The KKK and Evolution in Virginia

Published:May 10, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

During the summer of 1925, the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, made the teaching of evolution in public schools a hot-button issue across the South. But if your knowledge of these events, like mine, is mostly limited to Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind (1960), then you might be surprised to know that the Ku Klux Klan had a voice in this argument—at least in Virginia. Here’s a brief news story that appeared in the New York Times on August 13, 1925:

Other groups joining the Klan included the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, founded in Philadelphia in 1843 and open to “native-born white Americans who professed belief in a supreme being, supported the separation of church and state, and were not engaged in the liquor trade.” The Daughters of America first formed in 1881 as an auxiliary to the JOUAM and was concerned with, among other things, immigration.

Also represented on the Richmond committee were the Sons and Daughters of America. While the group’s name dates back to the American Revolution, it’s hard to know who, exactly, these folks were, but a group of the same name today argues on behalf of “‘small government,’ and that each individual state should have the right to govern itself, according to how it sees fit, not someone in Washington, D.C., who hasn’t a clue as to the needs/wants of a state’s people, or worse, one who just doesn’t care.” Interestingly, there is also a Sons and Daughters of America operating, since 2003, as a semi-secret club at the University of Virginia. Spending their time making lists of “tyrants” and “rebels,” its members are secret until Final Exercises, when they wear tricorn hats instead of mortarboards. Presumably they learn about evolution while on grounds. The Patriotic Order Sons of America, meanwhile, was founded in 1847 by Dr. Reynell Coates of Philadelphia to, in part, defend the public schools. From what is not specified, but in the Virginia instance, it appears to be from Charles Darwin.

Whatever they believe, or from whatever they are protecting us, they are “Patriots all!” That was the somewhat sarcastic assessment, on September 5, 1925, of the editors of The Guardian, a weekly paper published by the Catholic Diocese of Arkansas.

One not well informed about the strength of undercurrents in the United Sates would be inclined to thin[k] on reading the above impressive roster of organizations supporting the proposed Virginia statute that the movement which put itself in the limelight at Dayton was gaining in momentum and power. The fact, however, is otherwise. In nearly all sections of the country the forces of intolerance are being defeated at the polls and are being disintegrated.

The Catholic Church, it turns out, has continued to favor the teaching of evolution in its schools, at least according to a statement made, in 2005, by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, chair of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the meantime, the Patriotic Welfare Committee concerned itself with hating Catholics almost as much as it did evolutionary science. In that same year of 1925, they put together a petition of 200 signatures opposing a planned monument in Richmond to Christopher Columbus. A member of the Klan hailed his organization’s victory as also being “a great defeat for the Vatican.” The monument, he said, “was part of the conspiracy to establish Roman Catholicism as a dominant factor in the civic and political life of Richmond.”

On this page, by the way, you’ll find the first page of a report, written by a University of Virginia history professor who attended the Scopes trial. The rest is in the university’s special collections.