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Suffolk County Historical Society issues apology for newsletter featuring 1926 KKK advertisement

The Suffolk County Historical Society issued an apology Thursday for circulating a 1926 advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan as part of its most recent “Photo of the Week” newsletter.

The image was sent with a description of the KKK’s early 20th century activity on Long Island. The newsletter was sent via email Saturday.

According to SCHS, the ad was placed by the Riverhead chapter in a 1926 Klan magazine. The Riverhead Fair Grounds were used to hold the advertised Monster Klan Gathering in August of that year.

The apology expressed the historical society’s “deep regret” over the photo, which “depicts one of the shameful groups that have existed to bring fear into our communities and suppress residents of color.” The selection came from a previous exhibit, “Hidden and Forbidden,” that the SCHS said was meant to educate. 

“Highlighting this photograph and its description, however, without the broader context of its depravity was a grave mistake,” the historical society said. “We missed an opportunity to honor Black History Month with one of the many positive contributions in our history, and instead released a wholly inappropriate and painful photo that is the antithesis of the Black History celebration.”

The apology from the SCHS board of trustees came after the Eastern Long Island branch of the NAACP called an emergency press conference at the Riverhead Free Library to discuss images and videos circulated by SCHS and Southampton Historical Museum of the KKK. The press conference in scheduled for Friday.

Lawrence Street, president of the Eastern Long Island branch, confirmed the photo was among the materials referred to in the press release and said he would elaborate further at Friday’s press conference. He also confirmed he would be speaking more about a Feb. 10 webinar hosted by the Southampton History Museum titled “The Clansman: A Novel that Reignited the KKK with Joan Baum.” A preview of the event included a description: “In this program, Joan Baum will look at how [the film and book] might be used to expand civil discourse in a constructive manner that would find acceptance in classrooms around the country.”

In its apology, the SCHS added: “The Society has long been the keeper of our local history and as such provides a valuable glimpse into our past. While our history also bears witness to horrible tragedies and suffering, highlighting that aspect of our history without denouncing it is inexcusable at any time, much less during the month of February.”

SCHS Executive Director Victoria Berger also issued a personal apology to the community, taking full responsibility for the photo’s circulation and making sure something similar never happens again. She said the photo was presented insensitively, with “a description context that failed to challenge past acts of racism and reverse a narrative of hate.”

“I am heartbroken to have caused pain and insult to the community, and the many relationships and partnerships I have cultivated through our Society in my years here,” she said. “I am listening, and am understanding where we failed. I will be pursuing improved education and sensitivity training for my staff, and myself, and involve the Board in these actions.”

In an effort to do better, the SCHS said it plans to educate staff “so that a communication of this magnitude could never be repeated;” implement diversity and sensitivity training; open conversations with community groups such as the NAACP and Suffolk County Anti-bias Task Force to improve race relations; host a series of public discussions led by experts “immersed in the understanding of the African American experience;” and diversify the SCHS board of trustees.

The Photo of the Week newsletters typically are sent on Saturday and feature an image from the museums archive with a brief description as well with information on upcoming exhibits at the museum and links to the website and social media accounts.