Ku Klux Klan connections abound in Buckhead.

Grand Wizard Hiram Evans lived on Peachtree Battle Avenue. He owned two homes at different times on opposite sides of the street. There were rumors of a tunnel connecting them. Or maybe the tunnels were an escape route into Memorial Park. Both homes are still standing.

Kennedy, Thornton rgb

Thornton Kennedy

There’s the grand Classical Revival house on Howell Mill Road built in 1924 by Bessie Tyler. She did public relations for the Klan and received 80% of the membership fee for each new recruit that joined because of her efforts. She became a wealthy woman as a result.

The Cotton Exchange on Roswell Road manufactured the robes, hoods and gloves. The three-story building is just north of the Buckhead triangle.

The Imperial Palace was a white-columned Greek Revival home on the corner of Peachtree and West Wesley roads. In the late 1930s the Catholic Church purchased and tore it down for its new co-cathedral, Christ the King.

Allegedly there were tunnels beneath the former headquarters as well, and those tunnels were also under the cathedral, though I’ve never been able to prove anything.

All of those relatively benign stories share a starting point in 1915 and the violent lynching of Leo Frank. As crazy it as it may sound, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan at that time after four decades of dormancy can be traced back to Buckhead.

On April 27, 1913, a night watchman found the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in the basement of the National Pencil Co. factory in downtown Atlanta, where she had worked. The previous day, she went there alone to collect her paycheck from the superintendent, Leo Frank.

Suspicion fell almost immediately on the superintendent. He was the last person to see her alive. And he was Jewish, which newspapers focused on in their reporting, many savagely.

Despite compelling evidence someone else committed the murder, attorney Hugh Dorsey, the Fulton County Superior Court solicitor general, mounted a successful — and anti-Semitic — prosecution.

A jury found Frank guilty of the murder, and the presiding judge sentenced him to death.

Appeals courts refused to overturn the conviction despite evidence a janitor at the factory named Jim Conley was the real murderer.

It fell to Gov. John Slaton, an early Buckhead resident, to save the life of an innocent man. He reviewed thousands of pages of evidence. He visited the crime scene. Ultimately, he wrote a 29-page report explaining why he didn’t believe Frank committed the crime. He commuted the sentence to life in prison.

The governor told friends he believed Conley to be the murderer and Frank would prove his innocence in time.

The day the world learned of the governor’s commutation, a mob attacked his Buckhead home, which was near the present-day Atlanta History Center. The national guard and county police propelled the assault.

Calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, a group of well-to-do men gathered in Marietta and traveled to the state prison in Milledgeville, where the governor had moved Frank for his protection.

Likely with the guards’ help, they took Frank back to Marietta and hung him on Aug. 17, 1915.

Believing the world needed their protection from people who were not like them, including Jews, Blacks and Catholics, some of those same men gathered on Stone Mountain a few months later and burned a cross on its summit.

The modern Klan was born. The Knights of Mary Phagan became the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

I read “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” Steve Oney’s thorough recounting of the Phagan murder, and walked away believing Conley murdered Phagan. The case against Leo Frank was a gross miscarriage of justice for the little girl and for Frank. In 1986, the state pardoned him.

Perhaps the Klan would have risen regardless, but its resurgence at that time and at that place can be traced back to Slaton’s brave decision.

Among Buckhead’s myriad connections to the KKK, the historical marker for Slaton on Andrews Drive should not be overlooked.

It may well be the most important.

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Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thornton@prsouth.net.

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