Opinion: My great grandpa faced off against the Ku Klux Klan in Lincoln, Kansas, and prevailed
Members of the Ku Klux Klan hold a rally in this image from 1925. While active across the nation, the KKK was also a formidable force in Kansas. (National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress)
While the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas, like elsewhere across the country, purported to support decency, the family and white supremacy, it was also a vehicle for attacking business rivals and members of the Catholic Church. I know this as fact because my great grandfather, Ira Armsbury, had a run-in with the Klan in Lincoln during the 1920s.
My Great-Aunt Ila, Ira’s third daughter, told me the story in a letter dated Feb. 4, 2000.
Grandpa owned and operated a restaurant, Ira’s Lunch, on main street in Lincoln. Grandpa purchased his bread and buns from Porky Zink, owner of Zink’s Grocery and a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Lincoln, instead of from Herman Knoch, a Protestant baker who owned Knoch’s Bakery.
It was common knowledge who was a Klan member in town because, according to an interview I conducted around 2010, every Monday morning you could see the white robes and hoods hanging on clotheslines, flapping in the breeze with the other laundry.
For more than two years, the Klan harassed my great grandfather, urging him to switch bakers from the Catholic to the protestant one. But grandpa argued back that Zink’s bread products were better, so he wasn’t going to switch. Besides that, Porky Zink was one of Grandpa’s drinking buddies, even though this was during Prohibition.
That’s another story.
My great grandparents had rented a large, two-story home on the east side of Lincoln — too large for their needs. According to Auntie Ila, Grandpa “hired farmers’ sons who couldn’t afford to go to High School. They worked at the restaurant for board and room — on week-ends they went home. They lived in those rooms above us.”
Klan members marched through Lincoln every Friday night and planted a cross, which they lit on a hill overlooking the town.
“One of the boys was a catholic and one night they (the KKK) came in, in those white robes and hats and picked up that boy who was waiting tables and threw him through the big plate glass window in the front of the cafe!” Ila wrote.
Fortunately he was not seriously injured.
Grandpa was furious. And he was unbowed. As soon as school was out, he closed the restaurant and moved the entire family to Fairport, a tiny town about 75 miles west of Lincoln. Grandpa and grandma worked in a local restaurant owned by some Lincoln folks who weren’t Klan supporters.
A few months later, a delegation of four businessmen showed up in Fairport.
“We were there all summer and in the last of August a big black lemosine (sic) pulled up in front of the cafe … and 4 men dressed in suits and hats came in and walked back to the kitchen. It was the former sheriff, a banker, a doctor and I think the 4th one was the Ford Co. owner in Lincoln. Anyway they begged Daddy to come back to Lincoln. The promised to fix up a big building, put in all new tables and chairs and counters and stools. They said they’d finance the whole move if we would come back. The reason? Because the natural gas line was going to cross Kansas and they said they had to have a good cafe!”
So Grandpa loaded up the family and they returned to Lincoln to a new, bigger and better Ira’s Lunch. Ira’s Lunch remained a fixture on Lincoln’s main street until 1953, I believe, when it was sold to another local family and renamed D&D Café.
I knew my great grandfather because he didn’t die until 1963. I was 13 then. Because of the shame that some family members felt about all the trouble he caused and got into — he was an alcoholic; a philanderer; he was arrested, charged, tried and acquitted of the crime of white slavery; and he was part of a group poisoned by tainted Jamaica ginger in 1930 — I didn’t learn of his escapades until I was in my late 20s.
Ira left wreckage in his wake. But he taught my Great-Aunt Ila some of the most important lessons life has to offer. Sometimes you have to go your own way when the majority is wrong. Don’t back down, even when the going gets tough.
Those are lessons we all need to remember.
This column first appeared in the Kansas Reflector.
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