Students uncover 'Cloak of Ignorance'

February 23, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

EMMITSBURG -- "I'm a historian," Dr. Susan Goliber said as she finished the last of her dinner from the snack bar on the campus of Mount St. Mary's College. "And I realized we didn't know a lot about the history of the Klan."

With an active Ku Klux Klan chapter just south of campus in Thurmont, Goliber figured the time might be about right for someone to research the history of the organization. Especially after the Klan held a couple of rallies and started recruiting at Catoctin High School, which lies just outside Thurmont.

Not all Thurmont residents took the Klan rallies lying down. Some formed a group called "Thurmont United in Love" to counter the notion that Thurmont was a hotbed of Klan activity. It was a member of that group, Goliber said, who actually came up with the idea of researching Klan history.

Goliber asked for research volunteers last semester. Nine freshmen in her "History of Western Civilization" class stepped up to answer the challenge. Monday night, the students -- Kristen Biscoe, Betsy Compton, Robin Covelski, Bob Faustman, Amy Gagliardi, Joe Kamniker, Meghan Toomey, Erin Tully and Kyle Winkfield -- presented their findings to members of the college and local communities in an auditorium on the campus.

The title of the program was "Cloak of Ignorance."

"The title refers not only to the Klan's ignorance but to their [the students'] own ignorance about the Klan," Goliber explained. "They had no idea, for example, how anti-Catholic the Klan was."

The research took all of the first semester. The students gathered so much information, Goliber said, that they had to exclude huge portions of their presentation. But after going through a brief rehearsal, they were ready.

"Tonight we will give a presentation on the past, present and future of the Ku Klux Klan," Toomey said in her introduction. The KKK's past and present might require some research, but the Klan's future is pretty clear: It doesn't have one. A Southern Poverty Law Center civil suit bankrupted the Klan in the early 1990s. Stick a fork in the Klan. It's done.

Except, perhaps, in small rural communities like Thurmont. Gagliardi and Compton presented the results of their interviews with Roger Kelly, the Imperial Wizard of Thurmont's "Invincible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan." Kelly refused to tell how many people are in his Klan chapter, citing the need for secrecy. (At least two members, it seems, are police officers, the students say Kelly told them.) His Klan renounces violence and cross burnings. Just to show Gagliardi and Compton what a nice guy he was, Kelly confessed that, yes indeedy, some of his best friends are black.

The posters on his wall, both women observed, didn't reflect such a friendly attitude. One had a black face inside a red circle with a red line drawn through the face. The perspicacious among you will interpret that to mean "No Negroes Allowed."

"Keep running nigger, the Klan's getting bigger," another poster read. This guy has black friends? They're probably blind and deaf and with a wealth of other physical and mental impairments, no doubt. "I don't necessarily believe everything he told me," Compton said in what might be the understatement of the decade. But she did learn something from the project.

"I didn't know there were 60 different groups of Klan," she admitted. "I didn't know they fight among each other."

Gagliardi had personal reasons for getting involved in the project.

"I have interracial [relatives]," she said. "I have a cousin that's mixed. I did it for her benefit -- to increase awareness." She was referring to Rogers' claim that he wants legal separation of the races and intermarriage outlawed.

Winkfield, the only black student in the group, indicated that his was also a mission of enlightenment. He encountered racism at Bullis Prep, where a teammate on the wrestling squad subjected him to a stream of racial epithets one day.

"We're right here in the midst of it," observed Winkfield, who is president of the freshman class. "Somebody's got to inform people about what they [the Klan] believe."

Kamniker said his interest was piqued when he learned that the Klan was "really big around the area and that they recruit in the high school." But it is the image of Thurmont as a Klan town that disturbs the Rev. Richard Zamostny, the pastor of Weller United Methodist Church and one of several local clergymen who started "Thurmont United in Love."

"Certainly it does," Zamostny groused when asked if the image bothered him. "It's an unfounded image. Thurmont was a town that may have been intimidated by the Klan, but it was not a Klan town." Zamostny noted with pride that Klan activity in Thurmont is on the decline.

If it is, credit should go to folks like Richard Zamostny, a gutsy history professor at Mount St. Mary's named Susan Goliber and nine plucky freshman students from her "History of Western Civilization" class.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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