‘Life of a Klansman’ Tells Ugly Truths About America, Past and Present – The New York Times

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A Family History in White Supremacy
By Edward Ball
When his mother died in 2003, the writer Edward Ball went to New Orleans, where her family had lived for generations, to bury her and sort through her belongings. Among her papers were documents that had been collected by her late aunt, including tales about the man who was known in the family as “our Klansman.”
Ball had already written, in 1998, a deeply reported National Book Award-winning history, “Slaves in the Family,” for which he tracked down descendants of those who had once been enslaved by his South Carolina ancestors on his father’s side. In his new book, “Life of a Klansman,” he follows a similar course, taking the reader along with him on a journey of discovery as he teases out facts, engages in speculation and shares his emotions about the sad saga of Constant Lecorgne, an unsuccessful carpenter and embittered racist who was a great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side.
The result is a haunting tapestry of interwoven stories that inform us not just about our past but about the resentment-bred demons that are all too present in our society today. “This is a family story,” he writes. “Yet it is not a family story wrapped in sugar, the way some people like to serve them.” The family is not just his, it’s our nation’s.
[ Read an excerpt from “Life of a Klansman.” ]
Lecorgne, born in 1832, was raised in a New Orleans that was, as it has been throughout its history, very complex racially and ethnically. About a quarter of the population were French-speaking whites, a quarter were English-speaking whites, a quarter were free mixed-race Creoles and a quarter were slaves. The Lecorgnes were in the first category, but they rented a home from a free French-speaking woman of color.
Because he has few documents, Ball indulges in a lot of surmises and speculations, perhaps a bit too many for my taste. He pictures the young boy Lecorgne walking with his family the four blocks to Congo Square, where the slaves were allowed to drum and dance on Sunday afternoons. There is a sexual tension that the boy finds both attractive and appalling. “I think I can begin to see, in Congo Square, a script and a stage, a place where Blackness and whiteness meet,” Ball writes. “Complications ensue. They move apart. Eventually the script calls for a crescendo. Blackness and whiteness collide, and the ending, for our Klansman, is an explosion.”
Lecorgne is the unsuccessful and unpopular middle child of a large family. He tries to make a living as a carpenter, but he descends into what is known in the local parlance as petits blancs, the poor working-class whites. Resentments accrue. When he marries, his wife’s family gives him a household slave as a dowry, but he has to sell her for $500 to afford a home.
The Civil War offers Lecorgne an outlet for his resentments and a chance to finally earn a little respect from his family and neighbors. But even there he fails. After joining one of Louisiana’s militias as a captain, he is demoted to a second lieutenant. On a train trip to Virginia he gets into a melee and, along with much of his unit, is court-martialed. At a public ceremony, he and his comrades have one-half of their scalps shaved and are cashiered. Lecorgne heads back to New Orleans in disgrace.
Under Reconstruction, the city becomes integrated. Blacks can vote, testify against whites in court and sit where they want on the streetcars; a few even attend integrated schools. Lecorgne’s neighborhood in uptown New Orleans, around where Napoleon Avenue meets the river (which is where I grew up), becomes mixed, with Creoles, Germans, Irish, Blacks and mulattoes all living on the same blocks. It’s nice to think what the city, and our nation, might have been had that progression continued. But among the whites, especially the petits blancs, resentments built.
The clubhouses for resentful poor whites are the neighborhood firehouses. Lecorgne joined one just off Napoleon Avenue, the Home Hook & Ladder Company, housed in a Romanesque building with a first-floor facade clad in stone and a second in red brick. Its membership suddenly swelled during Reconstruction to 85 men, far more than were necessary to fight off the neighborhood’s house fires. Instead, as Ball writes, “the firehouses play a big part in the tale of the Ku-klux,” which is what the loose-knit confederation of white supremacist organizations came to be called.
Lecorgne was a minor player in this movement. But for that reason his tale is valuable, both for understanding his times and for understanding our own; he allows us a glimpse of who becomes one of the mass of followers of racist movements, and why.
His one recorded inglorious moment came in early 1873. With Black support, a Republican was elected governor, and the local white militias took up arms to resist his rule. Lecorgne and a group of armed men gathered with the goal of taking over their neighborhood police precinct station, hoping it would spark a wider white uprising. Although the newspapers referred to them as “Ku-Kluxers,” the rebel raiders most likely did not wear robes and hoods. That practice was mainly for rural marauders. They were successful, but the following night the police staged a counterattack. As Lecorgne hid in a staircase, his cousin was wounded and a friend was killed.
Lecorgne surrendered and was carried away to the city jail. In the indictment, which misspelled his name, he is accused of treason and violating federal law for having “unlawfully maliciously and traitorously conspired” to attack state authorities. But a local judge quickly dismissed all the charges. That low point was the high point of his life.
Near the end of his book, Ball makes a fascinating digression. It involves a prominent person of color who lived in New Orleans at the same time as Lecorgne. Louis Charles Roudanez was a medical doctor, trained in France and at Dartmouth, who published The New Orleans Tribune, a daily newspaper for the Black community. An homme de couleur libre, Roudanez married a free woman of color. While researching his own family, Ball decided to look for the descendants of the Roudanez family.
He finds one of the physician-publisher’s great-great-grandchildren, named Mark Roudané, living in a leafy subdivision of St. Paul, Minn. “He was raised white, and he appears white,” Ball writes of Roudané. “In middle age he learned that according to the one-drop rule of blackness, he was not white.” Roudané did not know the tale of his father’s ancestors, or even the Roudanez spelling of his family name, until he stumbled across some family documents when he was 55. As happened with Ball, the discovery of a bit of family history leads Roudané on a quest. “When my father died, in 2005, I was going through his papers and throwing stuff away, and I found an unmarked binder,” Roudané tells Ball. It contained papers showing how his father, who was designated as “colored” on his birth certificate, had forsaken his distinguished roots, changed the spelling of his name as a young man, gone to Tulane by passing as white and then moved to the Midwest. Despite this history, or perhaps because of it, he became a resentful white racist. “When it came to talking about Black people,” Mark Roudané told Ball, “all this venom would come out. I thought, ‘Why is my dad being ugly?’ I didn’t understand it.”
The interconnected strands of race and history give Ball’s entrancing stories a Faulknerian resonance. In Ball’s retelling of his family saga, the sins and stains of the past are still very much with us, not something we can dismiss by blaming them on misguided ancestors who died long ago. “It is not a distortion to say that Constant’s rampage 150 years ago helps, in some impossible-to-measure way, to clear space for the authority and comfort of whites living now — not just for me and for his 50 or 60 descendants, but for whites in general,” Ball writes. “I am an heir to Constant’s acts of terror. I do not deny it, and the bitter truth makes me sick at the stomach.”