Or he could be from another Mowry family as yet undiscovered.   What we do know about M.W. Mowry, straight from his autograph book, is that he was a talented young man who didn’t let school get in the way of his music-making activities.

East_Greenwich_Academy_in_RI 1878

From Google Images, accessed 01-07-13.

We know more about the school he attended than we do the student.  Wiki tells us the East Greenwich Academy, originally called the Kent Academy, was founded in 1802 by “eight prominent men,” but in 1841 the school was taken over by the Methodist Episcopal Church, who concentrated on producing teachers, both men and women, for the State of Rhode Island.  They were so successful that “by mid-century, nearly three-fourths of all Rhode Island teachers were alumni of the Academy.”  However, the school was also advertised as a “commercial” and “musical” institute, the latter of which must have attracted young Mowry to its doors.

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We can only imagine how bad the bass-viol player was. . . and how he must have raked on Philo’s last musical nerve. . .(Author’s Collection)

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Apparently Mowry’s musical criticism extended to dancers as well as bass-viol players. . .(Author’s Collection).

Mowry and Fred, "the two off ones."  From M.W. Mowry's autograph book, 1878.  Author's Collection.

Mowry and Fred, “the two off ones.” From M.W. Mowry’s autograph book, 1878. Author’s Collection.

Mowry must have excelled in the official music curriculum offered by the school, if one can judge from his unofficial musical activities referenced in his book of autographs.  Apparently his nickname of “Philo” reflected not only his musical prowess but also his willingness to encourage musical prowess in others.  Mowry played in the “Consolidated Orchestra” and participated in the “string band,” which likely supplied music for the impromptu “hops” (dances) that occurred in the kitchen and in the barn.  His best friend appears to have been Fred Lawford from Wellesley, Massachusetts, the “one who plays the flute,” and with whom drummer Mowry, lacking a fifing companion, played duets, at which time Lawford’s flute became a sort of “bass fife.”  We get a glimpse of one such performance courtesy of another schoolmate, C. W. Betts, who sketched Lawford with his “basso profundo” and a dour-looking “Filoh” urging him not to just play but to “Put in the agony, put on the style.”

Missing the tambourine, but the the other standard minstrel elements -- the fiddle, flute, banjo, and bones -- are represented in the "Knickerbocker Minstrels."   We might assume that it's Mowry, the drummer, who is playing the bones and his duetting pal, Fred Lawford on the flute.

“The Knickerbocker Minstrels” of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  Author’s Collection.

The book contains another sketch, which in 1878 must have been amusing to some but not so much today, 135 years later.  Although untitled, it shows what Lawford called “The Knickerbocker Minstrels.”   They are missing the tambourine, but otherwise the standard minstrel elements — the fiddle, flute, banjo, and bones — are represented in this sketch.   We might assume that Mowry, the drummer, is playing the bones and that his duet partner, Lawford, is playing the flute.   What is most remarkable, though, and unlike any other minstrel group, is that they are wearing the pointed caps commonly associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Detail from Music cover, 1843.  Wiki Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Detail from Music cover, 1843. Wiki Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Dan Emmett established minstrelsy in the mid 1840s as a lighthearted form of musical entertainment in which the players “blacked up” to sing comic songs, perform walk-arounds, and recite “stump speeches,” all caricaturing the nameless “dandies” and other “black” characters  invented by white minds.  In fact, Emmett had written “Dixie,” complete with a walk-around, for performance by his group, the Virginia Minstrels, in 1859.  However, minstrelsy was never considered anything more than entertainment, a bit tawdry, perhaps, but entertainment nonetheless.  It attracted large audiences, mostly from the working or “mechanics” class of citizenry, which could get pretty rowdy at times.  It also attracted criticism, mostly from reformers (Frederick Douglass called minstrel performers “the filthy scum of white society”), and today it is criticized as an insult to the dignity of African-Americans.  However crude or vulgar, though, minstrelsy was essentially apolitical (except when poking fun at politicians) and never associated with the Ku Klux Klan – until, that is, this image was discovered in Mowry’s book of autographs.

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From Google Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Why “The Knickerbocker Minstrels” chose to wear the pointed caps of the Klan is a mystery.   At this time (1878), there was no real Klan activity in Rhode Island; in fact, there was no real Klan activity anywhere since the organization, founded in 1865, was all but defunct in the early 1870s, a victim of the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871 that were specifically directed against it.  (Not that other vigilante hate groups, such as the Red Shirts, didn’t take their place, but that is another story.)  Was it a stunt, then, some kind of a joke?  If so, who where they mocking, the black man or the lifeless Klan?

Although Mowry and his friends couldn’t know it, things would change some years later.  The film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) fomented a resurgence of the KKK, at which time they retained the familiar pointed caps but added white robes to their costume and cross-burning to their regime of terror.  The new Klan was quite active, hating Jews, Catholics, and immigrants as well as African-Americans.  It was the second Klan that, looking for fund-raising opportunities, borrowed from the minstrel show (rather than, in Mowry’s case, the minstrel show borrowing from the Klan).  The Klan also formed bands, including drum corps. These participated mostly in Klan-sponsored events but also marched in parades alongside the “unpure,” setting aside their hatred for the moment in order to publicize their group and attract new members.

An all-girls Klan-sponsored drum corps, Indiana, 1921.  From http://www.kkklan.com/various.htm, accessed 01-07-13.

An all-girls Klan-sponsored drum corps, Indiana, 1921. From http://www.kkklan.com/various.htm, accessed 01-07-13.

The second-generation Klan, rocked by scandal, essentially self-destructed by the 1940s, but not before the area in and around Liberty, NY, had become a hotbed of Klan activity, which included among its more frightening and gruesome activities, more innocuous ones of music, parades — and drumming.  This bass drum, below, was purchased in 2008 from the granddaughter of its player, who was using it as a coffee table.  Its slick glass top and applied wheels hid the fact that it had been carried by an ancestor in many a Klan parade during the early years of its second resurgence.

A favorite place to nap, atop a ca. 1838 bass drum sold by Klemm of Philadelphia.  That it has been cut down from its original barrel size is evidenced by the off-center eagle.  Author's Collection.

A favorite place for Moo-Cow Kitty to nap, atop a ca. 1838 bass drum sold by the Klemm company of Philadelphia. That it has been cut down from its original barrel size is evidenced by the off-center eagle and shield. Author’s Collection.

M.W. Mowry with his drum and friends? family?  Detail from full-plate tin.  Author's Collection

M.W. Mowry with his drum and friends? family? boarding-house roommates? Detail from full-plate tin, ca 1880-83. Author’s Collection

Copyright January 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “M.W. Mowry — and the Klan????

  1. This is perhaps a bit off-topic, but the KKK still has a presence today, felt more strongly in some places rather than others, which seems to align with the history you’ve presented. Would this be yet another resurgence, or the remnants of the second iteration, scattered but not entirely extinguished?

    • No, it’s definitely a third resurgence, kind of rising from the ashes of the neo-Nazi/skinhead groups, I think. What happened to kill off the second KKK was a series of scandals involving its leadership, including some love-sex triangles (that just didn’t go over well in the 1930s and 40s) and all kinds of rumors arising therefrom. I don’t know much about the third Klan and suspect most of the activity is “underground;” what shows up online sounds ultraconservative but entirely legal, so there must be a big part of it that we just aren’t being told about. Wiki, for all the criticism it takes, gives a good outline of the three Klans, and today’s Klan offers this website: http://www.kkk.com/.

      Thanks for reading!

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