Wild Adolescence: The Pickens Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Racial Terrorism in the Alabama Black Belt

Collaborative Group

Dr. Michael W. Fitzgerald, Dr. Sarah L. Silkey




Social, political, and economic upheaval after the Civil War gave rise to the United States’ most significant domestic terrorist movement: the Ku Klux Klan. Yet few contemporary inside sources on this secret, criminal conspiracy have survived. In this project, historians Michael W. Fitzgerald and Sarah L. Silkey analyze the interpersonal dynamics of racial extremism through a newly-accessible trove of rare Reconstruction-era documents: the letters and diaries of a network of Ku Klux Klan supporters. The Pickens family of Hale County, Alabama maintained an extensive correspondence, providing a unique look at a family of Klan sympathizers as they grappled with terrorist participation by teenaged family members. The Pickens siblings mediated their terrorist connections within the context of family life, rooted in a world of upper-class white privilege eroded by the loss of 90 percent of their wealth after the war. These young men and their friends, including an employee of an emphatically pro-Klan newspaper, discussed, witnessed, and possibly engaged in acts of political and racial terrorism. Their dangerous adolescent male behavior became problematic for their older brothers and female relatives, revealing generational conflicts between Victorian gender expectations and notions of southern manhood during Reconstruction and its aftermath. The collaboration between Fitzgerald, an expert on Reconstruction-era Alabama, and Silkey, a cultural historian of race, gender, and violence, will result in a coauthored book examining Klan participation through a domestic lens, illuminating the intimate dynamics of radicalization and racist violence as a hearthside concern. Award period: July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2020