In Skagit County’s “Gateway to the North Cascades,” an astonishingly tone-deaf newsletter from the Sedro-Woolley Museum should spark a frank discussion about race and modern America.
With no contextual information, the newsletter’s lead photo and back page each presented chilling imagery from the past. Readers found a photo labeled “KKK Wedding” showing dozens of uniformly white-robed celebrants, including a child, dated “6/16/26.” The back page contains 1920s newspaper stories about a Ku Klux Klan meeting for a church dedication and “the big Klan picnic at the Whitney school grounds” in Anacortes.
“We hope that a reader will share family memories and copies of photos about the KKK, especially their activities in Skagit and surrounding counties, and statewide,” the article concludes.
The mailer lacked any sort of critical context today’s readers might expect when viewing an appalling slice of racist history. From the presentation, a reader can infer that the museum is making a cordial request for memorabilia. The two news stories are reprinted in the same modern formatting as the folksy message from the museum’s executive director.
In an interview, museum executive director Carolyn Freeman said the newsletter customarily presents items from the past unedited. “We didn’t realize the impact it would have on people, but we should have,” she said.
As Sedro-Woolley city Council member Germaine Kornegay put it during an Aug. 14 meeting, the newsletter “normalized hate and bigotry” for its community recipients. Kornegay, who is African American, is in her second term and is the first person of color elected to office in the city of 10,000.
Through messages delivered by the city’s mayor and on Facebook, the museum acknowledged “this regrettable error in judgment” and is working appropriately to make amends. Museum board members invited Kornegay to join them at a Sept. 5 meeting. City leaders are also planning a community dialogue.
“I know that they’re not racist by any means,” Kornegay said in an interview. “I just want to know what they were thinking.”
Washington’s history includes 20th-century Klan activities throughout the region. This sad chapter cannot be presented in the sanitized terms of the past. America knows too much in 2019 to let the sepia veneer of a 1926 “KKK wedding” photo obscure the racist hatred the white robes represent.
Through proper explanatory framing, images and news stories about Klan activities in the Pacific Northwest can enlighten the region about how racism influenced the region’s history. The Sedro-Woolley Museum’s mishandling of the images allowed yesterday’s propagandists to sell their version of history all over again.
With President Donald Trump encouraging and normalizing racist behavior from the nation’s highest office, this is no time for such careless insensitivity to have the same effect in Washington.