White supremacists may be eyeing Meigs County

Shiloh Ridge is seen behind a field on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Meigs County, Tenn. Angela Johnson, who is associated with white supremacist group Wotans Nation, has purchased a 44-acre property near the ridge in Meigs County.
Shiloh Ridge is seen behind a field on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Meigs County, Tenn. Angela Johnson, who is associated with white supremacist group Wotans Nation, has purchased a 44-acre property near the ridge in Meigs County.

On a cold January afternoon, Christy Kecskes fried bacon in her kitchen. Grease sizzled and popped in the pan as she prodded the strips and her young daughter Lila bounced around the kitchen, shrieking at knee height.

She had her free hand on her hip and had to stand back from the stove in order to leave room for her belly given how far along she was in her pregnancy. Both the girl running around her legs and the child she was pregnant with are by her boyfriend, a black man.

Theirs is an atypical family in Meigs County, Tenn., where 96 percent of the 12,000 residents are white, and that's become a point of concern for her now that a woman reportedly associated with a white supremacist group has purchased property down the road.

"[My boyfriend] was the star football player for his high school so everyone knows who he is," she said. "Considering I have his daughter and I'm pregnant with another one, even though they don't look mixed, the KKK considers these babies abominations. That's a bit nerve-racking."

Kecskes didn't know a property just a couple hundred yards from her front door had been purchased by the woman.

"I've lived here six years and I don't know my neighbors. We stay to ourselves. We say 'Hi,' but as far as getting to know you and all that, I don't want no part in it," she said.

Meigs County is split from north to south by Highway 58, which carves through miles of farmland populated mostly by cows. A detour at any point either to the east or the west carries drivers down winding roads between stands of trees and small pastures. Confederate flags and "no trespassing" signs are commonplace in the area, particularly around the Kecskes' home.

There, where the asphalt turns into a narrow gravel path traveling through the woods, is where Angela Dover Meadows has purchased a 44-acre parcel of land. Her husband, Eric Meadows, has posted on social media about bulldozer work being done in a wooded area in Southeast Tennessee for a project called Wotans Nation.

Eric Meadows is a former member of the National Socialist Movement who operated as the training director for a paramilitary wing of the League of the South, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks the activity of hate groups nationwide.

Meadows has been active in North Georgia for years and was based out of Rome, Ga., according to an article submitted by an anti-fascist group to the website It's Going Down. He has been a particularly active member of the white supremacist movement for years, attending rallies and holding meetings, among other things, according to the law center. He also hosted an internet radio show called "NSM Hoff," releasing episodes with titles such as "White Power Hour" until he canceled the show after only a few months.

Meadows married Angela Johnson, identified by the law center as another known member of the National Socialist Movement, and it was in her name the property in Meigs County was purchased in March 2017, according to state property records.

Online, he and his wife have gathered around themselves a community of white supremacists who subscribe to a revitalized offshoot of early Germanic paganism called "heathenism."

The couple has added members to a closed Facebook group that has ballooned to just under 300 members over the past several months.

The group's page states: "Wotans Nation is indeed on the rise! The formation and creation of an actual location and community in the works and close to becoming a reality."

The group's website also indicates members who pass background checks will be able to move into the community and rental cabins will be constructed for visitors.

"Wotans Nation offers membership within the Nation to Folkish Heathens that meet the requirements and are willing to move into the Nation and become active participants in the community."

Attempts to contact Meadows on Facebook or through the Wotans Nation website, Wotansnation.org, were unsuccessful, but the website does bear a comprehensive mission statement.

"As the indigenous Europeans are increasingly being called home by our ancient Gods there arises a need for our folk to have a place to practice our religion freely, without fear of social stigma and in a healthy and natural environment among other culturally and spiritually similar people," it states.

"It is in that spirit that the Wotans Nation project has been formed Wotans Nation is an actual community within Eastern Tennessee made up of Folkish Heathens coming together and working as a theologically based community."

The website also lists a Post Office box in Decatur, Tenn., near Johnson's property and states Wotans Nation is a "legal religious organization with applied for 501c3 status." It states the group offers "Hand Fastenings/Weddings, burial rites, birth rites and a large number of other such ceremonial events that are recognized by the state."

Heathenism, as the system is generally termed, covers a wide range of groups with their own particularities and stems from the pre-Christian traditions among Germanic peoples of the early Medieval period. It has been officially recognized as a religion in Iceland since 1972, but over the last several decades, an offshoot called Wotanism has caught fire among white supremacist groups who have co-opted an overtly racist version of the theology.

Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Irvine, Calif., said white supremacists use the paganism framework to make their own rhetoric more palatable to outsiders.

"In the '80s and '90s it was really a Christian identity that served that purpose. They just reinterpreted stories in the Bible differently, but it kind of provided a legitimate, if you will, lens for [white supremacists] to work from," he said. "In this moment, we're seeing a more broad-based effort to reframe and rebrand than anything I've seen in the last 20 years."

"The paganism really has in the last 10 or so years become a more dominant thrust among white supremacists. It's very consistent with their vision of what it means to be an Aryan because it has kind of these underlying themes that just have a lot of overlap and consistency with their white supremacist worldview. There's a certain homogeneity that's baked in."

Non-members cannot see or access the content posted in the Wotans Nation Facebook group, but members have posted publicly a variety of photos and statements commonly seen in Heathen communities.

Recurring signs in those photos include Thor's hammer, a symbol of strength only a select few can wield, according to law center analysts, and the valknut, a trio of interlocked triangles commonly thought to be a symbol of Odin's power. Both Thor and Odin are gods who were important to Germanic, pre-Christian traditions.

Group members have also posted statements and photos with connotations and interpreted meanings that are questionable to hate group experts including, for example, burning "Wolfsangel" symbols. Based on the shape of Germanic wolf traps, the symbol was adopted by the Nazi party before World War II and served as regalia for various Nazi military divisions.

The Wotans Nation online store also has added several vinyl car decals of different symbols important to the group including the "Black Sun," a symbol that was inlaid on the floor of a castle prized by Heinrich Himmler as the representative and ideological center of the order of the SS during the Third Reich. The Wotans Nation Twitter handle has also retweeted things such as a painted portrait of Adolf Hitler and has recently taken to tweeting anti-immigrant messages and criticizing anti-fascist groups.

While some white supremacist cells have tried to dissociate such symbols from the Third Reich by pointing to their origins, Simi said, they're used precisely because of the unspoken meaning they carry among group members. They can be shown publicly without drawing much attention and their longer, pre-Nazi history can be used to muddy the rhetorical water.

"While I wouldn't use them as a definitive symbol of a group's ideology, it's a good indicator. On their part it's very sophisticated to use symbols that have a convoluted meaning as far as what they may actually represent, and it does provide a built-in veil of sorts," Simi said.

"The more saturated society becomes with these symbols, the more desensitized people become to them. It's really a form of cultural change they're achieving. They're trying to change the discourse, and they're doing a hell of job."

Other posts by individual members also shed some light on their ideological leanings and prior ties to white supremacist groups. In a February 2017 post, Eric Meadows shared a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a Nazi military cap complete with a swastika over a skull and crossbones.

A member of Wotans Nation going by Thorulf Scottson on Facebook shared a photo to Facebook of President Donald Trump wearing a yarmulke and touching the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Scottson criticized Trump in the post because he "visited the Jew rock."

"Join a proper cause that revolts against the modern world the only way to change the world is to burn it down and found a new world upon its ashes. NOT by sucking up to the established systems."

Scottson ended the post with "14/88," a shorthand reference to a white supremacist slogan. The "88" is commonly understood by hate group experts to stand for "Heil Hitler," with the number "8" standing in for the letter H, the eighth letter of the alphabet.

The owner of Ray's Rods, Jason Choate, has been operating his auto repair shop about a mile from Johnson's property for years and said he doesn't think the community will welcome the Wotans Nation.

"If the community gets involved and figures out what's going on, then I think they've made a mistake as far as picking a place to do that. Meigs County is a small community and everyone sticks together. When people in this community make up their mind that you're not welcome, then they have their own way of taking care of things," he said.

"Knowing what I do about the people around here, I don't think they'll allow it to get up and running. If they cross the line, they'll find themselves in a world of trouble," Choate said.

It's unclear what effect Wotans Nation might have on the community, but Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence report at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said having Meadows at the helm in Meigs County is troubling.

"Meadows has an extremely long track record in the white supremacist movement and some of the most hardline groups," Beirich said. "It doesn't really get any more extreme in the world of American white supremacy. Those are the connections he's bringing to Tennessee."

But the group has every legal right to do what it will on private property, so long as its members are not breaking the law.

"They have freedom of assembly - they can burn crosses there if they so choose," she said. "It's always unfortunate for communities. When you have those compounds, you end up getting an influx of all kinds of ugly white supremacists, but there's nothing illegal about all that. I can't say for sure that this group is going to spill over into violence, there's no way to know that."

Peter Simi said some hate groups have been known to arm themselves and fortify private property throughout the country.

"That's one of the concerns with these kind of private encampments is that it provides a space for some of these folks to come together and violence can come out of that," he said.

Meigs County Mayor Bill James didn't know about Wotans Nation until contacted by a reporter, and he declined to make a statement about the group, but he did comment on his constituency more generally.

"The people of Meigs County are a very religious people that believe in the Bible and teaching their children right from wrong and the Ten Commandments and that's what our county people stand for. They go to church, they worship God and they raise their children that way," James said.

Christy Kecskes' son, Wesley, described their "quiet little town" as a place where privacy is at a premium and "people don't like others to stick noses in their business."

His friend, Jacob Cooley, said the community's respect for privacy and property rights might appeal to a group that wanted privacy.

"[Meigs County] is backwoods, homegrown. The most redneckiest place you'll ever meet in your life. It doesn't grow fast," he said.

"Everybody here is related, it's a small town," Cooley said. "We just got a McDonald's last year and up until 25, maybe 30, years ago, all it was was whites. If a black guy came to town, they would have been chased off."

Wesley Kecskes said he'd heard classmates talking about Wotans Nation at school.

"I've heard a bunch of kids from school talking about it," he said. "Talking about they're going to join it."

But his mother's boyfriend, Dakota Ricker, said he's not worried about the group.

"It's Meigs County. Everybody's racist in Meigs County," he said. "I've dealt with it all my life. I'm not going to leave just because these people are moving up here."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.