GROTON — Every Sunday afternoon since early June, the Rev. Elea Kemler and a dozen or more congregants have held vigil for Black lives on the grassy common in front of First Parish Church. They wave at the stream of cars rumbling down historic Main Street and hoist homemade Black Lives Matter posters.
Some passersby are “wildly enthusiastic,” Kemler said, beeping their horns and waving. A few others are decidedly less so. They scream “Trump!” out their windows and yell obscenities at the parishioners.
“They say, ‘All lives matter,’ as if that’s not the very point,” said Kemler, the church’s minister for the past 20 years. “And they just yell Trump’s name. I don’t know what that’s supposed to be code for.”
Like many cities and towns jolted by the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, Groton — a bucolic suburb of some 11,300 people — is trying to reconcile an ugly past with its present image. Today the lawns along Main Street are dotted with Biden-Harris yard signs. A giant rainbow flag hangs beneath the belfry at First Parish. Each of the town’s entrances is adorned with an engraved stone perched on the side of the road proclaiming “All are welcome.”
Yet the town remains more than 90 percent white, which, like many American suburbs, may not be an accident. Groton was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, rife with anti-Catholic and nativist prejudice. In an online database created by author and sociologist James Loewen, Groton is listed as one of 17 possible, though unconfirmed, “sundown towns" that once existed in Massachusetts. Sundown towns, found in states across the country, were all-white jurisdictions that, for decades, excluded or expelled religious and ethnic minorities, usually Black people, sometimes by law and more often through violence and intimidation. In some of these places, signs posted at the city limits ominously warned Black people that they weren’t welcome after dark.
No one who spoke to the Globe knows for sure if Groton was, in fact, a sundown town. Regardless, the Select Board unanimously voted on a motion Saturday at Town Meeting stating that if Groton ever was such a town, it rejects “wholeheartedly the designation” and welcomes people of all races. There was some debate among members of the public, including a few people who “questioned the need for doing this,” according to Josh Degen, vice chair of the board.
“My response was we need to wipe out anything that may have designated Groton as having been a sundown town," said Degen, who put forward the motion, "and doing so was the right thing to do.”
It was Degen’s idea to investigate Groton’s possible history as a sundown town, as part of a new effort to examine systemic racism locally. Over the past year, Groton has suffered “a series of hate crimes,” Degen said. The n-word was found scrawled in the boys’ bathroom at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School. In late June, a shed next to the tennis courts at the Groton Country Club was defaced with racist graffiti, and a swastika was spray-painted on a road. Five teenagers were later arrested for the vandalism around town.
“After that occurred, I realized we have a major issue in our community and we needed to create more awareness,” Degen said. So this summer, he asked the Select Board to appoint a diversity task force, and as news of the initiative spread, “a tremendous amount of people” from the community reached out, including a resident who alerted Degen of the possibility that Groton may have been a sundown town.
Groton’s newly formed diversity task force charged Town Manager Mark Haddad with researching Groton’s bylaws, dating back to the 1800s, for evidence that the town prohibited certain groups. Haddad contacted the state attorney general’s office for help.
“We couldn’t find anything that specifically said Groton is a sundown town,” Haddad said. “What we were able to find, it was more through the spoken word back in earlier times.”
Degen had heard of sundown towns before, but never in relation to Groton. He was aware, however, of Groton’s past as a hotbed for Klan activity. Historians have linked the rise of the Klan in Massachusetts to the backlash against the influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the late William Wolkovich-Valkavicius, a Massachusetts priest and prolific writer on immigrant and religious history, the “wealthy and sophisticated town of Groton was called the center of ‘Klanhood’ in the Nashoba Valley."
In September 1924, the first recorded gathering of Klansmen in Groton attracted “some fifty automobiles," wrote Wolkovich-Valkavicius in the winter 1990 edition of the “Historical Journal of Massachusetts," and local members were “brazen about their affiliation with the Klan." They were merchants and professional men, whose identities not only were well-known, but protected. Wolkovich-Valkavicius notes the town diary and other documents produced by the local historical society were curiously silent about the Klan’s participants.
Groton eventually soured on the Klan, with its propensity for violence, harassment, and intimidation across the state. Groton was the site of the last armed conflict between Klan and anti-Klan forces in Massachusetts, writes Mark Richard, a professor at State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, in his book, “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s.” In October 1926, a group of 100 Klan opponents opened fire on 400 Klansmen convening in a field in Groton. Although police reported no casualties, more than 100 shots were exchanged.
But mistrust of outsiders still lingers. Three years ago, when the Select Board voted to install the privately funded “All are welcome" stone markers, a vocal minority of residents disapproved, fearing the word “all” would make Groton a “sanctuary city” and open the floodgates to criminals and terrorists.
“I think some people — not many, but some — had these incredibly racial, racist, racialized fears of who will come here. It was not rational. It was fear,” Kemler recalled. “Whatever people were afraid would come to pass has certainly not come to pass.”
Loewen, the sociologist and author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," wasn’t surprised no written record exists to confirm Groton’s status as a sundown town.
“Since this is a shameful topic, oral histories are better,” Loewen said. In sundown towns, according to Loewen, ordinances explicitly forbidding religious minorities and people of color from renting or owning property were far less common than informal policies — enforced by police, vigilantes, realtors, and banks — that dictated who could stay and who would be forcibly driven out.
So was Groton a sundown town? Loewen said he hasn’t confirmed it. Unless the town uncovers evidence that the people of Groton deliberately restricted its racial makeup, Loewen said, a reputation for past Klan activity doesn’t necessarily make Groton a sundown town. But to some locals, that may be beside the point. What matters to Raquel Majeski, chair of Groton’s diversity task force and a Black woman, is the town is striving to be better.
“I think every town in New England has their story, and so to be in a position where . . . we have a Select Board that’s open to hearing the history and unearthing the story speaks a lot of their willingness to move our community forward,” she said.