A resurgent KKK made inroads during the mid-1920s
By Karen West
The image is arresting: A photograph of 80 members of the Ku Klux Klan, most swaddled in sheets and hiding their identities behind white hoods, a few dressed in black and wearing white masks.
It’s an image often associated with the Jim Crow South. But this photograph was taken in Twisp, at a fraternal hall that later burned down, and was featured prominently on the front page of Winthrop’s long-defunct Methow Valley Journal, on April 9, 1925.
Last month’s lethal events in Charlottesville, Virginia, thrust the history of the nation’s racial divisiveness into present-day headlines. The violent clash in Charlottesville over removal of Confederate monuments led to one death and dozens of injuries. Anti-immigrant, America-first, white supremacist views are resurgent at the highest levels of national politics.
And just as those views are not confined to history, they have never been confined to geography. The 1925 photograph from Twisp ran with a headline stating: “Methow Valley Klan Receiving National Charter No. 37.”
Research into local news archives reveals the existence of an active Ku Klux Klan chapter in the Methow Valley in the 1920s. It was part of a resurgent national KKK that claimed more than four million members. Total Washington state membership in the secret organization is not known.
The KKK of the 1920s “briefly dominated state legislatures of Colorado, Indiana, and Oregon; and in 1924 shaped presidential politics and helped pressure politicians to pass the most severe immigration restriction in the history of the United States,” according to a report issued by the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project on file at the University of Washington.
The report, available at http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_intro.html called the short-lived resurgent Klan “a powerful anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-radical, white supremacist organization that promoted 100 percent Americanism.”
In Okanogan County, leaders and businessmen were targeted for recruitment and encouraged to support the Klan’s preferred political candidates and legislative agendas, according to items from local newspapers and personal correspondence on file at the Okanogan County Historical Society (OCHS).
The 1925 photo in the Methow Valley Journal demonstrates some of the results of those recruitment efforts. The caption read: “One of the largest and most flourishing organizations in the Methow Valley, dedicated to the sublime duty of providing generous aid, tender sympathy and fraternal assistance amid fortune and misfortune in the effulgent light of life and amid the sable shadows of death; and to the exalted privilege of demonstrating the practical affinity of the great doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man as a vital force in the lives and affairs of men.”
A brief item in the Omak Chronicle newspaper appears to highlight the same event. It said: “Tuesday night the Twisp Provisional Lodge Ku Klux Klan received its charter. [A] Large delegation of Knights from Winthrop, Carlton, Pateros, Okanogan and Omak were in attendance. The ceremony was made complete by a big banquet.”
The photograph was taken by George B. Ladd, a professional photographer with a studio in Omak. His registry book notes 50 photographs at 75 cents each were sold to the Twisp KKK, according to Barry George, a research historian at the county historical society who maintains a file on the KKK.
A copy of the photo was scanned into the digital photo archive at the Shafer Museum in Winthrop in 2005. The accompanying information said only that the picture was taken at the Fraternal Hall in Twisp that later burned down.
The same Klan photo was included in “Late Frontier: A History of Okanogan County, Washington,“ written by the late Bruce A. Wilson and published in 1990 by the county historical society, which he helped organize. Wilson, who lived in Omak, retired as publisher of the Omak Chronicle then served in the Washington State Senate for 12 years.
“On the social scene, the Ku Klux Klan thrived in Okanogan County in the early 1920s, “ Wilson wrote. “Reborn in 1915, preaching patriotism and racial purity, the Klan grew at an astonishing rate. Kleagles (recruiters) spread from California into Oregon and Washington. At Wenatchee, in 1924, crosses were burned on Badger Mountain and 2,500 attended a Klan rally.”
Another book describes the local Klan as being responsible for violence against low-income blacks and immigrants, whom they ran out of town. That account is found in “Wenatchee’s Dark Past: A History of Race and Race Relations,” by Maureen E. Brown, a native of East Wenatchee, who practiced law in Wenatchee before commissioning in the United States Air Force. Brown credited her “Race and the Law” class professor at Seattle University School of Law as her inspiration.
Filipinos also were targeted in Wenatchee. In the Yakima Valley, immigrant Japanese farmers and labor organizers were the target of hate, according to the Civil Rights Project. The Klan’s strongest chapters were in Whatcom and Skagit counties, where non-white farm owners and workers were brutalized and ran out, according to historical accounts.
As in other communities, including Omak, the Klan burned crosses in Wenatchee. “The KKK made the front page of the Wenatchee Daily World on May 1, 1923 when they dug a trench 100 feet long and 40 feet across, filled it with sawdust, saturated it with oil, and lit fire to the cross above present-day Fancher Heights, “ Brown wrote. “The cross above Fancher Heights burned whenever there was an important Klan meeting.”
The Wenatchee Klan was especially successful at attracting large audiences to hear speakers. Brown documented 400 people at the Wenatchee Eagles Hall in 1923, 2,500 standing in the rain and sitting in cars at the Wenatchee cemetery to hear speakers from Seattle and Spokane, and 400 at a Klan meeting at the Cashmere Methodist Episcopal Church.
The 1926 state Klan convention was held in Wenatchee. A parade featuring 1,400 Klansmen and the organization’s women’s auxiliary marched in a parade while the Cashmere and Salvation Army bands provided music. Earlier the same year, Brown wrote, the Klan marched in the Apple Blossom parade, “complete with sheeted riders and horses.”
The KKK in Okanogan County
In “Late Frontier,” Wilson wrote that many people in Okanogan County were uncertain “how to respond to the Klan’s expressed hatred of blacks, Roman Catholics, Jews, radicals and recent immigrants.” Nonetheless, county Klan membership “flourished briefly, partly because of support for its brand of Americanism and partly because of peer pressure,” Wilson wrote.
The Oroville Weekly Gazette published what may be the first newspaper account of the KKK in Okanogan County on June 2, 1922. Under the headline “K.K.K. Is Menace,” a story reported that an anonymous Klan recruiter with a Wenatchee address was sending out membership applications.
Newspaper bylines were not common at the time, so the writer of the piece is unnamed. But the story warned that the Klan was “attempting to organize a secret order and give political force to hatred, not only of the negro, but of the Jew and prejudice against the Catholic church. Such a movement is damnable in its purpose and if permitted to go unchecked will poison the well springs of liberty, freedom and self-governance in this country.”
But the Klan continued to take root.
Winthrop and Twisp join up
The year before the Methow Valley Klan photograph appeared on the front page of the Methow Valley Journal, the April 14, 1924, edition of the newspaper carried a story that said, “A number of Winthrop people attended the K.K.K. lecture at the Twisp Fraternal Hall last Thursday evening. They reported a very interesting discourse.” The story, which again carried no byline, also said that the reporter had been asked several times what the KKK’s platform was, and so the paper published the 18-point “Klansman’s Creed.” (See page B1).
In October 1924, the Omak Chronicle reported that “A big bunch of ‘hundred percenters’ from Winthrop and Twisp attended the K.K.K. provisional lodge at Omak Monday. A large class was initiated. The floor work was conducted by the Twisp Provisional Klan.” (“Hundred percenters” was a code term for those who agreed with the Klan’s white nationalist beliefs.)
A few months later, on Feb. 5, 1925, the Methow Valley Journal reported that a meeting of “150 Knights and Ladies of the Ku Klux Klan” took place in the Winthrop Fraternal Hall. “A big delegation was up from Twisp,” the story said. “The evening was devoted to discussing the school question, taking up school laws, and proposed laws. Also suggestions for the advancement of the schools. A banquet was served.”
At that time, the Klan was attempting to elect anti-Catholic candidates to state legislatures and gain passage of bills requiring all children from 8 to 16 years of age to attend public schools. Oregon, where the Klan was extraordinarily successful, was the only state to pass such a law, according to the Oregon State Historical Society. It was never implemented and was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The week following the meeting at the Winthrop Fraternal Hall, on Feb. 12, 1925, the Methow Valley Journal reported that “Judge Jeffries” [sic] held an audience of Knights and Ladies of the Klan and their invited guests at “rapt attention…for over two hours” with a speech in Winthrop’s Evergreen Theater.
“The Judge stressed upon the point of true Americanism and the supremacy of the Nordic or White race. He told of the object of the Klan, why it was formed, and the reason for its phenomenal growth in three years into several million members,” the paper reported.
John A. Jeffrey was a lawyer from Portland who moved to Seattle and started calling himself “Judge Jeffrey.” He was Exalted Cyclops of the Seattle Klan and head of a front group called the Good Government League, according to the UW civil rights project.
Jeffrey was no stranger to Eastern Washington audiences. The Okanogan Independent published a large ad and news brief in March, 1923, two years before Jeffrey spoke in Winthrop, to announce a free Klan lecture at Okanogan’s Paramount theater. Ladies were invited.
Voices from Omak
The editor of the Omak Chronicle attended a Klan meeting uninvited and published his impressions on April 3, 1924. He listened to a lecture but said he was not sold on the organization.
“One thing about this meeting impressed us mightily and that was the class of citizens who had been ‘handpicked’ as suitable for membership,” he wrote. “Take it from us, folks, the best of the Omak citizenship was represented at this meeting… they sure went after the best we have at every turn.”
The editor went on to warn that the Klan was “treading upon treacherous sands when it antagonized any religious society…To us it is a proven fact that the upholding of the fundamentals of our government, as constituted, will prevent the domination of any sect, society or creed from gaining control of the reins of temporal government and mixing of church and state.”
He characterized the nation as forward looking, and said it “has never backed up to take on the discarded robes of the by-gone dark ages.” He concluded that future generations would not do so either provided “we of this generation give them the broad viewpoint of human freedom we all love so much.”
However, the same issue contained someone else’s coverage of the meeting. The writer called the lecture “eloquent” and “designed to give his audience the impression that the Klan was among the truly better class societies of our nation and that their aims and objects were all of the highest moral, religious and patriotic character.” That story reported that many applications for membership were turned in and predicted that more would follow.
In late August of 1925, the Chronicle published a story that said the local chapter had entertained an official from Klan headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The occasion was celebrated with a blazing cross on an Omak hillside.
A more personal observation
A letter from the Okanogan County Historical Society’s Klan archive describes what was going on in Omak in a far more personal way. Patrick J. Finegan of Omak wrote to his sister, Maire, in December 1925 and included a description of the Klan’s political shenanigans.
“We have a couple of elections coming off tomorrow which are causing quite a little commotion,” he wrote. “The outgoing Mayor is being opposed by the Ku Klux Klan because his wife is a Catholic, and one of the retiring Councilmen is also being opposed. He refused to join the Klan. Of course the Klan does not come out and say all this openly but it is very well known.
“Last year they ran a ‘dark horse’ for Mayor. No one knew there was any opposition to the outgoing Mayor… until we began to count ballots. There was quite a surprise when we found the result a tie vote. The Council then appointed Mr. Robinson (the retiring Mayor for a one year term).”
Finegan described more ins-and-outs about the Klan and local politics, then wrote: “They are well organized in Omak and it would not surprise me if they won out. If they do I wonder if they’ll burn the firey [sic] cross in celebration.
“That’s the emblem of their order and on special occasions they light it. Twice this summer we were entertained with the spectacle…they say they have nothing against Catholics that it is the Church they are fighting. But we know different.”
Crosses were set ablaze in Omak in May 1927 and March 1928, according to news accounts. The latter coincided with an announcement that the Klan was to be an “unmasked” organization, meaning its sheet-clad members would show their faces.
By the late 1920s, the second resurgence of Klan membership had collapsed — but only until its post-World War II resurgence.
A reporter’s footnote to local history
This story is apparently the first ever mention of the KKK in the Methow Valley News. No trace of the KKK was found in a search of back issues between 1922 and 1928, including in 1925, when the Twisp chapter received its charter. (The only binder not searched was 1924, which couldn’t be located in the newsroom archive.)
And an observation: The news accounts cited in this story that appeared in other county papers lack content and context. They announce lecture dates and report crowd size as if Klan gatherings were simple social events. The consequences of the violent racism beneath the patriotic, Christian creed the Klan espoused were ignored.