Journalist's purchase of a century old Lansing 78 RPM record turns out to be Klan music
What would you do if you bought an old record from a thrift store on a whim, only to later learn it had been made by a group associated with the Ku Klux Klan?
That’s the situation a Lansing man recently found himself in.
Matt Miller is a senior reporter with MLive who enjoys collecting rare 78 RPM records, stuff he describes as never making it to CDs or online streaming services. He’s purchased opera from the early 1900s, country music from the 20s, and Arabic language records from the 40s. In a story for MLive, Miller wrote about a recent find at a Lansing thrift store that had the word "Lansing" on the label.
“What caught my eye about this, is that it said 'The Imperial Quintette of Lansing.' There’s very little recorded music from Michigan bands that you find that’s this old," Miller explained. "I’ve never seen anything that old from Lansing, and so I grabbed it without looking at it very carefully. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s from a Lansing band. Clearly, I want to buy that.”
Miller paid a dollar for the record, even though he didn’t have high hopes for it. Lots of music from that era, he says, was forgotten for a reason, “but I got the record home and I put it on the turntable and I said, 'Oh, that song’s called The Fiery Cross in the Vale, and then I realized what I had.'”
Miller had inadvertently purchased a record by a Lansing band called the Imperial Quintette. They performed at places like Masonic rallies and on the REO Motor Car radio station. They also played at a huge Ku Klux Klan rally in Lansing over Labor Day weekend in 1924. It was the largest Klan rally ever in the city, and probably the biggest ever in Michigan.
“Newspaper accounts from the time said there were 15,000 Klansmen marching from the outskirts of town where there’s some softball fields today, up to the Capitol,” Miller said. “It was a huge event, and newspaper accounts also list the Imperial Quintette performing there sometime around lunch.”
On one side, the 78 features a song called The Fiery Cross in the Vale, a rewrite of a 19th century Protestant hymn called The Church in the Wildwood.
The song on the other side of the record is In the Light of the Fiery Cross, and its message couldn’t be more clear:
Before the Bible placed upon Old Glory
And as the Cross flames high against the sky
We pledge our heart and hand
To let no foreign land or man
Dictate or mold our destiny
In our robes pure as snow white
Determined to win we’ll march on
Till the end of the day
We’ve no fear with God to guide us
In the light of the Fiery Cross
The members of the Imperial Quintette are named on the song’s copyright, and Miller has spoken with the granddaughter of one of them. He says learning that her grandfather had been in the KKK a century ago “certainly wasn’t welcome news.”
Miller’s research found that this 78 was probably produced by a company in Indiana. Gennett Records would let people pay for studio time and press the number of 78s they wanted, even Klan members.
It’s ironic, then, that while Gennett took money from the Klan, that money may have helped make it possible for the label to produce some of the first recordings ever made by early Black jazz artists, including Jelly Roll Morton.
78s like this one can sell for quite a bit of money. A recent auction of this record had a starting bid of $99. Miller has decided not to profit from his find.
“I am not gonna do that. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t want to sell it to anyone who’d want it.”
Still, this is an interesting artifact. So, Matt Miller has decided to give the record to the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.
“They don’t have a copy as of yet,” he concluded. “And so, you know, that felt like passing it on to someone who’d preserve it felt like something that would be useful.”