We don’t usually picture Portsmouth as a town that would host a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. As I research Portsmouth history I can take pride in the examples of integration in Portsmouth schools, churches and in the community in general. But Portsmouth is a town like any other town, and bigotry did exists, especially in the 1920s. Accounts in the Newport Mercury in May of 1924 record a “Fiery Cross” being burnt in a field near the Newport County Fair Grounds. Abby Sherman’s Diary on May 26, 1924 reads: “Last Night the Fiery Cross was burned on the hill on the Cory land by the Klan. There were about 200 at the meeting.” * I believe the Cory Farm was where St. Barnabas Church is today.

Fiery Cross Burns in Portsmouth

Abby’s son, Arthur Sherman, was among those listed as members of the Klan. Arthur was a prominent local politician and served as a state senator. An official state hearing on Klan Activities before the Rhode Island House Militia Committee listed Sherman among other state officers (senators, Adjutant General) as sympathetic to the Klan.

Arthur A. Sherman – sympathetic to the KKK

Klan activities centered around typical social activities: tent meetings, all day outdoor rallies, oyster suppers, and clambakes. One newspaper account lists 2500 persons present at a Klan Field Day in Portsmouth in 1924.

During that era the Klan’s targets were Catholics, African Americans, Jews and immigrants. Anti-Catholicism was most prevalent around the Narragansett Bay Area. Only native born white Protestants could join the Klan. They were outwardly patriotic, Anti-Communist and proclaimed they were upholding traditional values. Klan activities did not take hold in Rhode Island’s cities, but were centered around rural and Republican areas. In many ways the fear of losing power led otherwise decent white, native born and Protestant people to flirt with a radical organization.


Rhode Island History Magazine. KKK in Rhode Island by Norman Smith http://www.rihs.org/assetts/files/publications/1978_May.pdf

Abby’s diary was transcribed by Jim Garman