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A nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago led to nighttime gatherings of hooded, white-robed KKK members with burning crosses at many San Francisco Bay Area locations – including one in hills above Vallejo’s popular Blue Rock Springs resort.
Due in part to the 1915 racist hit film “The Birth of a Nation,” the Klan revival became “the biggest social movement of the early twentieth century,” New York University historian Linda Gordon writes in her 2017 book, “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.”
Like the original, post-Civil War KKK, the new Klan remained fear-based and committed to White supremacy, while expanding its list of enemies to include Jews, Catholics, immigrants, Asians and bootleggers. By the early 1920s, estimates of Klan membership were as high as 6 million people.
In Vallejo, KKK activity paralleled expansion of the city’s Black community. While African Americans had lived in Vallejo since the early 1850s, many more Blacks, including former U.S. Army Buffalo soldiers, moved here in the early 1900s. Their civic efforts included the 1918 organization of an active chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Author Sharon McGriff-Payne wrote in her 2009 book, “John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties From 1845 to 1925”:
“From its inception, the Vallejo branch launched head-on into some of the most important issues facing African Americans. Blatant discrimination in housing and employment for the city’s approximately 2,000 Black residents was ongoing. Nationwide, lynchings of African Americans were at an all-time high and bloody race riots swept the nation.”
The Vallejo NAACP also pressed for the prosecution of a White property owner accused of torching a Black church, and for equal treatment and cooperation from local authorities and from the commandant of the nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The KKK activity in the 1920s in Northern California prompted an editorial in the May 9, 1922 Vallejo Times-Herald that described members of the Klan as “a curse and a menace to the civilization they swear to protect.”
“No organization which has as its purpose the violation of those sacred rights which are guaranteed to every citizen of this country is justified in existing,” the newspaper stated.
Two days earlier, the Times-Herald had reported that about 500 men – one of them a uniformed Navy chief from Mare Island – had been initiated into the Klan at a ceremony in hills above Oakland. A month later, on June 9, the newspaper told of a KKK initiation above Blue Rock Springs near Vallejo.
“Some 30 or 35 residents of Vallejo, hooded and shrouded in the official garb of the Ku Klux Klan, wending their way toward Blue Rock Springs, ghost-like, in the pale moonlight … silent, impressive, some afoot, some on horseback, is the story told to the Times-Herald,” the newspaper stated.
“To what extent the Ku Klux Klan is enthroned in Vallejo could not be learned,” the newspaper said, adding, “It is believed, however, that the membership here is being nurtured and is steadily growing.”
The following October, the Times-Herald reported that 104 initiates, including at least 16 uniformed Mare Island sailors, were sworn into the Klan in a Napa ceremony. The newspaper said a Klan speaker declared, “On every ship in the Navy, in every parade of enlisted men, in nearly every regiment of the Army, the Ku Klux Klan is represented.”
Also that month, a KKK ceremony was held near Santa Rosa. There were 94 initiates, including four more Navy sailors in uniform, about 1,000 masked Klansmen and another 1,000 spectators, according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Similar gatherings were held in or near several North Bay Area communities for the next few years. They included an Aug. 2, 1924 rally near St. Helena where more than 10,000 people showed up, author Alexandria Brown wrote in her book, “Hidden History of Napa Valley.”
Brown also wrote that Dr. James Rush Bronson, who gave a keynote speech at the event, insisted that the KKK wasn’t against Blacks, Catholics and Jews and, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, said “the Klan is the best friend the colored man has in America today.”
Besides the nighttime initiations and cross-burning by “Invisible Empire” members, there were newspaper accounts of other KKK-related activity, including reports that police officers in many communities had become Klan members. The Times-Herald carried stories about efforts to fire such officers in San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento and elsewhere.
Another police-related story in the March 14, 1922 Vallejo Evening Chronicle described how E.M. Carpenter Sr. and son E.M. Carpenter Jr. of Vallejo, who were White, apparently balked at joining the local KKK and then received a threat to leave town within 48 hours or “suffer application of a coating of tar and feathers.”
Instead, the Carpenters, both mechanics, sought police protection and Solano County Sheriff J.J. McDonald deputized them. That allowed the Carpenters to carry weapons and they opted for “crescent wrenches in one hand and automatic pistols in the other,” the newspaper said, adding, “the allotted 48 hours ended without any disturbance.”
The widespread KKK activity, involving both men and women, appeared to wane by the 1930s, although a 1930 newspaper ad showed that the Vallejo Klan chapter was seeking new members and claiming that it was growing. Chapters in many other Northern California cities ran similar ads.
No matter whether the Klan grows or fades away, race-related problems and conflicts ebb and flow over the years and the battle against bigotry continues. Author Linda Gordon ends her Second Coming of the KKK book with this resonating comment: “The Klannish spirit – fearful, angry, gullible to falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success if they only try – lives on.”
— Vallejo and other Solano County communities are treasure troves of early-day California history. The “Solano Chronicles” column, running every other Sunday, highlights various aspects of that history. If you have local stories or photos to share, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send any material care of the Times-Herald, 420 Virginia St.; or the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, 734 Marin St., Vallejo 94590.
This content was originally published here.