Never-before-seen images are shining new light on a grim chapter of Washington's history, when the Ku Klux Klan operated from state headquarters in Belltown, and helped elect public officials across the state.
Never-before-seen images are shining new light on a grim chapter of Washington’s history, when the Ku Klux Klan operated from state headquarters in Belltown, its members gathering — robed and hooded — at what longtime Seattleites might remember as the Crystal Pool.
The additions to a University of Washington Web site came about as part of a senior-level history class. The rare photos and newspaper clippings tell of the Klan’s broad presence in this region during the 1920s.
There’s the Sedro-Woolley wedding of Klan members in full regalia, a night parade in Bellingham and rallies in places like Renton and Issaquah that at times drew crowds of up to 50,000.
The KKK helped elect public officials across the state — including a mayor in Kent during the early 1920s — and published a Seattle-based newspaper called the Watcher on the Tower.
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“People in Washington state really have not known about the strength or impact of the KKK here during the 1920s,” said James Gregory, UW professor of history who heads the Web site, called the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
Finding few blacks at which to aim their venom in the pre-World War II Northwest, the white supremacists here focused instead on the Roman Catholic church and on foreigners.
“Historians focus on the Klan as a powerful force in places like Oregon, in Midwest states and of course in the South. But the Klan had tens of thousands of members right here in Washington,” Gregory said.
Class made discovery
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 by veterans of the Confederate Army to restore white supremacy in the wake of the Civil War. With a record of intimidation and violence aimed at blacks, Jews, foreigners, Catholics and labor, the KKK was prosecuted under the Civil Rights Act of 1871. But it rose again, reaching a membership peak of 5 million in the mid-1920s when its reach spread far beyond the boundaries of the Deep South.
Its inclusion on the Web site is part of ongoing research on civil rights and labor in the Pacific Northwest by faculty and students at the UW.
Discovery of many of the photos and other documents came about as part of a fall 2006 history class called White Supremacy in Western Washington. “Much of this is information that is known to experts, but now the Internet is providing an opportunity for it to be made publicly available,” said history doctoral student Trevor Griffey, who led the class and did much of the research.
“Flaming crosses and Klan robes are some of the most powerful and horrifying images that we identify with a history of racism in the United States,” Griffey said. And in places like the Northwest, where many believe the Klan was not a force, it can be hard to document the history of racism.
“This forces us to rethink some of the assumptions about the history of this region and opens up a new question: Exactly how liberal has this place been?”
As part of its resurgence, the KKK successfully organized in Oregon before coming to Washington around 1923. There is no evidence it was as violent here as it had been elsewhere.
Presence into the ’30s
Klan leaders appealed to people’s Christianity, their patriotism and a fear of foreigners. Records show that, along with a Kent mayor, a city attorney in Bellingham was an open member of the Klan. In fact, in 1929, when the Klan held its state convention in Bellingham, its grand wizard was introduced by the mayor and given a key to the city.
Rallies in places like Issaquah, Yakima and Renton drew crowds of up to 50,000. “Those weren’t all Klan members,” Griffey said. “What’s amazing is that they were able to draw such participation. You didn’t see much organized resistance, not much attempt to disrupt the Klan meetings.”
Many of the photos on the Web site were obtained from the Washington State Historical Society, which bought its collection from the estate of Tacoma photographer Marvin Boland, himself a Klan member.
The Klan’s undoing — at least in Seattle — began around 1924, after it unsuccessfully backed an anti-private-school initiative in this state, aimed at Roman Catholic schools, similar to one it had pushed through in Oregon that was repealed. That plus internal scandals led to the beginning of the Klan’s demise.
But it retained a presence here through the 1930s, its power base shifting from Seattle to Bellingham, said photo historian Jeff Jewell, with the Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
“Hardly a semester goes by that the subject of the Klan is not part of somebody’s term paper,” Jewell said. “It’s been very popular.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org