I had something else in mind for this week’s column, but a situation has arisen that needs to be addressed.
In 1995, contractor and former Noblesville High School teacher Don Roberts stumbled across a collection of Ku Klux Klan membership cards in a home he was renovating. Rather than destroy the cards, he donated them to the Hamilton County Historical Society.
At that time, the HCHS wisely recognized the sensitive nature of those records and instituted a policy of restricted access to them. Only serious researchers and people seeking information about their own family members were allowed to view the material.
I’m bringing this up because there is a movement afoot to get the HCHS to remove ALL restrictions to those records and, unfortunately, like too many things in this city in recent history, it’s being done without the knowledge of the people most likely to feel an impact from that policy change.
Let me be clear — this isn’t just a Noblesville issue. Anyone with family in Hamilton County during the early 1920s stands a chance of being affected by this proposed change.
Those people have a right to know what’s taking place and to let their views on the matter be known because once done, this action cannot be undone.
While I certainly don’t believe in censoring history, I can’t see the opening up of these records to the general public as bringing anything but problems. It would be different if the cards provided substantive insights into the inner workings of the Klan, but all they contain are personal details such as names, addresses, and dues information.
The only positive uses for such information are scholarly studies or genealogical research, situations already covered by the current access policy.
There is nothing to be gained by eliminating all restrictions to those records except the ability to point fingers at individual members and to cast a shadow over those members’ descendants.
In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be a big deal. The information could be made available without fear of repercussions.
However, we all know this is not a perfect world. Nearly every day we’re reminded that all it takes to wreak havoc, or worse, is one person with a grudge or a misplaced sense of justice.
Furthermore, releasing the records out of context can easily lead to false conclusions, such as the assumption that everyone on that membership roll was there by choice. They weren’t. Unfortunately, those people aren’t around to defend themselves and there is no way to separate them from true believers.
It’s very easy for us in the 21st century to pass judgement on the people whose names appear on those cards, but we weren’t there. We aren’t dealing with the same pressures they experienced.
Who among us can truly say how we’d respond if we were faced with the choice of paying dues to the Klan or losing our business?
One thing I’ve learned from researching this period in our county’s history is that, above all else, the circumstances surrounding this issue are far more complex than a mere review of those membership cards could possibly indicate. Hamilton County’s role in the Klan is a subject for serious study, not a casual perusal by the curious.
I’m sure the people pushing for the release of these records believe they are doing the right thing, but they cannot have fully considered how potentially harmful their actions could be.
The bitter irony of this whole affair is that, instead of promoting unity, the release of those records to the general public will only create divisions, or deepen those already existing.
Isn’t our society divided enough right now?