Everyone has a story about the tunnels.
They are everywhere and anywhere, depending on who is talking. These are the ubiquitous Ku Klux Klan tunnels beneath Buckhead — below our churches, under our houses, in our parks, beneath our buildings.
The fact there is no evidence of any tunnels anywhere doesn’t matter. The tunnels are there, they are real and the Klan really used them, people will say. A social media post of an art-deco house on Peachtree Battle Avenue reminded me of this last week.
“Seem to remember it had some secret tunnel,” read the first comment.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the rumors persist.
One of these tunnels is allegedly beneath the Cathedral of Christ the King on Peachtree Road. The church built the rectory on grounds that were once home to the headquarters of the Klan, a sprawling Greek-revival mansion fronted by four two-story columns and a grand front porch. It was on the corner of East Wesley Road.
The cathedral held its first mass on that porch in 1936. In addition to hating blacks, Jews and immigrants, the Klan was fervently anti-Catholic.
It was a fitting turn of the screw.
A secret shaft was supposed to connect that house to the Cotton Exchange Building, 3155 Roswell Road. It was there in the 1910s and ’20s the robes and hoods were made for its main tenants, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan held the deed on the building.
That underpass would have been at least a mile long.
Then there are the tunnels in the Haynes Manor neighborhood. Built beneath Peachtree Battle Avenue, they are said to connect two houses that were once owned by Hiram Evans, the Klan’s imperial wizard. The underground channels are rumored to also lead to Atlanta Memorial Park. They gave members a secret exit in case the authorities disrupted their meetings.
Evans built the art-deco home at 306 Peachtree Battle Ave. in 1935. It has bold geometric shapes, with a limestone exterior and imprints of Egyptian motifs. Evans also built the brick house across the street on the corner of Dellwood Drive in 1929. The rumor has always been that because Evans built both houses, a buried passage joined them.
Both of the homes do have secret rooms. One had an office off the back of the house with a secret compartment, which held a large iron safe. 306 Peachtree Battle had several secret rooms as well, one with a hidden bar. That is interesting because the Klan supported prohibition.
There is a famous house on Howell Mill Road in Buckhead built by a woman who was arguably the most important person in the history of the KKK, Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Tyler. The Classical-Revival-style house was built in 1921 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tyler co-owned the public relations firm Southern Publicity Association in Atlanta and was instrumental in expanding the Klan’s reach through the media. After working with them for just six months, she helped grow membership to more 85,000.
On the evening of Oct. 11, 1921, as Tyler sat in her bedroom reading a book, someone fired five bullets through her open window. A call came into the local paper boasting someone had killed Tyler.
They did not.
She was unharmed and owned the house until her death in 1924.
Just as the Klan made a name for itself terrorizing minorities and the marginalized, its members became targets. Maybe that’s why they hid under those Cotton Exchange pillowcases and ran around Buckhead underground.
Only the latter didn’t happen.
There may have a tunnel at one point 100 years ago, but it didn’t run a mile up Peachtree Road, and it didn’t run beneath Peachtree Battle Avenue, and it wasn’t a secret escape to Memorial Park. I have searched every nook, every cranny and pushed every old-timer for evidence.
Just like the power of the KKK, it is but a myth. When push comes to shove, it falls apart.