Membership in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) spiked nationwide during the 1920s, and Colorado was no exception to the hysteria of nativism and religious prejudice that swept the country. Following World War I, national KKK recruiters helped local agitators form a men’s KKK in Colorado. The women’s organization followed shortly afterward, and thousands of Colorado women answered the group’s call to campaign against religious and ethnic minorities.
Overlooked until recently, the Colorado Women of the Ku Klux Klan were led by the charismatic and influential Denverite Laurena Senter. A separate entity from the men’s organization, the Women’s Ku Klux Klan participated in cross burnings, discriminative “charity work,” parades through downtown Denver, and other operations. Never wearing the mask, they played the role of the public face of morality of an otherwise secretive racist order, making their own independent contributions to the white supremacist movement in Colorado.
In the 1920s, from Maine to California, in cities and in rural communities, large numbers of men and women joined the Ku Klux Klan to promote the cause of “100% Americanism.” They believed America needed to be saved from the influences of recent immigrants, blacks, Catholics, and Jews. In Colorado, Klan membership numbers reached as high as 35,000 men and 11,000 women.
Little has been written about the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) in Colorado or its leader, Laurena Senter, a pillar of the Denver community until her death in 1986. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Mrs. Senter served as the president of numerous clubs and organizations, including the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, Colorado State Federation of Garden Clubs, and the Women’s Club of Denver. She was a Certified Professional Parliamentarian who attended the University of Denver and Barnes Business College.
Mrs. Senter’s husband, Gano Senter, was also a high-ranking member of the Klan. He served as the Great Titan of the Northern Province (which meant half of Colorado) of the Colorado Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Senters immersed themselves in the Klan movement. Because of Laurena’s meticulous attention to recordkeeping and preservation of Klan records, we can learn much about the inner workings of the WKKK in Colorado.
According to historian Nancy F. Cott, the quest for women’s suffrage was embraced by most women, uniting them for the first time. Their progressive ideals were closely tied with suffrage, temperance, and social work. As women asserted themselves in what Estelle Freedman calls “institution building,” they sought their own networks to nurture their culture and well-being.
But as historian Robert Goldberg points out, women’s goals could be progressive and racist at the same time. Such was the case with the women of the Ku Klux Klan.
Organizing a Women’s Klan
Women’s involvement in the 1920s Klan movement began in June 1923. At first national recruiters summoned wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Klansmen. In time, the recruitment effort expanded to include Protestant women seeking to uphold Christian principles and virtues of so-called “true womanhood.” Some of the national women’s patriotic societies that later folded into the WKKK included the Ladies of the Invisible Eye, Dixie Protestant Women’s Political League, Grand League of Protestant Women, White American Protestants (WAP), and Ladies of the Invisible Empire.
On June 10, 1923, many Protestant patriotic women’s organizations combined to form the first membership of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan in Little Rock, Arkansas. Starting with 125,000 members, the WKKK spread quickly to thirty-six states, growing its national membership to more than 1 million women by 1924.
The men’s and women’s Klans grew in much the same way. Women recruiters, called “kleagles,” were sent out to spread the message of patriotism and Protestantism. Historian Kathleen Blee writes that the Klan lured members by professing to defend morality. She writes: “The Klan ranted against the victimization of white Protestant women by Jewish businessmen, sexually sadistic Catholic priests, and uncivilized black men.” Women’s Klan chapters often described their mission in self-righteous terms, such as safeguarding public virtues and keeping “the moral standards of the community at a high place.”
The WKKK in Colorado
According to Laurena Senter’s diary of appointments, there were as many as thirty-five Klan chapters of the Colorado Corporation of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, ranging from big cities to small rural towns. The list indicates a much broader statewide involvement than historians have heretofore believed. Membership cards indicate there were 11,000 members in the WKKK of Colorado in the years 1924 and 1925 under Imperial Commander Senter. Most of the members lived in Denver and along the Front Range. Membership rosters varied greatly. In Akron, Klan #23 shows 127 names; in Alamosa the registration indicates 99 members. Small towns had chapters, but Denver Klan #1 was the largest Klavern.
In February 1926 the women’s organization broke from the national organization to become Colorado incorporated. For four years they continued their secret society, meeting at the Pythian Hall on Glenarm and Fourteenth Street and eventually at Crystal Hall at 220 Broadway. In 1929 the name Women of the Ku Klux Klan was changed to Colorado Cycle Club, as the national organization no longer permitted the Colorado women to use the name. Some Colorado chapters drifted back to the national organization, but for the most part Denver Klanswomen remained loyal to Mrs. Senter and Denver Klan #1. Even without the name, the women of the Klan in Colorado maintained cordial relations with the men’s organization.
The Women of the Ku Klux Klan of Colorado had a constitution, bylaws, memorial ceremonies, a creed, and a list of ideals and beliefs. Their stated purpose was not to inflict physical harm on anyone in the “alien” world, but to present themselves as good, charitable, white Christian American women. Their creed was to “avow the distinction between the races of mankind as decreed by the Creator, and to be ever true to the maintenance of White Supremacy and strenuously oppose any compromise thereof.”
In the 1920s Klan ideology was accepted by the mainstream. Newspaper articles reported on club meetings as if they were of interest to everyone. Klan women paraded unmasked through the streets of Denver, proud to collectively display their unity and stance on patriotism, Protestantism, and purity of race. The WKKK belief system was in lockstep with the men’s KKK, but they organized independently while willingly supporting the cause. They carried out their objectives in different ways, in keeping with their gender expectations of the time.
In 1925, as Imperial Commander, Mrs. Senter traveled the state performing rituals and initiations of membership. Women were eager to join the WKKK partially because of the lure of ritual and mystery and partially because joining clubs was a form of camaraderie in much the same way that it was for men. People in rural areas were especially vulnerable to fears of change to the American identity and threats to traditional values. In Pueblo, for example, southern and eastern European laborers accounted for increases in both overall population and the Catholic population.
Meanwhile, legal entanglements were growing for Colorado Klan Grand Dragon John Galen Locke. A joint Klonklave was called to show support for his leadership. Mrs. Senter presided at this joint Klonklave on June 30, 1925, as more than 50,000 Klanswomen and Klansmen gathered at the Cotton Mills Stadium at Evans and Mariposa.
The WKKK believed charity and benevolence to others defined their role. They delivered Thanksgiving baskets to needy Denver families, gave financial support to a member who adopted an orphaned child, and participated in parades in full regalia, often unmasked. On occasion they joined the men on Ruby Hill near Denver and Table Mountain near Golden to light the cross and proclaim the ideals of their order. Ladies were told not to patronize downtown Denver’s Neusteters Department Store because it was “run by Jews” who had publicly stated that Klan trade was not welcome there.
The ceremonial rituals of “klankraft” took place once a week at the People’s Tabernacle at 1120 Twentieth Street in Denver. Klan headquarters were located at 219 Central Savings Bank Building. Membership dues of twenty-five cents per week and the ten dollar initiation fees paid for the office space, as well as a stipend of $150 per year to Lillian Baxter for being the Kligrapp, the Klan term for secretary. Records indicate that the club amassed $15,000 in Cotton Mills savings bonds designated to build a Protestant boarding school for orphans next to the Cotton Mills stadium. This would keep orphan children out of Catholic-supported orphanages.
The Colorado Cycle Club continued as an organization until 1945. Eventually, the membership roster dwindled to twenty ladies who met at Laurena Senter’s house at 1145 South Logan Street. Dropping the white robe and helmet, they instead dressed in white dresses for special occasions. They met for weekly renewal of friendships. At this time Senter pursued her interest in parliamentarian procedure and club work.
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, Laurena Senter described a “cycle of sorrow” in which she found only work and heartache for her share in the cause. But Senter appears to only lament the failures of the Ku Klux Klan leadership, not the ideological foundations that defined it. “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.”
In addition to tapping into fear of change, the Klan movement grew in almost every case because of charismatic leaders. Laurena Senter was that leader in Colorado. Even after the Klan disbanded, she never acknowledged her years leading it. Her deep involvement was not discovered until her death in 1986, when the Senter family donated family papers to researchers at the Denver Public Library. The question remains, did the women who paraded down the streets of Denver in white robes and pointy hats remain white supremacists their entire lives, or did their hearts change? Did they keep the secret to themselves and feel ashamed, or did they feel, as the women in Indiana told Kathleen Blee, “terribly misunderstood”? Whatever their motives for joining or the direction their personal journeys took thereafter, the Colorado women who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s embraced the movement’s nativist solidarity, lending their voices and actions to the larger group’s hateful crusade in the Centennial State.