President Donald Trump’s now-infamous “go back” tweets directed at four U.S. congresswomen of color, followed by his “leave it” speech in Greenville last Wednesday (combined with the crowd’s “send her back!” chant) recalled racist language used against African Americans and other immigrants for decades.
It evoked a very specific memory for the Rev. William J. Barber II, the former president of the N.C. NAACP, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, and co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign.
On Wednesday evening, just minutes after the crowd’s “send her back!” chant at the Trump rally in Eastern North Carolina, Barber, who lives in Goldsboro, tweeted a photograph of a billboard displaying an image of a hooded figure carrying a burning cross while riding a hooded horse, with giant words that say, “This is Klan Country. Love It or Leave It.” Below that, “Help Fight Communism & Integration” and below that, “KKKK” and “Welcome to Smithfield.” (The fourth “K” stands for Knights.)
Barber’s tweet read: “When Trump says, “If you don’t like it, leave it,” people I know say it reminds them of a sign like this from 1971 in a NC county near where I live.”
For many North Carolina residents, it was the first they’d seen of this billboard. Others who grew up in the area remember it — and others like it — very well.
So what’s the deal with the billboard? Where was it located? Was there more than one? How long was it there?
CuriousNC did some digging to learn more. We did research in the old News & Observer archives and contacted researcher Todd Johnson at the Johnston County Heritage Center, who shared old clips from The Smithfield Herald.
We found that the Johnston County signs (there were others in the state) were located on U.S. 70 — but in at least two different spots on U.S. 70.
The original sign, erected in May 1967, was on U.S. 70 on the western edge of Smithfield, “just west of the Neuse River bridge,” according to The Herald.
Johnson tells us that another sign was outside Princeton, near the Johnston/Wayne County line.
In total, there seem to have been at least three different versions of the sign, maybe more: two variations on the sign near Smithfield and then the sign near Princeton. The sign near Princeton could be the sign tweeted by Rev. Barber, though it still mentions Smithfield (leaving open the possibility of a fourth sign).
Here’s more of what we found.
The Smithfield Herald reported on May 23, 1967, that the “Welcome to Smithfield” part of the original 12-foot by 16-foot Klan sign erected on May 20 would come down.
The sign, with a cloaked figure carrying a burning cross while riding a hooded horse, read: “Join and Support The United Klans of America Inc.” and below, “Help Fight Communism and Integration!” A separate strip at the bottom read “Welcome to Smithfield.”
The sign was erected “near the Neuse River on the south side of the eastbound traffic lane of Highway 70,” the Herald reported, and had already triggered protests from both black and white citizens.
Billy R. Flowers of Clayton, identified as the Klan leader in Johnston County, told the Herald that he had “intentions” of removing the “welcome” portion of the sign.
Based on the presence of the “Klan Country” billboard, an article in the Aug. 17, 1970, News & Observer explored the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Smithfield.
Reporter Jack Aulis went through the town asking various people if Smithfield was really “Klan Country.”
By this time, the “Welcome to Smithfield” portion of the original sign had been replaced with a banner reading “Smithfield is KKKK Country.”
Aulis reported that many people in Smithfield said that the town was not “Klan Country,” but they also did not want to be identified in the story “because of the possibility of retaliation.” One man told Aulis that you never knew who might be in the Klan, or what they might do, and told the reporter: “You might be a Klansman for all I know.”
Some people expressed other views. A waitress in a diner said she believed Smithfield was “Klan Country” and another man told Aulis: “It’s just a few people trying to feel big.” An African American woman shopping for groceries said, “I don’t know nothing about it” and walked quickly away.
The town manager, Thomas E. McPhail, told Aulis that Smithfield was not the only place in North Carolina with a Klan sign. (Note: There are reports of a similar sign outside Fayetteville on Hwy 401 at the time and also a photo of a “Welcome to North Carolina” Klan sign on Interstate 95, suspected to have been taken near the Virginia border.)
Johnson told us that the original Smithfield sign was installed lower to the ground and people were throwing paint at it, defacing it. The photo accompanying this 1970 N&O story does show that the sign had been defaced.
An article in the April 2, 1971, News & Observer about the police halting a “march against repression” by about 100 young African Americas in Smithfield, noted the existence of a billboard that sounds like the version of the sign Barber tweeted.
According to the report, the sign read: “Welcome to Smithfield. Love it or leave it. Help fight Communism and Integration.”
The article describes the billboard as being “on the outskirts of town” but did not note the exact location of the sign.
Johnson tells us that a Princeton resident put up his own sign in protest of a Klan sign near his town in Johnston County.
Johnson said, “Mr. Jona Good, a World War II veteran, erected a protest sign in his yard nearby in June 1969 that said “THIS IS NOT Kooks, Krooks, Kowards COUNTRY – NO HATE HERE.”
Johnson said that “after considerable backlash, both signs came down,” but we don’t have specific dates.
Articles in both The News & Observer and The Smithfield Herald in October 1972 describe the third version of the sign.
An article in The Herald on Oct. 6 noted that the original sign had been dismantled in February after being damaged by vandals, then re-erected on Oct. 4 in the exact same spot near the Neuse River bridge. The new sign — now lighted — measured 9 by 21 feet and was mounted on 50-foot steel pillars.
The sign, which is shown in a photograph accompanying the story, read: “Join & Support United Klans of America Inc” and below: “The KKK welcomes you to Smithfield.” Above: “Fight Communism & Intergration.”
The word “integration” was misspelled on this version of the sign.
The Herald said the sign belonged to “Unit 70 of the United Klans of America, based in the Smithfield-Clayton area” and noted that J. Robert Jones of Granite Quarry, the Klan’s Grand Dragon, was on hand for the event.
Both articles noted that the sign stood on private property that was not zoned for the placement of signs, but that the previous sign had been up before the site was rezoned, so it was allowed to stay. The replacement sign was erected 11 days before a new state law went into effect that banned outdoor advertising signs within 600 feet of an interstate or primary highway, such as U.S. 70, unless that area is zoned.
At the time the sign was re-erected, state officials told The News & Observer that the sign would “eventually” be removed. But Billy Flowers, the local Klan president, said he believed the Klan was “certainly within our legal bounds” to erect the sign.
The N&O article noted that the Klan was asking for donations to pay for the $3,500 sign, the story said. The N&O story featured a photograph of Glenn Twig (identified by The Herald as the Secretary of the local Klan group) and Billy Flowers standing by the sign.
In March 1977, the sign came down. But not without a bit of drama.
A March 27 N&O article said that the sign was removed the day before by the United Klans of America because the owner of the land, Jimmy Rogers Flowers of Clayton, wanted to build a real estate office on the site.
The Smithfield Herald had reported on March 22 that Jimmy Flowers had previously jointly owned the property with his brother, Billy Flowers, who had been president of the Johnston County Klan group.
Cecil Hamilton, identified in the story as the Exalted Cyclops of a Johnston County Klan unit, called The N&O and invited the reporter to the event, but then refused to let an N&O photographer take photographs and ordered them both from the property.
The story says that the Klansmen “brandished shotguns and hurled rocks at photographers” but there were no shots fired.
As The N&O reporter and photographer retreated, the story notes that Hamilton pulled a shotgun from a car and began loading shells into it. Then Klansmen threw rocks at photographers from another news outlet.
A State Highway Patrolman was summoned and the guns were put away and some photographs were taken.
The story is accompanied by a photograph of a patrolman standing near a pickup truck surrounded by Klansmen with shotguns visible in the truck. There were no photos of the billboard with the story, but from the description in the story, it seems to be the same sign written about in 1972, because the reporter noted that the word “integration” was misspelled as “intergration.”
Hamilton said the sign may be erected somewhere else later, but there were no other stories in The News & Observer archives about the sign.