Peggy Ann Brown, Ph.D.
Washington, D.C. Independent Historian
The Awakening: 1920s Ku Klux Klan Musical
Between 1924 and 1927, thousands of performers sang and danced their way through a glittering stage show featuring actors in black face and scenes reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, Birth of a Nation. Thousands more attended the performances, which played to capacity crowds in sixteen cities. Called The Awakening, it was sponsored by local Ku Klux Klan klaverns, and featured community theater performers, Klan members and their families, and dance schools eager to show off their students’ talents.
Texas showman Jimmie Hull wrote and directed The Awakening. With experience staging amateur talent and minstrel shows, he was known for earning a profit for local sponsors. Hull first staged The Awakening in Beaumont, Texas, where he lived and had previously organized shows. Beaumont Klan #7—the number indicating it was the seventh klavern established in Texas—was part of the movement historians have labeled the second Ku Klux Klan.
In 1915, William J. Simmons, a recruiter for fraternal groups, created the new Klan, wanting it to combine nostalgia for the Reconstruction era Klan and all the aspects of fraternalism he loved best: secrecy, ritual, and social networking. Unlike the 1870s Klan’s violent fixation on newly freed slaves, his group also targeted immigrants, Jews, and Catholics, as threats to the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant way of life.
Operating more in the open, the new Klan arranged carnivals, sponsored baseball teams, and staged entertainment, such as The Awakening. These community-friendly activities belied some members’ secret—and often vicious—activities, including intimidation, whippings, and lynchings.
Like Simmons, Jimmie Hull admired the 1915 Birth of a Nation and Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s bestselling Reconstruction trilogy. The novels portray a distraught South where freed blacks are sexual predators, white women need protection, and chivalrous Confederate veterans step forward to save them.
Dixon’s exaggerated, heart-rending scenes are intended to persuade readers of the necessity of the Klan to contain the former slaves’ supposedly inherent lust, idleness, and political aspirations. This is the story Hull also wanted to tell.
He expanded the home talent model by interspersing his melodrama throughout the three-hour talent show. I have not located the script but pieced together scenes through photographs, newspaper articles, and theater programs. Interspersed with the melodrama are the usual talent acts: whistlers; dancers; and soloists, duets, trios, and quartets.
Hull also included set pieces in each performance. A crowd favorite was a young girl singing the recent hit, “Daddy Swiped Our Last Clean Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan.”
Another popular number was the Diamond Dance led by Hull, wearing a suit, hat, and shoes, covered in 51,000 rhinestones. He choreographed similarly-clad women weaving around the stage in ever-combining and separating groups.
The “Little Red Schoolhouse,” reflected the second Klan’s political interests more than anything else in The Awakening, as a girl and boy sing about an old-time school. The supposed nostalgia actually reflected the Klan’s fear that Catholic and Jewish private schools would subvert the American way of life.
After receiving what he claimed were dozens of requests to stage the production elsewhere, Hull took the show on the road.
Ads for The Awakening typically promoted the show’s female performers, favorably comparing the “dazzling array of beautiful girls” to New York’s Ziegfeld chorines. Despite the Klan’s strict emphasis on morality, chorus girls’ scanty costumes and bobbed hair raised few concerns.