Late last month, in an interview with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, CNN host Jake Tapper asked the candidate whether he would disavow an endorsement from longtime Ku Klux Klan leader and white nationalist celebrity David Duke. Trump declined. "I don't know anything about David Duke," he said. Moments later, he added, "I know nothing about white supremacists."
Trump has since walked back his comments, blaming his hesitance to condemn the Klan on a "bad earpiece." The matter has now been filed away into the ever-growing archives of volatile statements Trump has made about race and ethnicity during the current election cycle—a list that includes kicking off his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, calling for the "'total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," and commenting that perhaps a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies "should have been roughed up."
But the particulars of the David Duke incident call to mind yet another news story, one that suggests that Trump's father, the late New York real estate titan Fred Trump, once wore the robe and hood of a Klansman.
Versions of this story emerged last September when Boing Boing dug up an old New York Times article from May of 1927 that listed a Fred Trump among those arrested at a Klan rally in Jamaica, Queens, when "1,000 Klansmen and 100 policemen staged a free-for-all," in the streets. Donald Trump's father would have been 21 in 1927 and had spent most of his life in Queens.
As Boing Boing pointed out, the Times account simply names Fred Trump as one of the seven individuals arrested at the rally, and it states that he was released without charges, leaving room for the possibility that he "may have been an innocent bystander, falsely named, or otherwise the victim of mistaken identity during or following a chaotic event."
A few weeks after Boing Boing unearthed that 88-year-old scoop, the New York Times asked Donald Trump about the possibility that his father had been arrested at a Klan event. The younger Trump denied it all, telling interviewer Jason Horowitz that "it never happened" four times. When Horowitz asked if his father had lived at 175-24 Devonshire Road—the address listed for the Fred Trump arrested at the 1927 Klan rally—Donald dismissed the claim as "totally false."
"We lived on Wareham," he told Horowitz. "The Devonshire—I know there is a road 'Devonshire,' but I don't think my father ever lived on Devonshire." Trump went on to deny everything else in the Times' account of the 1927 rally: "It shouldn't be written because it never happened, number one. And number two, there was nobody charged."
Biographical records confirm that the Trump family did live on Wareham Place in Queens in the 1940s, when Donald was a kid. But according to at least one archived newspaper clip, Fred Trump also lived at 175-24 Devonshire Road: A wedding announcement in the January 22, 1936 issue of the Long Island Daily Press,places Fred Trump at that address, and refers to his wife as "Mary MacLeod," which is Donald Trump's mother's maiden name.
Moreover, three additional newspaper clips unearthed by VICE contain separate accounts of Fred Trump's arrest at the May 1927 KKK rally in Queens, each of which seems to confirm the Times account of the events that day. While the clips don't confirm whether Fred Trump was actually a member of the Klan, they do suggest that the rally—and the subsequent arrests—did happen, and did involve Donald Trump's father, contrary to the candidate's denials. A fifth article mentions the seven arrestees without giving names, and claims that all of the individuals arrested—presumably including Trump—were wearing Klan attire.
The June 1, 1927, account of the May 31 Klan rally printed in a defunct Brooklyn paper called the Daily Star specifies that a Fred Trump "was dismissed on a charge of refusing to disperse." That article lists seven total arrests, and states that four of those arrested were expected to go to court, and two were paroled. Fred Trump was the only one not held on charges.
The Klan's reaction to the alleged police brutality at the rally was the subject of another article, published in the Queens County Evening News on June 2, 1927, and titled "Klan Placards Assail Police, As War Vets Seek Parade Control." The piece is mainly about the Klan distributing leaflets about being "assaulted" by the "Roman Catholic police of New York City" at that same rally. The article mentions Fred Trump as having been "discharged" and gives the Devonshire Road address, along with the names and addresses of the other six men who faced charges.
Yet another account in another defunct local newspaper, the Richmond Hill Record, published on June 3, 1927, lists Fred Trump as one of the "Klan Arrests," and also lists the Devonshire Road address.
Another article about the rally, published by the Long Island Daily Press on June 2, 1927, mentions that there were seven arrestees without listing names, and claims that all of the individuals arrested were wearing Klan attire. The story, titled "Meeting on Parade Is Called Off," focuses on the police actions at the rally, noting criticism of the cops for brutally lashing out at the Klan supporters, who had assembled during a Memorial Day parade.
While the Long Island Daily Press doesn't mention Fred Trump specifically, the number of arrestees cited in the report is consistent with the other accounts of the rally. Significantly, the article refers to all of the arrestees as "berobed marchers." If Fred Trump, or another one of the attendees, wasn't dressed in a robe at the time, that may have been a reporting error worth correcting.
According to Rory McVeigh, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Notre Dame, the version of the Klan that would have been active in Queens during the 1920s may not have necessarily participated in stereotypical KKK activities like fiery crosses and lynch mobs.
"The Klan that became very popular in the early 1920s did advocate white supremacy like the original Klan," McVeigh told VICE in an email. "But in that respect, [its views were] not too much different from a lot of other white Americans of that time period." In New York, McVeigh added, "the organization's opposition to immigration and Catholics probably held the biggest appeal for most of the people who joined."
None of the articles prove that Fred Trump was a member of the Klan, and it's possible that he was, as Boing Boing suggested, just a bystander at the rally. But while Donald Trump is absolutely right to say that his father was not charged in the 1927 incident, the candidate's other claims—that Fred Trump never lived at 175-24 Devonshire Road, and more importantly, that his involvement in a Klan rally "never happened"—appear to be untrue.
The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In the decades following the 1927 rally, after Fred Trump had gone on to become a wealthy real estate developer and landlord to thousands of New Yorkers, he faced accusations of racism, some of which were relatively quiet and informal. In the 1950s, one of his tenants, folk icon Woody Guthrie, wrote in the lyrics of an unpublished song that Fred Trump had drawn a "color line" in his Brooklyn neighborhood. "I suppose / Old Man Trump knows / Just how much / Racial Hate / He stirred up," the lyrics go. According to Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, Fred Trump, who had close ties to the Federal Housing Administration in the 1950s, likely profited from racist practices that the government tacitly endorsed at the time.
Formal accusations of racial bias in Fred Trump's residential real estate business eventually materialized in 1973, around the time that his son Donald was taking over management of the company. In a lawsuit filed that year, the US Department of Justice alleged that Trump Management Corporation had violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by systematically denying people rentals "because of race and color." Fred Trump, testifying as company president, said he was "unfamiliar" with the Fair Housing Act, and that he hadn't changed his business practices after the federal law went into effect.
In 1975, the Trumps made a deal with the government to resolve the suit without an admission of guilt. According to a New York Times story from June 11, 1975, the Trump Management Corporation "promised not to discriminate against blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities." But in 1978, the Justice Department filed another discrimination suit against the company, alleging that the Trumps weren't complying with the original terms of the 1975 settlement.
A 1979 story in the Village Voice chronicled the rise of Trump's real estate empire, including allegations of racial discrimination at properties managed by Trump. According to the Voice, when there were vacancies in a Trump housing block, rental applications were secretly marked with the applicant's race, and doormen were coached to discourage black people from renting. At times, Trump rental agents were allegedly told simply not to rent to black people. In 1983, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal looked at two "Trump Village" residential properties, and found that they were 95 percent white.
In subsequent years, as Donald Trump morphed into a grandstanding tabloid celebrity, he developed a reputation for agitating the public about racially-charged issues. In 1989, he faced national criticism over full-page ads he took out in New York newspapers, warning of "roving bands of wild criminals" and calling for the return of the death penalty in a veiled reference to the Central Park Five. More recently, in the lead-up to the last presidential race, he reignited right-wing conspiracies over Barack Obama's birthplace, sending a team of investigators to Hawaii to uncover the president's true origins.
So the fact that race has become a central part of Trump's 2016 campaign should come as no surprise. Despite Trump's own insistence that he's the "least racist person that you have ever met," devoted racists like Duke are thrilled that The Donald has "sparked an insurgency." Trump may reject their endorsements, but that doesn't mean they've rejected him in return.
Tom O'Donnell performed archive research for this story.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.