Charles Rambow, a longtime Sturgis history teacher, shows a picture of the members of the Sturgis chapter of the KKK. Rambow recently discussed his research into the KKK's reign in the Black Hills during the 1920s.
More than 200 people packed into a Black Hills State University lecture hall last week to hear Charles Rambow describe his more than 40-year journey into the dark and virtually unknown era of Black Hills history.

Rambow, surrounded by original KKK regalia, newspaper clippings, photographs and local KKK charter documents, discussed his years of research during the talk sponsored by the BHSU Case Library. The presentation was part of National Library Week held in conjunction with the  40th anniversary of the BHSU E.Y. Berry Library-Learning Center.

Spurred by the discovery that his own grandparents were part of the Ku Klux Klan, Rambow, a longtime Sturgis history teacher, dedicated much of his life to finding out everything he could about the KKK’s movement into the Black Hills. The majority of his research came from interviews with people who were members of one of the Black Hills Klans, had family who were members, or who were targeted by the Klan. The Klan opposed many people including African Americans, Jews, Orientals and Roman Catholics, Rambow said.

“The topic is not my favorite to present primarily because the Ku Klux Klan was very much involved in violence and intimidation and various threats of violence throughout the area,” Rambow said.

The original Klan started in 1865 and disbanded around 1877; however, the organization, that prided itself on serving the community, united again in 1915 after the release of the movie “The Birth of a Nation” based on the novel “The Clansman.” The movie depicted the success of the KKK in protecting the South.

To make matters worse, then-President Woodrow Wilson was quoted saying, “If it had not been for the Klan the South and the United States would not have survived.”

“That was a pretty strong recommendation (for the Klan),” Rambow said. Two publicity people from Indiana assisted in spreading the word of the KKK and creating the national movement which spread west, he said.

The majority of KKK members in the Black Hills came from North Dakota and Indiana, Rambow said. Nearly every community in the Black Hills had a Klan organization, he said. In Spearfish it was the Queen City Klan, in Lead-Deadwood it was the Mile High Klan, in Rapid City it was the Gate City Klan.

The most violent act of a Black Hills KKK was the Mile High Klan who was thought to have been involved in the murder of Father Arthur Belknap, a Lead Catholic priest.  

A $500 reward was offered for the capture of Belknap’s murderer; however, since the majority of the law enforcement officers were also KKK members, the priest’s murder still remains unsolved, Rambow said.

Rambow said there were many other instances of intimidation and threats by the KKK throughout their reign in the Black Hills. However, the second wave of the KKK came to an end in the late 1920s as KKK leaders, such as Indiana’s David C. Stephenson who was indicted and convicted of murder, became involved in highly publicized national scandals.

While publicity is what helped the KKK rise to power a second time, it was also publicity that led to its downfall. However, there are still extremists out there devoted to uphold the “white” way of life, Rambow said.

“We would hope that the Klan is dead and gone, but unfortunately don’t believe it, because we have those folks out there who are still organizing,” he said.