The rise and fall of the KKK in a North Dakota city
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of the Ku Klux Klan's history in Grand Forks and how a pastor played a role in its local emergence.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was established in the American Southwest following the defeat of the Confederacy and the establishment of Reconstruction. It was a white supremacist organization that sought to intimidate African American people and the white people who supported their freedom and other rights.
KKK members often resorted to murder and other forms of violence, and the federal government enacted legislation that significantly reduced the activity of the klan In the early 1920s, the klan reemerged ostensibly as a fraternal organization. The new klan had new targets besides African Americans — it was also against Jews, Muslims, Catholics, immigrants, gay and lesbian people and atheists. No longer was it centered on the deep South, but it found pockets of support throughout much of the U.S. In North Dakota, there were flurries of klan activity in Grand Forks, Fargo and Williston, with Grand Forks having the most active organization.
In 1918, because of its dwindling church membership, the elders of the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks contacted the Madison Presbytery in Wisconsin, asking for their recommendation of a minister who was dynamic, both as a person and as a pastor. The presbytery recommended F. Halsey Ambrose, who had doubled the membership in a small church in Wisconsin in the past five years.
Ambrose was hired by the Grand Forks church on Sept. 7, 1918, and was officially installed on Feb. 21, 1919. One of the first things he did as the pastor was to preside over two services each Sunday. In the morning, Ambrose gave the regular sermon to the church members and, in the evening, he gave a lecture about things that concerned him that were taking place in the community, state and nation. He also began writing frequent opinion articles for the Grand Forks Herald, which brought him to the attention of Jerry Bacon, the publisher of the Herald.
Ambrose was an ardent advocate of Capitalism, as was Bacon, and the two men became close friends. Both men opposed any form of socialism and, at that time, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) was becoming a major political movement in North Dakota. Since the NPL advocated the establishment of cooperatives, Ambrose focused a number of his lectures on the potential evil of the NPL. This prompted Bacon to advertise Ambrose’s lectures on the front page of the Herald. A cooperative is “a farm, business, or other organization which is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits.”
Soon, Ambrose’s fiery lectures were drawing a capacity of 1,200 to First Presbyterian Church every Sunday evening. It was one of few places with any form of entertainment because Prohibition meant there were no bars or taverns, and a state law forbade the showing of motion pictures or the participation of any organized sporting events on Sunday.
After a meeting with a klan leader from Indiana, Ambrose agreed to organize a club of KKK Knights in Grand Forks. On June 4, 1922, Grand Forks Klan #1 was officially awarded a klan charter, giving them the right to “perform all acts under Klan law.” The Grand Forks klan, numbering hundreds of people, took on the name the “Ansax Club” and, as the leader, Ambrose was awarded the title the “Exalted Cyclops.”
One of the charter rights was to hold Konclaves (gatherings of the Grand Forks Knights) where the Knights were instructed to wear white robes and conical hooded masks to hide their identities. Ambrose held his first Konclave west of Grand Forks on Sept. 21, 1922, where pro-klan speeches were delivered, denouncing “Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.”
This open expression of hatred and bigotry, by unidentifiable individuals, alarmed many state citizens. On Jan. 10, 1923, the North Dakota Senate introduced a bill “banning all citizens over the age of 15 from wearing a mask or any other head covering in front of a public building, in order to conceal their identity.” On Jan. 23, Ambrose testified before the Senate “denouncing the proposed law,” telling senators that the “klansmen were the pillars of society and their identities needed to be protected.” He added that “only the Klan was preventing a tide of immigrants from overwhelming American civilization... and that it had to remain secret to grow and do its valuable work.”
His testimony had no effect because the Senate and House passed the bill and it was signed into law by Gov. Ragnvold Nestos. Since he could not prevent it from becoming law, Ambrose decided to ignore it.
In the fall of 1923, “a thousand Klansmen gathered in a field 20 miles west of Grand Forks to hear Ambrose deliver an address and to install the 'American Club' in nearby Larimore as the second klavern.” The klan lit three crosses and a pile of straw on fire and the Grand Forks Herald reported the incident. When a nonconsequential item was printed in error, Ambrose demanded a retraction of the entire article. Instead, the Herald admitted the error and then printed that the klan had violated state law by having its members appear in public with their faces covered.
In his sermons and lectures, Ambrose was an ardent proponent of moralism, prohibition and law and order. He was an opponent of “divorce, motion pictures, free expression of sexuality, and the rapidity of change in the 1920s.” However, he was primarily against Roman Catholics — and what is ironic is the Catholic Church was opposed to the same things as Ambrose. The only real issue on which they disagreed was education. Ambrose believed that all school children needed to be educated in public schools, while the Catholic Church believed children should have the option to attend parochial schools. It was the goal of the KKK “to crush parochial schools.”
The apogee of the klan in Grand Forks appears to have been 1924. According to Dr. Jerome Tweton, “With a growing membership and increasing strength within the city, the Klan moved into civic politics endorsing and working for candidates who were in the KKK, or sympathetic toward it. In the 1924 Grand Forks city election, one Klan candidate won a seat on the city commission, and a klansman defeated the incumbent city justice, who was a Catholic.”
In the state election for governor, Arthur Sorlie, a Grand Forks businessman and possibly a klan member, narrowly defeated Nestos. The Herald credited the KKK for Sorlie’s victory.
Three weeks after the city and state election, the klan and Ambrose focused on the Grand Forks school election. Two klan businessmen challenged two highly respected women on the board. One was the wife of a city doctor and the other a wife of a retired minister, and both were Protestant. Ambrose labeled them as Catholic supporters and called them “the scum of the earth.” The klan candidates defeated the women, and with all the new klan members and klan supporters in the city government, they decided to clean house of the Catholic employees.
Of those fired were the fire chief with 33 years in the department, the city treasurer with 24 years of service, the city electrician with 28 years of service, and the police chief, city engineer and city assessor. Even the city hall janitor was fired. Jerry Bacon, the publisher of the Herald and former Ambrose ally, saw that Ambrose had gone too far and, from that point forward, his paper opposed Ambrose.
Not able to get his word out to the public through Bacon’s publication, the KKK began its decline in Grand Forks. Frustrated, Ambrose left in 1931 to become a pastor at the Merriam Park Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. “He later moved to a church in Clinton, Iowa, and in 1937 gave up the ministry to go into the brokerage business."
According to records of the Rockland State Hospital, now the Rockland Psychiatric Center, a Frederick Halsey Ambrose was an “attendant” at the hospital from Nov. 3, 1943, to June 15, 1944. The Rev. Ambrose died in Northampton, Pa., on Nov. 30, 1944.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.