Black History Month has special significance, since it begins fewer than two weeks after the nation's historic inauguration of its first black president, Barack Obama.
But there are parts of that history that Traverse City, like the rest of the nation, would rather forget. The city never had a large black population, but it did not escape a visit from the Ku Klux Klan during a frightening night of downtown explosions and cross burnings on Aug. 9, 1924.
Traverse City has never seen anything like that night of terror. Buildings shook. Store windows cracked and shattered. Houses as far away as 16th Street quaked, the Record-Eagle reported.
And though outside agitators were blamed, some local people may have been involved.
It started about 8 p.m. after three explosions went off across the river from the Lyric Theatre, where the State is today.
The crowd at the Lyric all but stampeded toward the door as women and children screamed. Panicked shoppers spilled out of downtown stores. City police phones jangled with alarm.
A large cross burned on the north side of the Boardman River near Cass Street. About 50 smaller burning crosses appeared almost simultaneously at the centers of intersections across the city. Each was crudely nailed together and swathed in oil-soaked rags. Sparks flew when several cars struck them. A city fire truck raced through town to douse flames.
Then, a "touring car" with four men, robed and hooded, though not masked, slowly trolled down Front Street carrying a sign surrounded by red flares blazing three letters: KKK.
Copies of the Ku Klux Klan newspaper, "The Fiery Cross," later were found downtown, and police determined that at least two cars were involved in planting and lighting the crosses.
Klan leaders called the explosions and flaming crosses a recruiting gimmick, but it was more than that. The 1920s was a reactionary time in the United States. The Klan had risen again, starting in 1915, widening its anti-black focus to Jews, Catholics and immigrants, particularly those from southeastern Europe. Its membership was strongest in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
The Klan's most powerful year was 1924, when it reached an all-time high of 5 million members nationwide and virtually controlled the government of Indiana. Its most popular slogan was "100 percent pure American."
The Klan had a solid base of support in Michigan. The Klan fielded two candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1924 and a Klan-backed candidate was elected mayor of Flint. A write-in Klan candidate even made a strong showing in a Detroit mayoral race.
In June 1924, 1,000 men joined the KKK in an Oakland County cross burning attended by about 8,000 people. Traverse City's demonstration took place just two months later. But who was really behind it?
"There is some doubt among the authorities as to whether the offenses were actually committed by local people or men from outside. They believe that local people were associated in the affair," the Record-Eagle reported.
An unidentified spokesman for the local Klan denied responsibility, speculating that it was the work of Klan enemies or rogue Klansmen. He told the Record-Eagle that the Klan repudiated terror tactics and burning of "unwatched crosses."
Two weeks after the bombing, city police obtained felony and misdemeanor arrest warrants accusing Ku Klux Klan organizer Basil Carleton of Richmond, Ind., of setting off explosives. Indiana police arrested him on Aug. 29.
Witnesses testified in two trials in December and January that Carleton had purchased 25 pounds of dynamite, fuses and three caps from Hannah & Lay Mercantile Co. about two hours before the explosions. A Park Place Hotel clerk said he saw Carleton hurrying away from the direction of the explosions about 10 minutes later. Two Klan members testified that Carleton was not at the scene.
Yet he was never convicted. Juries acquitted him in both cases because the prosecutor could not prove to their satisfaction that he was at the scene of the explosion or that he personally set off the dynamite.
The bomber escaped justice. But the good news was that in Traverse City, no night of terror like that happened again.