Colorado Women of the Ku Klux Klan
part 5 in a series
Many fraternal organizations over the years have either allowed women to join or have added auxiliary women’s groups that generally operate on their own but support the purposes of the men’s group. The Women of the Ku Klux Klan, formed in Little Rock, Arkansas in June of 1923, was just such an auxiliary organization. The women joined the men in parades and at other public events, but for the most part they held their own meetings. A Women of the Ku Klux Klan organization formed in Colorado soon after the national organization was created.
Though the women of the WKKK wore white robes, just like their male counterparts, they (usually) wore a hood without a face mask. The photo below is an exception to that rule. It’s clear from the high heels that two of the figures are women, yet their faces were covered. However, in parades and at other events, women weren’t afraid to show their faces.
In interviews of women who had been involved in the 1920s Klan, Kathleen M. Blee, author of Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, found that the women often remembered this time in their lives with great fondness and satisfaction. Their memories were primarily of social events. As one woman explained, it was “a way to get together and enjoy.”
But women in the WKKK also felt empowered. Essentially, in a bid to further bolster White Protestant culture and primacy, the men of the KKK were willing to support women’s suffrage as a means of furthering their own goals. To be clear, their support of women’s suffrage was solely for White, Protestant women. And it was expected that these White women would vote in such a way that it would support the Klan’s White supremacist agenda.
The power that the Klansmen felt most comfortable giving to their womenfolk was that of exalted figurehead. As Blee explains in her book,
“For Klansmen the home symbolized many things. Fundamentally, the home represented Americanism and the protection of American values from alien influence. The Grand Dragon of the Realm of Colorado directed Klansmen to be zealous in guarding the home, arguing that ‘all the forces of evil which attack the American home strike at the life of the nation, for when the home is broken, all pretext of government vanishes.’ Homes gave ‘real Americans’ a stake in the country’s future….”
Women were not allowed to hold positions of authority within the Klan. They did not generally attend meetings of the Klan. They really had very little say in anything the Klan did. And by all accounts, they were content with that. They ran the WKKK as they pleased — holding socials, doing charitable works, and by and large either supporting, or ignoring, the racist activities of their menfolk. These women were happy to be symbols of purity and goodness for an organization that saw itself as right and true.
In studying the Colorado Klan during the 1920s, there are two women that stand out. One was Laurena Senter, wife of Gano Senter, Grand Titan of Colorado’s Northern Provinces. The other was Bishop Alma White, head of the Pillar of Fire Church in Longmont.
Senter appears to have been a model WKKK member. She kept photos of women’s Klan events, proudly posing in many of the photos herself. Her ancestors were from Scotland, but had come over in the 18th or 19th centuries, so she felt herself to be a born and bred American from a stalwart, Christian background. She was a dutiful wife, the mother of two daughters, an artist, and involved in charitable causes.
White, on the other hand, was outspoken, charismatic, and an ordained bishop. She was not at all the contained woman that the Klan probably preferred, and yet her message of 100% Americanism, White supremacy, and limited immigration was exactly the beliefs the Klan espoused. So while Senter modeled the Klan ideal for women, White did help to promote the Aryan message, so she was accepted as an asset. It probably didn’t hurt that White split her time between New Jersey and Colorado, so the Klan could make use of her without having to deal with her constantly.
Laurena Senter – Model Klanswoman
Laurena Hodges was born in the summer of 1894 in Lancaster County, Nebraska. She was of Scottish descent, though her ancestors had immigrated to America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She marred Gano Senter in 1911. (Gano has a pretty sensational story that includes the murder-suicide of his parents as well as several kidnappings prior to his marriage to Laurena. But I’ll save his story for another day.)
The Senter’s first daughter, Laurena Evelyn (called “Tudy, probably a nod to her being the second Laurena in the house) was born a year and a few months after the couple was wed. Their second daughter, Alice, was born six years later. So by the time the WKKK was formed, Laurena would have been around 29 years old with an eleven-year-old and a five-year-old at home. In 1924, Gano became the “Grand Titan of the Province of the North,” which included the Denver area and might well have extended north to the Wyoming border. (I haven’t been able to corroborate that hunch, but Gano is mentioned in NoCo newspapers of the time. He was heavily involved in the cherry industry and visited the area with some frequency.) Laurena became the “Imperial Commander of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan of Colorado” around the same time.
In addition to the studio portraits of Laurena as shown above, there’s an archived photomontage that seems to capture the purposes of the WKKK in a nutshell.
While the men’s activities included boycotts of Catholic businesses, legislation aimed to remove Catholics and Jews from teaching positions at Colorado University, and heavy-handed policing of Black, Jewish and Italian neighborhoods in particular, the women were focused on feel-good activities such as helping the poor (well, poor White Protestants), marching in parades, and giving general support to their husbands’ Klan endeavors.
Not to say that the WKKK remained entirely apolitical. In 1925, Klanswoman Minnie C. T. Love introduced legislation that would have authorized “the sterilization of epileptics, the retarded, and the insane if procreation might result in ‘defective or feeble-minded children with criminal tendencies.'” (Quote by Robert Alan Goldberg from his book Hooded Empire, who in turn included a quote from Love’s legislation.)
The Colorado Chapter of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan boasted 35 klaverns and 11,000 members in 1924-25. But in 1926, with allegations of immorality and corruption at the national level, the Colorado women severed their ties with the national organization. They continued meeting for the next four years until, in 1929, the national group forbade the Coloradans from continuing to use the name of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. At that point Laurena Senter and many of the women from the WKKK left the organization and formed a new one, which they called the Colorado Cycle Club.
When the Klan was founded it 1865, it took its name from the Greek word “kuklos” which meant circle — probably referencing a circle of brothers. So Senter’s choice echoes the Klan name, but in her journals, she put another meaning to the name change.
“As Webster defines it, it is a revolution of a certain period of time which recurs again in the same order. Our first Cycle was the time of the Revolution of our forefathers standing for liberty, the second cycle was the organization of the Klan in the south, standing for a united government, the third cycle was the Klan as we knew it in 1924-25, and the fourth cycle is the club that we now represent.” – from the book Denver Inside and Out, which referenced the Senter Family Papers, Box 44, FF10.
When the women posted public notices of their meetings, occasionally a few men would show up with their bicycles in tow expecting to find a riding group, not a meeting of ex-Klanswomen.
Over time the group shrunk. The women set aside their white robes and caps and instead wore white dresses on special occasions. Eventually the group was small enough that they could hold their weekly meetings in the Senter’s house. This continued until at least 1945. The authors of Denver Inside and Out pull from Laurena’s journals to give an overview of her thoughts about the organization:
In 1929 Laurena Senter wrote an entry in her diary reflecting on the years past and her association with the Ku Klux Klan. Referring to her years as Imperial Commander of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan as “being in the harness,” Senter call those years a “cycle of sorrow” in which she found only work and heartache for her share in the cause. “The order,” she said, “was one of sorrow, and hatred, with ideals of beauty, but too far above the selfish horde that flocked to its portals, hoping for personal gain and glory. We all followed blindly because the cause and ideals were beautiful, and reflected beauty to leaders who were otherwise entirely of mud.” In this statement, Laurena Senter laments the failures of the Ku Klux Klan leadership, not the ideological foundations that defined it.
Laurena supported the cause, but as the Denver Klan succumbed to bickering, back-stabbing, and accusations of financial and sexual scandal, she believed that the men had abandoned the Klan’s beautiful ideals for their own gain.
Alma White – First Female Bishop in America
Mollie Alma Bridwell was born in the summer of 1862 in Kinniconick, Kentucky. She was a direct descendant of John Hart, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some accounts describe her as having a passion for preaching by the age of 16, though others say she didn’t seek the role until happenstance cast her into it at a later date. Either way, women preachers were a nearly non-existent rarity, and a simpler first step could be found in marrying a minister. So in 1887, Alma married Kent White, a Methodist seminarian.
The couple had two sons, Arthur Kent White and Ray Bridwell White. As her husband took on small pastorates, Alma would help with music or prayers. She began to preach on occasion, sometimes under the oversight, and with the permission of, her husband, using his pulpit. Other times she went out on her own to rural areas and mining camps. It seems that the more she went out to preach on her own, the more she started to criticize what she felt were shortcomings in the Methodist church. The church’s response was to move her husband to ever more obscure pastorates, eventually bringing them to Erie, Colorado. Alma continued to preach, to criticize, and to collect converts.
In 1895, Kent and Alma received national attention in The Guide to Holiness magazine, a holiness movement publication, in which they were applauded for gaining 40 supplicants to the alter during a tent revival in Fort Collins. Their travels led them throughout Colorado as well as to Utah, Idaho, and elsewhere. Kent was eventually removed from ministry in the Methodist church.
In 1901, Alma founded the Pillar of Fire church in Denver. Though originally founded as a Methodist church, it was also a part of the holiness movement and officially split from the Methodist denomination around 1905. (Adherents of the holiness movement were often referred to as “Holy Rollers” because of their religious frenzy during worship. Such emotional displays had been partly what had gotten Alma into trouble with the Methodists.) In 1907, Alma opened a sister congregation in Zeraphath, New Jersey. She traveled between these two locations, continuing to gather adherents. Members were expected to sell all they had when they joined the church.
In 1909, after threatening for years to leave Alma, Kent finally followed through. He withdrew his membership from the Pillar of Fire church and moved to West Virginia where his mother lived. There he joined a Pentecostal church (which led to Alma preaching vehemently against the wrongs of Pentecostalism).
In 1918, Alma was ordained as a bishop. Given that she was head of the church that advanced her to this position, it can only be assumed that it was a title she bestowed upon herself… although she did have a male minister preside over the ceremony. Still, she enjoyed calling herself the first female bishop in America.
With a growing movement across the United States, Alma was well situated to spread the tenants of the Klan when she embraced the movement in the 1920s. By that point Alma had also collected a great deal of wealth and she used it to support Klan activities through donations and by providing free meeting spaces. Though the Pillar of Fire name came about before the rebirth of the Klan in the 20s, it was a convenient connection that likely gave added meaning to the frequent cross burnings on church properties.
Alma was also an asset to the Klan because she frequently used her pulpit as a platform to espouse her political beliefs, including her adherence to white supremacy. In 1925, she offered a six part speaking series in Longmont on the theme “What does the Ku Klux Klan stand for?” Topics covered were, in order: 1) The tenets of the Christian Religion, 2) White Supremacy, 3) Closer Relation between Capital and American Labor, 4) Protection of Our Pure Womanhood, 5) The Right of Peaceable Assembly, and 6) The Limitation of Foreign Immigration. Each of her six talks were advertised in the Longmont Ledger with the closing phrase, “Any American Citizen Will Stand Four Square on This.”
By the time of Alma White’s death in 1946, at the age of 84, she left behind over 4,000 followers, 61 churches, seven schools, ten periodicals, and two broadcasting stations. Though Pillar Ministries, the current incarnation of the Pillar of Fire church, continues to this day, leaders have since renounced White’s embrace of KKK ideology.
Both Laurena and Alma’s stories complicate our understanding of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1920s. For Laurena Senter, we find that white supremacy goes hand in hand with social gatherings and community service. With Alma Bridwell White, we’re confronted with a powerful mover and shaker who believed as strongly in woman’s suffrage and dedication to God as she did in the tenants of the KKK. These perplexing stories serve as a reminder that history can be quite messy. As messy, in fact, as the people that lived it.
If this article was your first stop, you may be interested in going back and reading the four articles that came before it:
– An Overview of the Klan in Colorado, Part 1 – Chronological Context
– When the Klan Came to Colorado, Part 2 – Rise to Power
– When the Klan Came to Colorado, Part 3 — Denouement
– How the Klan Took Over Colorado, Part 4 — Shrewd Planning, Crafted Messaging
“Ku Klux Klan“, Wikipedia. The section on “Women.”
Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan Racism and Gender in the 1920s. University of California Press, 2009.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, et al. “Alma Bridwell White.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 June 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Alma-Bridwell-White.
Noel, Thomas Jacob., et al. Denver Inside and Out. University Press of Colorado, 2011.
If you’re still reading, check this out. –> Image of Laurena Senter not included above — Aug 31 1972, Sep 6 1972; Laurena Senter Shows Some Of Her Paintings, Getty Images.
Brenner, Betty Jo. “Women of the Ku Klux Klan.” Colorado Encyclopedia.
Information on Gano Senter can be found in the Denver Public Library’s biographical note on the Senter Family Papers, which is in the library’s possession. This where I found the date for when both Senters gained their official titles within the Klan.
Goldberg, Robert Alan. Hooded Empire: the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Lindley, Susan Hill and Stebner, Eleanor J., editors. The Westminster Handbook to Women in American Religious History. p. 233.
Westminster Castle, Wikipedia.
Pillar of Fire International, Wikipedia.
Stanley, Susie C. Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White. Wipf and Stock Publishers.