Best-selling author shares story of Klansman ancestor
White hood in the attic
From the hate crime recently committed in El Paso, to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, “We are in a moment … that is like a return to or remembrance of things past,” said guest lecturer Edward Ball to a packed room of students, faculty, and community members in SUNY Fredonia’s Williams Center on Wednesday.
“Members of the Ku Klux, 150 years ago when they came together, none would have seen themselves as founding fathers of a movement,” Ball pointed out. “None would have predicted that their great, great grandchildren would talk about them. And yet, not only are we talking about the Ku Klux, we are reviving Klan behavior. We’re spreading ideas that are reflecting those of the KKK; we are perpetrating acts resembling those carried out by the KKK.”
Ball is the author of several books on the history of racism in the United States, including the New York Times bestseller “Slaves in the Family,” which won the National Book Award for non-fiction. Concerned by the recent resurgence of racial violence around the country, Ball’s research chronicles the history of white supremacy and its unfortunate relevance today. Wednesday’s lecture was supported by the Williams Visiting Professorship of the Fredonia College Foundation.
The history of the Klan is one that Ball knows well. His great, great grandfather, Constant Lecorgne, was an original member of the Knights of the White Camellia, the white supremacist order that originated in New Orleans, Louisiana at the same time that the KKK formed in Tennessee following the Civil War.
This is the topic of Ball’s forthcoming book, “Life of a Klansman,” in which he shares the story of a man whom many today might consider a monster, but was once painted as a hero to Ball.
At the age of 9, Ball first learned of his ancestor from his Aunt Maud, the family historian. “‘The redeemers were the ones who restored white rule in the years after emancipation,'” Ball said, quoting his aunt. “‘He’s the one you should remember.'”
Thirty years later, Ball found himself cleaning out the family home after the death of his parents. In a drawer, he discovered a batch of his aunt’s files about Lecorgne and made the decision to tell the story of “our klansman.” He spent over a year traveling between his home in Connecticut and New Orleans to study the archives, including public records, property records, newspapers and photographs, to reconstruct the history of his great, great grandfather.
Ball learned that Lecorgne, who was born in New Orleans in 1832, fought in the Civil War and was one of many Confederate veterans who returned home “exhausted, bitter and full of rage.” While Lecorgne joined the Knights of the White Camellia, others joined the KKK, and “the two movements began to spread out from their places of origin and create supremacist cells in hundreds of counties in the South,” Ball explained. Their goal was to subvert the government and overthrow black political power.
In 1874, this tension culminated in a street battle between the White League’s “urban army” of about 3,000 and members of the New Orleans’ Metropolitan Police, half of whom were black. The White League defeated the police force and succeeded in overthrowing the government for approximately a week. “My great great grandfather was there, according to family tradition, and he had his head split open in this battle and was nearly mortally wounded,” Ball recalled. “It was a mark of his ‘heroism,'” he added wryly.
Importantly, Ball noted that his ancestor was not a leader, but a follower, and his story is not unusual. According to historic records, the KKK claimed four million members in 1925. Based on a demographic formula, in 2025, the descendants of those four million members will number 135 million living white Americans, which is 50 percent of the white population of the U.S. “Every other white person, if he or she knew the names of the ancestors and was to write about their lives, could produce a Klan family memoir,” Ball said.
He noted that President Donald Trump is among those Americans, as his father was arrested for participating in a KKK rally in Queens, New York in 1927. He went on to discuss the role of white supremacy in Trump’s 2016 election campaign. “A form of white supremacy is again with us, and I am afraid to say that it is the drinking water of national politics,” said Ball. “And so, the life of a marginal man — our family’s Klansman — a carpenter in an obscure corner of 19th century America, touches the fingertips of current politics and his story makes visible the same class resentments, the same desire for ethnic purity, and the same free-floating fear that underlie the extreme states of whiteness.”
Ball, who teaches at Yale University, is teaching two courses at Fredonia this semester and will return to the Williams Center on Nov. 6 at 11:30 a.m. for the Brown Bag series on his “Slaves in the Family.” This event is free and open to the campus and community.