Florida Keys News
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Historical KKK document donated to library

The Monroe County Public Library has been given an old document that recalls a time in Key West's history when not everyone was considered to be "One Human Family."

The Key West branch's Florida History section is now home to the original, certified 1921 charter of the Ku Klux Klan of the Florida Keys, signed by then Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons. The "Klan of the Keys" charter lists about a dozen men who swore an oath to the "invisible empire."

Simmons signed the charter on Feb. 26, 1921, at a time when the Klan was making a resurgence in the United States. It was donated by a former Keys resident, whose family possessed the document, but was not named in it.

"Our history is not always rosy," said historian Tom Hambright, who oversees the Florida History section.

The Klan first came into existence in the South in the late 1860s, but had died out by the early 1870s. The second wave, founded in Georgia in 1915, flourished nationwide in the 1920s, adopting the same costumes and code words and introducing cross-burnings, according to published reports.

In 1921, the Klan retooled and adopted a modern system of recruiting, and its numbers grew rapidly at a time of prosperity. Reflecting the social tensions of urban industrialization and vastly increased immigration, its membership grew most rapidly in cities, and spread throughout the Midwest and West.

The Klan preached "One Hundred Percent Americanism," demanded the purification of politics, called for strict morality and better enforcement of prohibition. Its theme focused on the threat of the Catholic Church, and its recruitment was directed exclusively at white Protestants.

At its peak in the mid-20s, the Klan, a formal fraternal organization with a national and state structure, claimed its membership included about 15 percent of the nation's adult population, or 4 million to 5 million men.

Internal divisions, external opposition and criminal behavior among its leaders brought about a collapse in membership, which had dropped to about 30,000 by 1930.

Key West -- reputed to be a liberal, accepting town these days -- was not immune to Klan violence. Ten months after the Klan of the Keys charter was signed, the Keys had its only documented lynching.

The victim was Manuel Cabeza -- his nickname was El Isleno, Spanish for "the islander," a World War I veteran who owned a small bar and sporting club called the Red Rooster on Thomas Street. It was no secret he was dating a mixed-race woman named Angela, half-black and half-Cuban, and the two eventually moved in together.

On Dec. 21, 1921, he and Angela were awakened in the middle of the night by a group of hooded Klansmen who crashed through their bedroom door. Cabeza, who was known as a tough guy, managed to fight off several of them, but eventually was overpowered when they beat him with baseball bats. They tied him up with rope and carried him to Petronia Street, where they tarred and feathered him.

In the struggle, Cabeza managed to pull the hoods off two Klan members: William Decker, the manager of a cigar factory off Whitehead Street, and a Trumbo Point railroad terminal baggage handler, who was not at work when Cabeza went looking for him.

Cabeza exacted his revenge on Decker on Christmas Day.

Armed with an Army-issue Colt revolver, Cabeza hailed a taxicab and rode around Key West looking for Decker, whom he eventually spotted in his car in front of the Cuban Club on Upper Duval Street. The taxi made a U-turn in the street and Cabeza leaned out of the window and pointed the pistol at Decker.

He shot and killed him right there.

The taxi made its way to the Solana Building at the corner of Petronia and Whitehead streets. Cabeza ran inside and climbed to the cupola. A standoff began.

Sheriff Roland Curry persuaded local Navy officials to dispatch the Marines to help arrest Cabeza. Curry tried to persuade Cabeza to surrender and promised his safety, but Cabeza surrendered only when he was promised that deputy and former U.S. Marshal A.H. McGinnis, whom he trusted, would take him into custody.

Written accounts questioned how fairly Curry would have treated Cabeza, and suspicions about him grew as later events unfolded. Some speculated there were KKK members in the sheriff's ranks.

Cabeza was taken to the county jail, where Marines met him to protect him from a KKK reprisal. By midnight, Curry had relieved the Marines of their duty, telling them that tensions had eased and the situation was under control. Within an hour of the Marines leaving, five carloads of hooded Klansmen came to the jail, supposedly overpowered the sheriff, and made their way to Cabeza's second-floor jail cell.

They forcibly removed Cabeza, whose screams reportedly filled the jail as they beat him. Some accounts say he was dead by the time they dragged him out of the jail. They took him to a remote area off Flagler Avenue known as the dam, where they hanged him from a tree and riddled his body with bullets, according to published reports.

None of the men named on the 1921 charter was ever linked to the crime, Hambright said.

"There were never any suspects," Hambright said. "There were never any arrests."

Upon hearing Cabeza's story, Miami-Dade County high school teacher Michael Littman within the past year tried to resurrect the unsolved murder. His student researchers, called the Historical Memory for Truth Project, have been researching it, but have been stalemated by a lack of police investigative or grand jury reports.

"We have several good ideas about who may have been involved in the murder of Manuel Cabeza, but we are not yet able to connect the persons we are looking at in a factual manner to the event," Littman said. "This is often the case with KKK activities, as the secretive nature of the organization, the passing of time and lack of documentation will prevent any sort of historical (factual), courtroom-type evidence to emerge. We are looking at both historical facts and memory. To that end, there are sparse amounts of facts in this case."

Littman seems to have resigned himself to the fact that the most justice he likely will get for Cabeza is a burial with full military honors, which he is currently working to organize.

"We are working toward completing the paperwork to order the grave marker from the United States government," Littman said. "We are in contact with the sexton of the Key West Cemetery and he has agreed to take delivery of the grave marker and to install it on the grave site."

The Klan made its last appearance in the Keys in 1993, when the group was allowed to hold a rally in Bayview Park. The city had become a much different place by then, one that had embraced the One Human Family philosophy, and the Klan was not welcomed to this American-Caribbean island.

tohara@keysnews.com

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