I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another.
Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches.
That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL.
To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.
The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M. Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.
Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement.
Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear.
By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan.