Bolted into the side of a nondescript white brick building with red trim in the small town of Pulaski, TN, one block away from an exquisitely beautiful courthouse, is an aged bronze plaque. A modern sign on the door advertises a law firm within the small structure. But this building holds a secret: it was the building where in 1865 a group of five disenchanted Confederate war veterans sat in what was then the office of Judge Thomas M. Jones and decided to start the infamous group called the Ku Klux Klan. In 1917, United Daughters of the Confederacy attached a bronze plaque to the building with the inscription “Ku Klux Klan organized in this, the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, Dec. 24, 1865,” along with the names of the five men who were present on that fateful day. But if you visit the building now, you won’t be able to read those words, but you will still be able to see the plaque.
I read about this building several years ago and put it on my list of places to visit. Pulaski is only about 30 minutes from my home, but I hadn’t passed through the small town in well over 30 years. My only memory of Pulaski is driving through sometime in the 1970s on a family trip and noticing a sign that mentioned the KKK. I remember asking my mother what that meant, and she told me it was a group that only cared about hate. Since then, whenever I think of Pulaski, I only think of the KKK. But the town is really is much more than that.
Yesterday I was driving near Pulaski and decided to take a short detour to see the KKK plaque for myself. Because now, the plaque looks like this.
In the late 1980s, Pulaski lawyer Don Massey bought this little building for his law practice. By this point, nobody in town was very thrilled about being known as the birthplace of the KKK. The plaque’s message reminded everyone who saw it the legacy of hate not only in Pulaski, but in many areas throughout the post-war South. The town was unfortunately a destination for followers of messages of racial inequality and hatred, and that was not good for the town’s image. Many people probably wished the plaque would simply disappear. But would that draw even more attention from the KKK?
When Massey bought the building, he did something unexpected. Instead of just removing the plaque and throwing it away, he turned it around so nobody can read the words. He described why in an interview with the Seattle Times:
“I thought by turning the plaque around it would say the same thing as turning your back on racism and the negativism that goes with it and the complacency with the racial situation that we have today, and not just in the South,” Massey said.
When I learned about this reversed plaque, I loved the story. The people of Pulaski aren’t trying to ignore their history or their past, but they are moving past it. What Mr. Massey did is such an eloquent way to remind people of the past while at the same time completely disavowing the message written on that aging piece of bronze.
After visiting Pulaski, I will no longer only think about it as the birthplace of a hate group. It’s a lovely little town, and I will now think of the elegant courthouse building, the friendly people, and the lawyer who decided to make a statement against the most notorious hate group in the country.
If you want to visit: This is an actual business. The address is 205 W. Madison St., Pulaski, TN. The office is just one block away from the courthouse square. Just look for the one story white brick building with red trim. There is plenty of parking. If you stop by on a weekend in the summer months, you’ll like find a farmer’s market in full swing.