The 1924 Cross Burning

Just after midnight on the morning of April 3, 1924, several cars drove onto the campus of Columbia University and parked on 116th St, a then functioning road that is now a pedestrian thoroughfare. Somewhere from twelve to twenty-five men dressed in civilian clothes stepped out of the cars and scattered in all directions across the campus’s south field. New York City had just experienced a cold snap, and a day earlier a storm had blanketed the campus with a sheet of snow, but these would not be the tranquil hours of a cool spring night.  A few hundred feet away a man named Frederick W. Wells had retired to his dorm room in Furnald Hall. Wells was a twenty-four-year-old, black law student from Tennessee, and his presence in the dormitory was notable; he was the first black student in Columbia on-campus housing during the academic year. 

His room was number 528, on the west side of the building facing Broadway, so he was likely unaware of the activity that was unfolding. Outside, the men had returned, having traded their street clothes for the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. The men marched in formation to the center of the snow-covered field carrying a seven-foot-tall wooden cross, wrapped in cloth and doused with kerosene. There, just north of the college’s baseball diamond, and a stone’s throw from the University’s regal statue of Thomas Jefferson, they planted the cross in the ground, and lit it on fire. As it burned, the flames could be seen from apartment buildings blocks away, and inside Furnald, concerned students banged on Wells’s door, while others ran through the halls shouting, “Down with the Negro,” and “Put the nigger out.”  In the days following, Wells received two death threats in anonymous letters signed by the Klan. 

From a historical perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of the cross burning is the way that different actors responded to it. Understanding the ways that contemporary figures addressed the situation reveals a nation - and a campus - divided over how it would come to terms with black people inhabiting white spaces. It's an issue that remains unresolved.

In thinking about how the incident evolved not only locally but nationally, articles from newspapers across the country provide a fascinating snapshot of racial tensions in the 1920s, at a moment when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its popularity, and millions of black people where leaving rural areas in the south for the urban centers of the north as part of the Great Migration. This exhibit contains a few examples of interesting articles that can serve as a window into regional politics.

Below is a link to a visual aid that represents the national distribution of news reports. These seelctions are just a few example of the actual body of articles available, which number in the hundreds, and were printed in nearly every state in the union.

 

View Story Map

 

Please note that the Story Map website doesn’t allow viewers to zoom in on the individual articles. Those intersted in reading the text of the documents can get a closer look here.

 

Credits

Thomas Germain