At this moment of extreme racial tension in the United States, it is important to reopen the books and recall an almost entirely unknown story involving the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1868 in Tennessee. The Civil War had ended just three years earlier but smoldering racial resentments among Southerners and veterans of the Confederate Army were widespread. Political violence between anti-Reconstruction politicians and free Black Republicans were rising. Starting on May 1, 1868, a three-day race riot broke out in Memphis, TN in which more than 120 Blacks were killed and 100 Black homes, schools and churches were burned. Several months later, on July 6, members of Franklin, Tennessee’s Black Union League of America were ambushed in a town square by unknown white assailants and returned fire. In all, thirty Blacks were wounded, three died of their wounds, as did one of the white gunmen.
Despite the growing violence, a number of Jews moved to the American South in search of economic opportunity. Many of them publically took up the cause of the besieged Black community including Prussian born Morris Marks who settled in New Orleans and Bohemian born Charles S. Kuh who settled in Beaufort, SC after the war ended. Kuh subsequently was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature on a pro-Reconstruction platform. However, the story of Samuel A. Bierfield was the most consequential of these stories, in the long view of history as his death was directly tied to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Samuel A. Bierfield was born in Latvia, immigrated to North America and initially settled in Toronto where he worked for a family business. In 1866, he moved to the United States and settled in Pulaski, Tennessee near the Alabama border. In Pulaski, where six veterans of the Confederate Army first organized the Ku Klux Klan in the spring of 1868, Bierfield immediately encountered numerous problems including resentment of his economic success, his friendly relations with local African Americans and the suspicion that he was a Radical Republican. Unable to overcome his problems in Pulaski, Bierfield moved north to Franklin, TN. Tragically, his problems followed him to his new place of residence.
In Franklin, Bierfield opened a dry goods store and hired an African American as his clerk. Late on the night of August 15, 1868, gunmen surrounded Bierfield’s store, forced him and his clerk outside and opened fire in an attack, which became a signature action of the nascent Klan. Bierfield was shot five times and died quickly of his wounds. His clerk, Lawrence Bowman, was also injured in the attack and later died of his wounds, although a second Black man escaped. Bierfield thus became the first of a number of American Jews to be lynched in the United States from Leo Frank to the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, while Bowman was just one of the thousands of African Americans to be murdered by White Supremacists in the United States.
As to be expected, a shameful judicial circus followed the 1868 Bierfield-Bowman lynching. A forged letter appeared in the local press two days after the attack accusing Bierfield himself of an earlier murder. In September, a suspect, John Pogue, Jr. was arrested for killing Bierfield after being named by a quickly discredited eyewitness and then released on the testimony of seven people who provided Pogue with a shaky alibi. Letters also appeared in the local press attempting both to exonerate the Klan of any responsibility in the attack and assuring the other Jewish residents of the town that anti-Semitism played no role in the attack on Bierfield. The fact of the matter is that the joint lynching of a Jew and a Black man marked the Klan’s historical emergence. The reality is that White Supremacists continue to view Jews, Blacks and “others” as their common enemy.
Fifty years after the dual lynching of Bierfield and Bowman, a young untested rabbi named William Fineshriber (1878-1968), stood up in his pulpit in Memphis, Tennessee in 1917 to denounce the public burning and dismemberment of Eli Persons, a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl. Rabbi Fineshriber continued to preach boldly against lynching and the Klan, often as the sole voice among the Memphis’ clergy, until he was called to the pulpit of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) in Philadelphia in 1923 as a moral heir to KI’s remarkable abolitionist rabbi, David Einhorn.
Racial violence is nothing new in this country and as Jews; it is incumbent upon us to understand that the same hate, which is directed at our Black neighbors is ultimately aimed at us as well. That is how the Klan started. That is what both Rabbis Einhorn and Fineshriber understood. That is what we need to recognize in our own day.
Since 1847 our congregational motto has been “love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).” Today, that message is as urgent as it was when Moses first proclaimed it thousands of years of ago. Today, we need to remind ourselves that it has been repeated and affirmed by every generation of our people until today. Now, in these turbulent times, we, too, need to be cognizant of our heritage both as a people and as a congregation and live our lives in accordance with the central teaching of our faith, “love your neighbor as yourself” and denounce racial hatred with every ounce of our moral and bodily strength.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.