Racism and the KKK: What I’ve Learned from My Family’s Dark Past

My family has lived in Northwest Ohio since the Great Black Swamp was drained for farmland in the mid-19th century. It’s quiet here. My childhood was peaceful and sheltered. When I was growing up, everyone’s grandpa was a farmer and most of us were of German heritage. 

One night, while sitting around the kitchen table at my grandparent’s farm, my grandma revealed to me that they paid membership dues to the Ku Klux Klan. I was only a teenager at the time. She said it was for protection — they threatened to burn down their property. My grandma acted like they were a band of thugs trolling the county’s farms, but with the hate speech that spewed from her mouth, it’s pretty hard to believe my grandparents weren’t more active in the Klan. Either way, there was some serious racism there that shouldn’t have been. I should have never heard those words as a young child — or ever.

To know your grandparents were dues-paying members of the Klan is pretty fucking horrible, but to be honest, I didn’t just feel anger — I felt a lot of confusion. My dad was a single parent and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I loved going to the farm and I have some wonderful memories of them. There were times when they were loving grandparents and I enjoyed spending time with them. I am learning there were many sides to my grandparents and I probably only know bits and pieces of their story. To put it simply — I was hurt, but amid the confusion, I condemned their hateful actions and words.

Family Secrets Verified in Print

Fast forward to now — just a couple of months ago actually. My husband and I were now fully vaccinated and enjoying a night out — dinner and shopping at Barnes and Noble. I was browsing a section of local books when I came across something that really grabbed my attention. It was titled, “The Ku Klux Klan in Wood County”. That’s where my family has lived for generations. I glanced through it. My great-grandpa and four other relatives were listed as Klansmen in the 1920s and ’30s. I bought the book and shared it with a few family members. We were all shocked to learn that more than one generation was involved in the KKK. My grandparents died several years back and none of my living relatives share these hateful beliefs. 

Of course, this discovery inspired a poem:


My Time


Embarrassed —
I hesitate
before the words
slip past my tired lips.

Ashamed —
a stubborn kink of actions
in our line
that can’t be undone. 

Hate on their mind.
Love engulfing mine.
Birds of a feather no more.
I see a new way.

Sheets and arrogance
free in the summer breeze,
flames of ignorance
climbing high in the oak trees.

Crosses ablaze,
crossroads in the haze —
it’s my time now
and times will change.


The Klansman’s Granddaughter is an Atheist in the City

We live in Toledo, OH, a truly amazing city — gritty and vibrant with a very diverse population. A lot of people put Toledo down, but there’s such a strong sense of community here — like we’re all in this struggle together. I’m so happy to be raising my daughter here. My daughter’s urban upbringing is very different from my childhood in the country. She’s going to meet so many different people and try so many different things. I will tell her to be a sponge and absorb it all. 

It’s amazing that this whole diverse world in Toledo exists only a short drive from my childhood home in rural Northwest Ohio. My life is so different now. I’m an atheist in the city — a far cry from my family’s conservative roots.

I work for a nonprofit organization where the majority of the employees are black. I’m not going to be one of those people that say, “I have black friends so I can’t be racist.” I do, but that doesn’t make me perfect. White privilege is real and it’s important that I analyze and challenge my own thoughts. Listen to others. I am surrounded by a lot more diversity than I was growing up, and I’m learning. 

I’m also not going to be one of those people who say, “I don’t see color” because color is definitely there and it has a huge impact on people’s lives. With all of the current events, I notice it now more than ever. I wish I could relate in some way or understand but I can’t and I’m not going to pretend to. I will never know what it’s like to be black in America, but I want to help, so I listen. Then I show my support by spreading the word and having conversations with friends and family. Our color shapes our experiences. It is so important to listen and to learn when others share their stories. 

Showing the Full Story

I shouldn’t bring the whole family down. I also have plenty of ancestors and relatives that were loving people who did amazing things. I look to those family members for inspiration. I am really exploring my family’s past right now and using it to write another poetry book — the good, the bad, and the ugly will all be included. I’m not going to gloss over my family’s dark past and I’m also not going to leave out the stories of the good people in my family doing good things. 

Don’t like your family’s legacy? Change it. Set future generations on a new path. My daughter and I are shaping the future of this family and we are listening — we are learning. I will never repeat my grandma’s hateful words or my ancestor’s hateful actions. I won’t hide our family’s past from my daughter. She needs to learn from their story. My daughter will know love — to give love and be loved. 


  1. Katydid says

    Cute picture of you and your daughter!

    Isn’t it quite the blow to realize that the people who loved and nurtured you are also simultaneously capable of being the opposite to others who are not-you? You know, and you are determined not to repeat their actions, and that shows so much self-awareness. Kudos to you for raising your daughter to see more than skin color!

  2. StevoR says

    Tangential but have you seen John Oliver’s clip on this? Not the klan but the Confederacy and much more especially when it comes to ancestors and how many worth watching in full if you haven’t or wish to see it again I think :


    WARNING : Some swearing. The reaction of Anderson Copper and then Oliver’s remarks afterwards at the 10 min 25 seconds mark onwards is a powerful and thought-provoking one I think.

    Don’t know if thsi even needs saying but we aren’t our parents let alone our grandparents, we can and should learn from them and learn and strive tobe better than they were, given an improved understanding of the world and given generations of us working painfullyand slowly and with many advertant or inadverant fumbles backwards ti make the world better not worse .. hopefully?

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