Student journalist finds photo of the Harvard KKK – and documents school’s overlooked racist past

A 1924 photo of men in Ku Klux Klan garb gathered around the iconic John Harvard statue, by Massachusetts photographer Leslie Jones. The photo is titled “Harvard Class Day – Class Day at Harvard, Klans Klass 21 – have fun.” MUST CREDIT: Leslie Jones Collection/Boston Public Library via The Washington Post Syndicated Service

The photo had the casual feel of a yearbook snapshot: Harvard men gathered around the school’s iconic John Harvard statue against a backdrop of ivy. One is crouched in Harvard’s lap, and another holds a boating hat, a giveaway that the photo was taken before commencement during Class Day of 1924. Their shoes suggest that the men are dressed formally, though it’s hard to know because their outfits – and their faces – are covered in the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.

The photo’s title: “Harvard Class Day – Class Day at Harvard, Klans Klass 21 – have fun.”

When Simon Levien saw the photo last spring, he had immediate questions.

Levien, a freshman, offered answers with “The Crimson Klan,” a 4,500-word feature published last week in the Harvard Crimson culminating nearly a year of research. Though Levien was prompted by the Klan Class Day photo, what he found instead was what he described in his story as “this 20th-century historical hole in Harvard’s reconciliation attempts.”

Levien’s interest drove him to dig through Harvard’s archives and the student newspaper, to talk with professors and administrators and alumni who attended Harvard 65 years earlier.

The most striking incident involved J. Max Bond Jr., class of ’55. Bond came to Harvard at 16 and was among just a handful of Black students at the time. In the middle of the night during the spring of Bond’s freshman year, two students lit a cross on fire facing the north corner of Harvard Yard, near where Bond and eight other Black freshmen lived.

“Some of the onlookers cheered when, after ten minutes, the cross was knocked down, but we are sorry to say that others expressed indignation at its destruction. Minutes later a Negro student passing thru the Yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated States of the South,” Bond and classmate James Bows Jr. wrote in a letter to the Crimson in 1952 that Levien unearthed in his research.

“We do not feel that this demonstration can be dismissed as a prank; a burning cross carries with it so many unpleasant associations that it cannot be simply laughed off,” Bond wrote. “The very fact that some could see it as funny reveals a lamentable perspective.”

Bond, who became a prominent architect after Harvard, died in 2009 but left ample documentation in biographies and an 11-page retelling of his life of how the incident shaded his experience in college and what happened after he raised concerns about the cross burning.

Apart from a few deans and progressive campus groups that condemned the incident, little was done, with most students and administrators dismissing a cross set aflame near where the tiny population of Black students lived as nothing malicious.

“The administration called it a prank,” Levien told The Post. “Obviously, (Bond) did not think it was a prank.”

Levien tried to reach alumni from the Class of ’55 to ask them about the cross burning, but many have already died. One alumnus he did reach, Charles “Chuck” Greenblatt, now 90, said his memory of the incident was fuzzy. Greenblatt was a member of the Society for Minority Rights, one of the student clubs that condemned the cross burning, but he admitted to Levien that at the time, he had probably accepted the university’s rejection of the incident as a prank.

Levien found that Bond later wrote in his personal archives that the university had threatened to suspend him or any other Black student if they took their story to the press.

When the Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, convened in 2019, releases its first report this winter, it is not expected to contain any mention of the school’s legacy of racism during the 20th century, Levien found. Several committee members said the report will have “allusions to the 20th-century history” but little more.

Levien said he and professors who study Harvard’s history were disappointed with how little Harvard appears to have reckoned with its racism in the modern era – especially when he considers how much of the information he pieced together was hiding in plain sight in archives, student newspaper clippings and other documents as recent as 2014.

“If you type ‘Harvard’ and ‘The KKK’ in our library database, a lot will come up; it’s surprisingly not that buried,” Levien said.

A growing number of universities are addressing their school’s past treatment of enslaved people or ways in which the institutions enriched themselves through the slave trade. More recently, schools have grappled with racist mascots, traditions and yearbook photos forcing an ongoing dialogue about equality and safety for non-White students and what reckoning and reconciliation looks like for current campus communities.

Levien said his research left many stones unturned, including a dive into the archive of former Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, who’s legacy includes institutionalizing racism and anti-Semitism on campus.

Levien doesn’t expect his story will be the last of its kind, and hopes others will join in.

“A few of the people I talked to emphasized that uncovering this history isn’t going to be just a university effort: it’s going to be students, faculty, staff. The whole community.”

Levien said that unlike the 1924 photo that kicked off his research, he did not find any evidence that confirmed any formal Klan presence on campus in the 1950s when the cross burning took place outside Bond’s dorm.

As for the photo, its context is as revealing as its content. It was part of a collection at the Boston Public Library from Leslie Jones, a photographer and photojournalist who documented life in Massachusetts in the early and mid-21st century. Jones’s collection at the Boston Public Library includes several scenes from the Harvard campus.

“(The Klan photo) was in stark contrast to the rest of the collection,” Levien said.

In the broader context of United States history, a photo of Klansmen lounging in Harvard Yard would never be more normalized than in 1924.

The Harvard branch of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1921, according to university archives, consistent with when Klan membership reached its peak in the 1920s. Though the KKK was founded after the Civil War and had its stronghold in the Deep South, its second incarnation in the 20th century was spread throughout the whole of the United States, including enclaves such as Cambridge, Mass.

The year after the Klansmen posed for a photo at Harvard, 30,000 KKK members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, 22 abreast and 14 rows deep. The Washington Post’s DeNeen Brown revisited the spectacle in a 2017 article after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., showing how past, particularly with the country’s history of racism, is so often prologue.



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