I Learned My Hometown, In New Jersey, Welcomed The KKK
Every day, for two years straight, I made the drive from my hometown Hillsborough, New Jersey, to New Brunswick, New Jersey. The drive (5:30 every morning, for rowing practice) wasn't particularly exhausting. But it was just long enough to give me a deep feeling of satisfaction in that I was a commuting, working, student-athlete grinding to get my bachelor's degree. Even more satisfying was that I was somehow, if only for a couple of hours a day, beginning to get away from my hometown.
And yet, the truth is, while Hillsborough did not feel like my home at the time, it was always a home to me because I am white. There was nothing about my circumstances and experiences as a closeted queer that automatically absolved me from perpetuating racism. I didn't even know it growing up, but in the 1920s, my hometown was surrounded on townships lines by Klaverns of The Ku Klux Klan.
I don't believe I'm the first person from my town to see the New York Times articles nor the "Scarlet and Black" Rutgers database dedicated to the KKK's presence in Somerset County. But what I do believe is that even if Hillsborough did not house a single member from the KKK, the town has a shameful, secret history of being a bystander to gatherings of hate – a history that I feel remains relevant to how the town operates even now.
For two years, I'd make my commute, never realizing the seemingly insignificant street names and landmarks I passed held the answers to the contradictions that had challenged my adolescence. Questions such as, why did high schools like Franklin High School have metal detectors before entering, but Hillsborough, 15 minutes away, did not? Questions that my Black peers inevitably found the answers to long before I ever even felt the need to do the research behind the history of my own prejudice.
The first irrefutable signs of the KKK's presence in Somerset County date back to the Klan's purchase of Alma White College in the community of Zarephath, which borders Hillsborough. On October 31, 1923, Harvard's daily student newspaper, The Crimson published an article titled Klan Buys College Close To Princeton.
Bishop Alma White, the college's president and head of the Pillar of Fire Church, intended to carry out "plans to stimulate intellectual interest in the work of the Klan among the undergraduates and to instill in them the principles of the Klan." Meaning that as the KKK acquired the college, the Klan also gained White's followers within the Church based in Zarephath, NJ. The Church itself is recounted as beginning in 1906 with this photo-documented by the Franklin Township Library.
The description of the photo states that "The Pillar of Fire (previously, The Pentecostal Union) Church, led by Alma White, settled in Weston in 1906 and renamed their community Zarephath. White was given the land by Caroline Van Neste Field Garretson, widow of Peter Workman Garretson." So, the Pillar of Fire Church was given the opportunity to settle and grow for 17 years before handing its members over to the Klan. The growth of The Pillar of Fire is seen through the establishment of the Zarephath Bible Institute (ZBI) in 1906. Then came a steady climb toward the New Jersey State Department of Education, granting it the legal credibility of a university under the name of Alma White College in 1921.
In The Widow of Zarephath: A Church in the Making, Gertrude Melten Wolfram narrates her life as a member of early Zarephath. Her account of ZBI states that the first summer of 1906 in Zarephath, the area held fifty members. By September 1912, ZBI had opened a school with fifty enrolled students, five of whom were ready for high school. So, they grew their numbers quickly. To understand how much Zarephath developed before being purchased is to understand just how much the Pillar of Fire Church and Alma White expanded, disseminated, and legitimized the Klan.
Making my daily drive to college, I never knew I was driving by the Pillar of Fire Church. The church, as it still functions today, is five minutes from my house in Hillsborough. It exists to be just a branch of Pillar Ministries as it extends to also encompass Pillar College and the 50,000-watt Christian radio station Star 99.1, and it all grew from the roots hooked deep into the ground of Zarephath by a proud supporter of the KKK. Even though the church itself has long retracted its support for Alma and the Klan, I wonder how it's possible for people to still feel comfortable donning the name Pillar of Fire.
I wonder how many other people absently drive past, oblivious of the history. But most of all, I wonder how the Klan can be surrounding Hillsborough (in Somerville, Montgomery, and Zarephath) AND how the roads through Hillsborough connect the town to the other Klaverns at large (most specifically to a meeting of 12,000 in Millbush) and yet it's possible not a single trace of the Klan is documented to be found within Hillsborough itself.
According to a New York Times article, on May 2, 1923, a hundred Klan members met at the Pillar of Fire Temple in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Locals swarmed the church, and the Klan members were only able to escape with the help of the police, fleeing to Zarephath. When remembering the Church of the Pillar of Fire aligned with the KKK months before in October of the same year, it's not unrealistic to think this meeting was one of many held at the Temple on Main by the Klan. It is also not the first circumstance in which police have protected the Klan, considering the next day, 12,000 Klan members met up in one of the largest meetings the east coast had yet to see.
May 3, the New York Times published another piece on the 12,000-large Klan gathering held at Hobbs farm in Middlebush, New Jersey. The meeting itself was referred to as "an open installation of the New Jersey branch of the Ku Klux Klan." An open installation, done with the hope to instill fear. The fear that even one of these 12,000 cloth-covered monsters could be from – would be living in – your hometown, and you wouldn't even know it.
An article from the Daily Home News confirms the meeting was purposely public with the title Klan Open-Air Initiation Was Great Publicity Stunt: Declare Local Branch 400 Strong; Hobbs Not a Member. In a demonstration of just how elusive the Klan is, they proudly declare the Local Branch 400 people strong without fear of being discovered, the cowards covering thousands of license plates and faces with dingy white cloth.
What was not covered though, as the Daily Home News describes, were the roads leading to said meeting, "The roads from as far away as Atlantic City had been marked with white handkerchiefs to indicate the way to Middlebush, and here and there along the route Klansmen were stationed to see that the cars bound for the meeting took the right way. The official route was along Hamilton street … The Klansmen are said to have made efforts to obtain the use of other farms on Demott's lane."
Every day for two years straight, I passed Demott Lane on my way from Hillsborough to New Brunswick without ever knowing 12,000 Klan members drove down the same Hamilton street I praised for being my escape from this town. The very same Hamilton street that bleeds right into Amwell road to connect the entirety of Hillsborough, past Zarephath (Weston), through BoundBrook, and end with the Klan's station in New Brunswick.
The National Register of Historic Places Inventory, as it was filed in 1975 for the historic Clover Hill in Hillsborough, confirms that in 1923, the routes from Hunterdon County (old York Road leading into Amwell) to Hillsborough to New Brunswick (Amwell to Hamilton) were already established. In fact, the Clover Hills route played a historic part in the settlement patterns of Hillsborough, drawing in people from New Brunswick as they sought somewhere to establish their businesses, farms, and homes.
Confirming the early traffic patterns through Hillsborough suggests two things. One, the KKK inevitably, at some point, traveled through Hillsborough. And two, no one reported sightings of the KKK in Hillsborough, hence the lack of documentation of a route the Klan traveled beyond doubt.
Only now, after learning the history of the hatred behind the land I grew up around, do I understand. As long as I was in the closet, I was one of them: another white person to speak freely with—when there were no Black people around, of course.
The NJ Patch happened to report on racist tweets and social media posts by students of Hillsborough High School in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. Yet, the coverage doesn't begin to crack the surface of the extent to which these kids pick up on racist sentiments from their parents, and their parents' parents, or of the entire history of the land itself.
Beyond parents and children, even those with political power in Hillsborough fail to recognize how their conduct is inescapably connected to the land's history. Said history grants them immeasurable privilege as it allows them to walk through life blind yet unscathed. To be completely unaware of race dynamics as they operate in the racist and imperialist United States of America because they are protected within the bubble of suburbia. Hillsborough, where racist political ads like this one circulate, receive national attention and then cease to matter within a few weeks.
At the end of the day, to suggest that the influence of the KKK is far in the past, particularly when no one will hold themselves accountable in the present, is frankly bullshit. The Pillar College Website—originally Alma White College—actively erases White's key activity in the creation of the church. The college's history section skips straight from the founding of Zarephath Bible Institute in 1908 to the formation of Somerset Christian College in 2001.
Perhaps the Pillar of Fire church could actually distance themselves from Alma White's racist rants if they were to acknowledge she existed. Or if they were to change the name of the ministry, as it stands out in historical documents when often paired next to the letter K three times. It would seem that the church purposely excludes this information, choosing to censor the truth in favor of acquiring new members and more tuition checks. Erasing an entire church congregation is exactly how people manage to rewrite history.