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The Shipwreck Rose: Bad Odor

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 10:25
The front page of the May 23, 1924 edition of The Star, recording scenes from the funeral of a Southampton police officer killed in the line of duty.

This afternoon I went directly from work at the farm into the Roberta Roller Rabbit boutique on Main Street with clods of mud dropping off my rubber boots, dust coming from my pants in puffs, and a stripe of brown dirt on my nose. It was only after I had bought an Easter-basket gift for my teenage daughter — wrapped beautifully in an Indian-cotton block-print gift bag by the helpful shop assistant — and gotten back into my Honda, and caught a glimpse of my dirty nose in the rearview mirror, that it hit me: the aroma of fish fertilizer wafting from my body. All day at the farm, I’d been splashing trays of lettuce and kale seedlings around in tubs of organic fish-and-seaweed emulsion from Neptune’s Harvest and I stank like the cat’s breakfast.

The shop girl who was so nice must have been privately disgusted. I hope I provided a funny story, at least.

This week’s column is the personal-essay equivalent of a very bad odor. Prepare yourself, reader! Don’t continue on if you have a sensitive nose. I’m about to change the subject abruptly, from last week’s pet hijinks and the cute mother-daughter vacation report of the week before to a topic that is going to be greeted by some of my readership about as enthusiastically as they’d greet the arrival on their doorstep of a putrefied mackerel or a flaming turd in a brown paper bag.

Hey, y’all! Hey, girl, hey! Let’s talk about the Ku Klux Klan!

This is a topic I’ve been dancing around for years and years, but for whatever reason — the vernal equinox? The inspiration of the Plain Sight Project? My own kids’ fun adventures with racism? My severe annoyance at the blind historical amnesia on display in the village’s corridors of power these days — I feel like knocking over a table or two this week. So let’s go.

Let’s start with a little tableau from local history that you haven’t heard told ‘round the campfire. I don’t think it’s ever been mentioned in Hamptons Magazine. It’s May 21, 1924. Ninety-nine years ago. A police constable from the Southampton police force has been killed in a shootout with bootleggers near Eastport. A cortege of automobiles four miles long — 5,000 mourners — follows the casket to his burial in the cemetery at East Quogue. And conducting the service “with all the picturesque solemnity of that order” (to quote the reporter from The East Hampton Star) are 250 Klansmen in full regalia. They are not wearing their hoods, however, but have “unmasked so that all might see their faces.” The 250 Klansmen in white robes form the closest circle around the grave; around them, another 2,000 Klansmen in civilian clothes stand in “hollow square” formation. And behind them, are “farmers and fishermen from the whole countryside” — “Eastport, the Hamptons, Riverhead, Montauk” — who “murmured approval.” The clergyman conducting the ceremony is a Klansman in a white robe.

Let’s go even farther down this hole.

I read somewhere, years ago, that in the 1920s when the K.K.K. was at its height of popularity and power, fully a quarter of white American men were members. But even though I have been aware of that factoid for decades, and even though my subject in college was African-American history, I really did not want to believe that this statistic could be true even here, on the East End, too. Partly I resisted entertaining the possibility because I’ve always been on the lookout and defensive against the perception of City People that working-class East Hamptoners were a cliché of rednecked bigotry. I loathe “Deliverance” and the stereotype of inbred banjo-pickers. Poor people are not gibbering morons. But I’ve changed my mind about the K.K.K.

Let’s go. The “principles of the Ku Klux Klan” were the subject of a lecture by the Rev. Andrew Van Antwerpen of Sayville, a knight in the Klan, at the Old Whalers Church of Sag Harbor in December 1923. “The fine old church was packed to the rafters,” reported my late grandmother (far from enlightened on race issues herself) in her “Looking Them Over” column. “People even sat on the floor of the galleries and lined the walls where they stood.” My grandmother — then Miss Nettie Edwards — craned her neck, turned her face toward Van Antwerpen, sniffed, and detected a bad odor. She described him as “not quite a child, but very young, with the burning eyes of a would-be martyr,” and dryly mocked his “voice husky with emotion.” She noted how much he perspired.

“He spoke a great deal of 100 percent Americanism,” she wrote. “What does that mean?”

Debate about the Klan bounced back and forth on the pages of this newspaper into the New Year, some pro-Klan and some anti. First, The Star printed an angry riposte from an anonymous lecture attendee, who hotly defended Van Antwerpen and sarcastically accused my grandmother of being overwrought, “unfriendly,” and a bad Presbyterian. Mr. Edward Osborne of East Hampton wrote in, warning neighbors that “something must be done” to check the power of the Klan and prevent more “horrible atrocities committed by this lawless band.”

Let’s go down into the hole. Let’s go. My grandmother said that her companion that night in December 1923 was “a charming lady who can sleep peacefully through New York’s very best plays, and who is apt to fidget at church” but who was entranced by Van Antwerpen. Reading between the lines, I suspect this nodding biddy who liked what she heard was either one of her maiden aunts, from the Huntting family, or her own mother, Florence.

Is the Ku Klux Klan a family matter? Are you a white American who had living relatives in America in the 1920s? Who weren’t Jewish or Catholic? Guess what! You’ve got an uncle or a cousin in the attic, if not a grandparent, prancing around up there, a ghost with a white sheet.

I’m not quite sure yet, but I think I may have a great-grandfather up there, or a great-uncle. I have a suspicion an Edwards may have driven to East Quogue to stand in hollow square, though we’ll never know for sure. (Sorry, Cousin Ann, sorry. It’s time to open the attic window and flap that linen in the fresh air. It’s better if we do.) Our family is fantastic at self-mythologizing. My great-great-grandfather — Miss Nettie's grandfather — was Captain Joshua Edwards, who has been immortalized and ossified in local lore as the quintessential stoic whaling man, standing there in a heavy wool coat unbuttoned in the winter wind, a harpoon in his hand, making us feel tough four generations later and somehow defining us and defining Amagansett; his son E.J., my great-grandfather, lives on in memory as the famous “last whaling man” (who was also voted one of the handsomest men in the world by Vogue magazine, 1937). E.J. was also a flaming racist. I know this because about 20 years ago I got a hold of a small pocket diary from a pleasure cruise he and my great-grandmother Florence Huntting Edwards took to Cuba in the 1920s, and in which, in cramped writing, she recorded how they’d gone ashore at Havana in a tender, and that when her tall, handsome last-whaler husband saw Black kids diving and frolicking in the surf, he uttered curses, expressed disgust, used the N-word, and returned to the ship.

Twenty years ago, back when I lived in Manhattan — alone in a walk-up bachelorette pad near the Flatiron Building, surrounded by swing-dancing dresses and nonfiction books about the Soviet gulags, with no view of the sky — I didn’t want to deal with it. I stuffed the pocket diary into a box and stuck that in another box, and tucked it somewhere. A few offhand remarks about a family vacation had spliced up the image I had of my great-grandfather. He’d been described to me as the kindest of men, beloved, the best man my father and aunt ever knew. He took my Aunt Mary by the hand, her small plump toddler hand in his huge mitt, and they drove in his clatter-banging black flivver out to Montauk with a small Yorkie dog on the seat between them to pick wild grapes.

I hid that pocket diary so well that I’m not sure now where it is. And now I’ll have to dig around under beds and in closets to find it. I’ve knocked over the table, opened Pandora’s box. All the metaphors, all the metaphors. Let’s drag that putrid mackerel into the light and have a good sniff. Let’s do this thing.


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