Hometown Klan


David Leppert

I’m browsing, as one does, and reading a bit of labor history, and the name of my hometown, Kent, Washington, comes up. I had to look, because I knew that town well — I’m familiar with the streets, the major buildings, my father’s family lived there for generations, and it always seemed like a dead quiet small town that was never going to come up in history. There’s nothing there! Banks and gas stations, a five-and-dime, a sporting goods store, lots of little business and residences, and when I was growing up, it was mainly a farming community. They grew a lot of lettuce and cauliflower.

So what do I find? The mayor of Kent in the 1920s (before my time, before my parents’ time, but my grandparents would have been kicking around then) was an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. This wasn’t Mississippi, but Washington state, and apparently the KKK had a surge of popularity in the 20s, to the point where a KKK member could be elected to office and I guess we were known as a “100% Klan town”.

Notable Klan members elected to public office in Washington State include the Mayor of Kent, David Leppert, and Bellingham City Attorney Charles B. Sampley. Politicians who were likely members of the Klan include the Mayor of Blaine, Alan Keyes, and Wapato’s Director of Schools, Frank Sutton. Given that the Klan was a secret society, it is hard to differentiate Klan allies from Klan members, and it is likely that many other local elected officials in Washington state were Klan members.

Fortunately, their tenure was short and the Klan faded away fairly quickly, in part thanks to people who stood up against them.

Klan activity in the Valley reached its high point in mid-July of 1923. On July 14, the Klan held its first “Konvention” in the state of Washington near Renton Junction and initiated some 500 to 1,000 new members. A rally for the general public, complete with fireworks and multiple cross-burnings, was held that evening at Wilson’s Station four miles south of the park. The Kent Advertiser-Journal described “a monster crowd of thousands of people who came in between 2500 and 3000 automobiles to participate and witness the ceremony.” The Washington Co-Operator estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 attended. The Globe-Republican, however, indicated that attendees were “attracted chiefly by curiosity and by the lingering suspician [sic] that an exciting clash might occur between Klansmen and representatives of Sheriff Matt Starwich’s office.” The state had a law forbidding public gatherings of masked persons except for masquerades and similar events. Before the rally, the Klan openly dared Starwich to enforce the law, and he insisted he would. The Klan backed down, however, and only wore the masks briefly. Seemingly, the dare was simply a publicity stunt and, if so, it worked. Starwich retaliated a month later by firing a deputy working on the Northern Pacific Railroad for taking part, commenting, “I won’t stand for any Klansmen being connected with my office.” Afterwards, reporting on the Klan dropped off sharply and activity quieted.

While they weren’t parading about in robes, though, they reflected a real problem in that community. People might have chastised the Klan, but at the same time, they’d later applaud internment of our Japanese compatriots.

Traditionally, the Klan has been portrayed as a violent, backwards-looking, and extremist organization that was part of the conservative mood that followed World War One. Recent works, however, emphasize that, for better or worse, the Klan was rooted in the mainstream of society, often attracted leading citizens in communities throughout the country, and championed popular causes. This was the case with the White River Klan. While it is difficult to discern why people in the Valley joined the Klan from newspaper accounts that we have available, Klan ideology clearly spoke to fairly common sentiments. For example, Prohibition enforcement was a major issue in Auburn politics and the Klan’s call for rigorous enforcement was not out of the ordinary at all. Similarly, there was substantial, mainstream, anti-Japanese sentiment. The state of Washington, not the Klan, passed Alien Land Laws to prevent Asian immigrants who, by law, could not become citizens from owning or renting land. When Klan organizers like Jeffries spoke out against Japanese immigrants, they found a receptive audience. Lastly, the sheer spectacle value of the Klan should not be overlooked. The Klan had a mystique surrounding it. People were curious about it and rallies provided entertainment. Most of those who attended meetings and rallies went because it was something to do and did not join, regardless of their feelings about Klan ideology.

Most of that lettuce and cauliflower was grown by Japanese families; my wife worked in those fields in the summer when she was growing up, and I worked in a nursery owned by a Japanese horticulturist throughout high school. They didn’t speak about it, but there was this poison soaking in our town from the time the Klan was thriving there.

I suddenly have a different perspective on my childhood home.

Comments

  1. says

    David Leppert’s obituary is interesting for what is left out.

    Death called a prominent Kent citizen as David Leppert, 75, died at his residence at Kent on Saturday, June 15. During his residence here since 1917, Mr. Leppert has been actively engaged in civic and church affairs of the community. He has served as pastor to the local Christian and Baptist churches, was mayor of Kent for a period of six years and was affiliated with anumber of fraternal organiztions.

    Heh. A “number of fraternal organizations”, which are not mentioned. You’d think it would have been worthing mentioning that he was an Exalted Cyclops.

  2. Sean Boyd says

    Boy, but Kent has changed from a sleepy little town. I worked in Kent for about 7 years, right across the street from a huge Boeing holding. It used to be farm country, anyway.

    And don’t worry about the KKK connection, PZ. As I’m sure you’ve heard from our own Exalted Cyclops in DC, there are very good people on both sides.

  3. says

    Yeah, it was changing when I was growing up. Once the river was controlled and no longer periodically flooding everything, people noticed that all that large, flat real estate was perfect for putting up concrete walled warehouses and parking lots, so a lot of the spaces I used to go tromping about in as a kid are now paved. The Boeing plant in town (every western Washington town had to have a Boeing plant) was all space sciences stuff, and so was smaller and more discreet than the big plants in Auburn and Renton.

  4. says

    “Exalted Cyclops” reminds me that “arm-wrestling with Cyclops” was one of the euphemisms for masturbation that Mike Judge coined on Beavis & Butthead. It seems fitting for an organisation of wankers like the KKK.

  5. says

    You’re not alone, PZ. I always saw my home town in Colorado as an enlightened little place. My first indication it wasn’t was that it had the nickname, “The town of broad streets and narrow minds.” Later, I read the description of a “Sundown Town” and was disquieted to see how closely it seemed to describe my former home. Also, I had been aware for at least a while that there were definitely local prejudices against hispanic folk.

    So what my southern friends had said was true: The North is about as bad as the South, but they just hide it better. My hope now is that if they hide it enough, new generations will accept the pretended fairness as reality and act accordingly. I had the same hope for Virginia, though.

  6. unclefrogy says

    it is a remarkable thing when the memory of the past and a deeper realization of the truth about things begin to diverge.
    I would say it takes a certain kind of courage to look that close and see the differences between the child’s eyes and a more complete understanding. it is one of the things that the conservative mind often seems unable to do, might be related to thinking blind faith is a great virtue.
    uncle frogy

  7. ridana says

    “KlEagle”? Lol, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it spelled with the E capped. I always just thought it sounded stupid, like a Klan beagle, but I guess they were trying to emphasize their patriotism?

  8. justawriter says

    Yes, the Klan very much presented itself as a “fraternal organization” in the 1920s with a slogan of “100% Americanism.” America, of course, being defined as white and Protestant (No Catholics Need Apply). I recommend Stetson Kennedy’s book, “The Klan Unmasked” which covers the history of the rebirth of the Klan in the 1920s, but is mostly about how he infiltrated the Klan in the late 1940s and embarrassed the organization with the help of the Superman radio show (really). Oh, he also got the Klan’s national charter revoked by a federal judge.

  9. says

    Important that this history does not get swept under the rug. I followed your links and was pleased to see the long article on the Klan by David Norberg of Green River Community College, posted at the White River Valley Museum web site. Last summer we went to the museum for a wonderful exhibit on the history of womens’ clothing. I notice that there are permanent exhibits now about the Muckleshoot Tribe and about a local Japanese-American farm. Clearly good people who are working to get the real history of the area told.

  10. says

    Here in Ohio, Newark is a mid-sized city a bit east of Columbus. All of the newspapers for a three-year period of the 1920s are missing. It seems that that is the period the area was ruled by elected Klan members, and somebody made sure to “cleanse” the record.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 10 rietpluim
    The titles Klansmen invent for themselves are ridiculous.
    Rumour has it that the original founders just after the US Civil War did not take themselves all that seriously. When the KKK got really nasty they were stuck with the silly names.

  12. robro says

    When I saw the part about the cross burning I realized I didn’t know where that comes from. Wikipedia to the rescue: Cross burning. Thank you D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. Myths are so much more dramatic than reality.

  13. bassmanpete says

    Regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans, do you think it’s possible that it was as much for their own protection as for the possibility they might be saboteurs? I ask because the UK had a sizable Italian population prior to the war, and, after the outbreak of war, many of them had their homes and businesses looted and vandalised and some of them were physically assaulted.

  14. freemage says

    ” Lastly, the sheer spectacle value of the Klan should not be overlooked. The Klan had a mystique surrounding it. People were curious about it and rallies provided entertainment. Most of those who attended meetings and rallies went because it was something to do and did not join, regardless of their feelings about Klan ideology.”

    So, basically, they were there for the lulz. The more things change…

  15. KG says

    You’d think it would have been worthing mentioning that he was an Exalted Cyclops. – PZM

    Surely people would have guessed that from the single eye in the middle of his forehead?

  16. says

    Yeah, no, bassmanpete. The interment was strictly based on racism, and was a convenient tool for West Coast racists to finally get rid of the Japanese Americans they hated. The Canadian interment was for the same reasons. If any thought of safety for the internees was involved they never would have been incarcerated in the poor conditions they were.

    Even after it became obvious Japan would be defeated both British Columbia politicians and federal Canadian politicians wanted the removal of Japanese Canadians from the Canadian West Coast to be permanent. They would either have to move east of the Rocky Mountains, or be deported to Japan. Public opinion began to turn against these plans, but almost 4000 Japanese Canadians were deported to Japan before the policy was put on hold in 1947.

  17. says

    @ 10 rietpluim
    The titles Klansmen invent for themselves are ridiculous.
    @12 – Rumour has it that the original founders just after the US Civil War did not take themselves all that seriously. When the KKK got really nasty they were stuck with the silly names.

    I wonder if they were trying to copy the weird titles of Masons? “Thrice-Puissant.” “I – am – that – I – am”…?

  18. Ed Seedhouse says

    @19:”The Canadian interment was for the same reasons.”

    Definitely. My Mother, who was in her late teens when the war started, recalled to me how the propaganda of the time had people terrified of the “yellow menace”. There was nothing but racism behind it, at least in Canada.

  19. rietpluim says

    @jrkrideau #12 @Gwynnyd #20

    Perhaps we should follow their good example and rename our kings, presidents, governors, members of parliament etc.
    If our king was called Great Scarlet Dragon, I’d turn monarchist instantly.

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