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The Fight Over a School Named for a Brea Pioneer Who Happened to Be a Klansman

Illustration by Felipe Flores

Brea’s past and future collided on Jan. 14 outside the office of the Brea Olinda Unified School District in a fight over a dead white man.

Representing the yonder days was a large group of baby boomers, people who grew up in an era when minorities made up less than 5 percent of the city’s population and whose parents were from a time when African-Americans were required to leave the city limits by sundown. They hovered around a table that offered William E. Fanning Elementary shirts, named after the founder of Brea’s schools. Also available: signs that read, “Don’t Be Bullied!” and how-to guides for recalling elected officials.

Across the way, a multicultural coalition told a different story from atop a podium and through a bullhorn: Fanning was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and shouldn’t have a school named for him. And the city, which saw five of its first eight mayors and six of its early 10 councilmen belong to the Invisible Empire, needed to reckon with its racist legacy.

“We did not bring this problem to Brea,” said Sylvia Poareo, a member of the Rename Fanning Committee, at the well-attended press conference. “Brea had this history. When told that the school’s namesake had a very probable connection to the KKK, what will the child of color think if no action is taken?” The group then broke into a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Only a few pro-Fanning people came over for a quick peek; they saved their rancor for indoors.

Leading the charge was Bill Fanning, the 72-year-old namesake of his grandfather. “For nearly eight years, our family has heard this allegation that our grandfather was a member of the Klan based on an undated, untitled, unknown author of a list found at the Anaheim [Heritage Center],” Fanning politely pleaded before school district trustees. “The American system of justice was founded on the principle of innocence until proven guilty. Now is the time for you to stand up and reject these false accusations.”

A parade of pro-Fanning speakers followed. Brea burghers such as former mayor Don Schweitzer, City Councilman Steven Vargas, Brea Historical Society president John Bickel and former trustees helped to lead the pushback starting in December, whether rallying residents to blitz the board with emails or lining up to speak before them. All cast doubt on the veracity of the Klan membership list on file at Anaheim Heritage Center that counts “W.E. Fanning” among its many names.

Then, former Brean Mike Rodriguez had his turn. “Let’s not keep a tribute to a man that upheld this system of racial oppression while he was superintendent and did nothing to oppose it,” he said, impassionedly.

Trustees had previously directed Superintendent Dr. Brad Mason to bring back a list of possible names without “Fanning” as the school transformed into a coding academy. But with pro-Fanning folks organizing for the first time in an 18-month battle, the board backed off. “Something clicked in me after the last meeting,” said trustee Carrie Flanders. “William Fanning is innocent until proven guilty.”

Trustees voted 4-1 to bring back names that included Fanning for a vote at the following board meeting, setting up a showdown on the Klan that Brea never had a century ago.

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Photo by Gabriel San Román

Academics and journalists often opt for the easier “Klanaheim” tale about four KKK members who won election to the Anaheim City Council in 1924, when police patrolled the streets in white sheets, and a rally drew 20,000 attendees to Pearson Park. The “model Klan city,” as it was hailed from the Klan’s Imperial Palace headquarters in Atlanta, didn’t last long; aided by a membership list, anti-Klan Anaheimers recalled the Klan-heavy council just nine months into its reign.

No such heroics are woven into the story of Brea, where Klan councilmen continued in power years after Anaheim’s February 1925 recall. “The good residents of Anaheim were smart enough to vote the Klan out,” says former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, now a features reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “The bad residents of Brea were stupid enough to keep the Klan in for quite a while.”

The Klan presence isn’t Brea’s sole historical shame. It also excluded African-Americans after dark, and a 1926 restrictive covenant declared, “No part of said premises shall ever be sold, conveyed, transferred, leased or rented to any person of African, Chinese or Japanese descent.”

Without facing its painful past, racism continues to plague the city. In 2017, a junior high student told a 13-year-old classmate from Mozambique, “You’re going to have to go back to Africa—where you belong”; the incident made the news. Other Brea stories surfaced with the Fanning Elementary renaming campaign. Gabriel Dima-Smith recounted at the press conference the racism he faced in elementary school, as he was taunted with questions such as “Why are you so dark?” His parents pulled him from the district.

Born to a Mexican father and a white mother, Rodriguez’s family history has its own tales of discrimination, from his father being paddle-whacked for speaking Spanish at a Watts high school to later being denied entrance to a Fountain Valley movie theater while on a date with a white woman in the 1960s. It’s part of what makes him want to fight for a better Brea.

It started with a simple search. When looking for a Brea school in which to enroll his son, Rodriguez discovered Arellano’s “OC Pioneers Who Were Klan Members” series in the Weekly, which named Fanning as a Klansman in 2011. “We were looking into an inter-district transfer,” he says. “I just didn’t feel right about it knowing Brea’s past.” Rodriguez decided on a school in La Habra instead.

Rodriguez kept the history close to mind, but nothing spurred him into action until a statue of the confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, became a deadly battleground for the largest gathering of white supremacists in decades. After the race riot there, he put a call out on social media to organize around a cause closer to home.

As the Rename Fanning Committee began to coalesce, Rodriguez conducted his own research, citing a healthy skepticism with Arellano’s claim. He headed to the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) at Cal State Fullerton to pull transcripts of Breans recounting the city’s early days. “There, I realized just how deeply the KKK had their fangs in early Brea before World War II,” says Rodriguez.

But he didn’t get the same sense when visiting the Brea Museum. That’s where he asked Linda Shay, museum curator for the Brea Historical Society, about the Klan. “What Shay told me about this history of Brea and what I read in Fullerton, it was like night and day,” Rodriguez says. “She discussed how the KKK also had some very admirable qualities.”

Rodriguez then visited the Anaheim Heritage Center to view the list for himself. What he saw firmly convinced him of Fanning’s Klan connection.

Launching a petition, the committee took their fight to the school board. “There was no reaction for a year,” says Rodriguez, with a laugh. “We were just talking to a wall.” But they continued airing Brea’s Klan-loving, anti-black past: The sundown town kept blacks out until two appeared on the 1950 census; three decades later, the number reached all of 56 among a population of 27,913. The Klan’s legacy persists with Carlson Drive, named after Brea Klansman (and former mayor) Emil Carlson—and, of course, Fanning Elementary.

On a recent January evening, Rodriguez talked to members of the Rename Fanning Committee at Brea Congregational Church. It was a seemingly contradictory setting, as the Anaheim Heritage Center’s Klan membership list includes one of its early ministers, Earl Sechrist. “We’re continuing the work of Alexander Nelson,” Rodriguez, a history teacher, tells the group. He’s referring to the former Orange County district attorney who brought down the Klan in Orange County twice with the help of membership lists. (See Arellano’s “Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster [1],” Jan. 12, 2012.) “Fanning is on that list, and the list is credible.”

“It’s been an awakening to a history that I was absolutely not aware of,” says David This, a Brea Congregational Church member who joined the cause a year ago. “I’m an older, white man who apparently had blinders on for many decades.” Like others, This devoured Christopher Cocoltchos’s voluminous 1979 UCLA dissertation, The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California During the 1920’s, the most comprehensive study to date about the KKK’s days in OC.

In the days leading up to the vote, This kept things simple in a message on the church’s sign facing Imperial Highway, which he wrote with Fanning in mind: “A thorny racial past is our blooming opportunity.”

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William Fanning. Photo courtesy Brea Historical Society

It doesn’t take long to find William E. Fanning in the Brea Museum. A framed tribute shows the man at the center of Klan controversy in a different light: working yard duty, cracking a smile with his wife, celebrating his centennial in a wheelchair surrounded by students.

A brief, yellowing biography continues the fawning portrayal. Born in 1876, Fanning served in the Philippine-American War and later became a teacher/principal at Randolph School. He retired as superintendent of the Brea Elementary School District in 1942, capping a 28-year career. Outside of education, Fanning served as president of the Lions Club, belonged to the Brea Chamber of Commerce and became director of the Oilfields National Bank. Fanning lived to be 103.

None of his storied accomplishments, as it’s told, compared to Fanning Elementary. “Mr. Fanning’s greatest honor came in 1968 by having Brea’s fifth elementary school named the William E. Fanning School,” the tribute reads, “and he enjoyed participating in opening ceremonies and other special events held at that school.”

Shortly after activists began their push to rename the school, the district tasked Shay with researching the question of Fanning’s connection to the Klan. Her 13-page confidential report, Naming Fanning Elementary School: Understanding William E. Fanning’s Legacy, came in November 2017 at no charge to the district. Shay began with a brief note on bias in historiography that failed to disclose that the late Karl and Inez Fanning, William Fanning’s son and daughter-in-law, both served as past presidents of the Brea Historical Society.

From there, the report pounced on the lack of provenance for the Klan list archived at the Anaheim Heritage Center that contained Fanning’s name, claiming it couldn’t be substantiated. Shay mentions that Cocoltchos’ dissertation on the OC Klan included a membership-list citation that didn’t lead to any findable collection in the Library of Congress. The curator continued by downgrading Arellano’s profile of Fanning’s Klan connection to mere “editorial commentary,” while taking the opportunity to dismiss Brea’s “sundown town” past because no formal ordinance established it as one. According to Shay, she also reviewed issues of Brea Progress from 1917 to 1930 and didn’t find anything to suggest Fanning was a Klansman; she didn’t mention that the editor from 1923 to 1927, J.E. Rymer, belonged to the Klan. “We found no credible evidence to indicate William E. Fanning, over the course of his very long life and residence in Brea, ever displayed questionable behavior toward any individual group of people,” Shay concluded, closely mirroring the museum’s Pioneer portraits. “Instead, we found numerous sources that claimed Mr. Fanning was a selfless, compassionate and dedicated educator.” (Shay declined to comment for this story and denied the reporter access to Brea Progress, citing past papers as “critically unstable.”)

Brea boosters hailed the report for restoring Fanning’s good name. Undeterred, Rodriguez returned to the Anaheim Heritage Center with a Fanning parent to keep researching. While there, a librarian unearthed an Aug. 2, 1972, donation letter for the Klan membership lists from late OC historian Leo J. Friis, confirming the list as legitimate. “Nobody on the school board wants to talk about Friis,” Rodriguez says.

That’s because Friis’ credentials are impeccable. He served as a deputy district attorney starting in 1929, missing Nelson’s Klan-busting tenure as DA by three years. But fresh out of law school, he teamed with leading anti-Klan activist Thomas McFadden a year after the Anaheim recall to start the McFadden, Holden, Friis firm; alongside Lafayette A. Lewis, McFadden helped to form the anti-Klan USA Club and conspired to buy a membership list to expose the Hooded Order.

Friis, a former Anaheim city attorney, also started Pioneer Press, dedicated to publishing short books about Orange County history, and served as president of the Orange County Historical Society and as Anaheim city historian. He authored Orange County: Through Four Centuries, the first objective and comprehensive treatment of county history in 1965. “When it came to local history, he kept the rest of us honest,” said Jim Sleeper, a fellow historian and friend, in an obituary published in the Register.

“Friis’ contributions to local history were significant,” says Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society and assistant archivist of the Orange County Archives. “The stories I hear lead me to believe that Friis was a highly respected attorney and an important figure in the community of Anaheim.”

The Rename Fanning Committee also got a boost from acclaimed historian James Loewen, who documented Brea as a sundown town in his award-winning book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism and criticized Shay’s “poorly done” report. “Shay, at least four times, emphasizes that the list has incomplete provenance,” Loewen says. “That’s not a very good attack on it. Many of the documents that are in any archives don’t have a clear provenance.”

Loewen denied rumors that he recanted his critique in a recent email to trustees. He also gave them words of scholarly advice: “Former sundown towns need to take overt steps to break their white supremacist tradition,” Loewen said. “Changing the name of Fanning Elementary School . . . will signal [to] everyone—residents and nonresidents alike—that the city has moved beyond its sundown town days.”

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Photo by Gabriel San Román

Less than 10 miles south of Brea, Jane Newell, Anaheim Heritage Center’s heritage services manager, pulls out a green folder, something she’s often done since the Fanning-renaming controversy ignited intrigue about local Klan history. Inside are two documents printed on legal pleading paper: The first is titled “List of Orange County Members K.K.K.” and names 200 people, mostly Santa Ana residents. The second is without a title and names more than 1,200 people all over north OC. Toward the bottom of the sixth page is the name W.E. Fanning; he’s noted as a teacher from Brea, but no work or home address is listed.

The list is the lifeblood of the Rename Fanning campaign. Without it, there’s no movement.

But the Anaheim Heritage Center wasn’t the sole source for documentation of OC’s Klan membership. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., holds a small collection regarding the Klan in Anaheim that was donated in 1954 by Ernest Ganahl, who fought against the Invisible Empire and is the founder of Ganahl Lumber. But when the manuscript is called up, the list is gone; the Library of Congress confirms it has been missing since 1982.

All isn’t lost, however; the Ganahl list lives on in Cocoltchos’ dissertation, the only apparent scholarship based on the document before its disappearance. His thesis supervisor happened upon the Ganahl list while doing research at the Library of Congress. “The list is, indeed, a valid and complete catalog of Klansmen to the middle of August 1924,” Cocoltchos wrote.

Photo by Gabriel San Román

That roster also had a date—Aug. 25, 1924—and firm provenance thanks to Lewis’ oral histories on tape at the Anaheim Heritage Center. They’re too delicate to risk listening to now, but Cocoltchos transcribed key parts. Searching for a membership list, Lewis approached Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, who promised something could be arranged. Shortly after, the King Kleagle of the California Klan came knocking. They negotiated a sum of either $700 or $800 in exchange for a list, but a savvy Lewis demanded—and got—original secretary books, applications and initiation minutes to fortify the ultimate anti-Klan weapon.

“We worked on the list all night, and at about 4:30 a.m., we had completed it,” Lewis recounts in his oral history. “Without that list, it would have been impossible for us to make much headway in Anaheim. But with the list, we were armed with sufficient ammunition to proceed intelligently.”

No one has been able to compare the Ganahl and Friis membership rolls, and no one may ever be able to. But the Library of Congress thinks Friis’ list is legitimate enough to assist it in finding Ganahl’s list. “We believe the list to be similar or derivative of a list contained in our Ku Klux (Anaheim) collection,” Ryan Reft, a historian and curator for the Library of Congress’ manuscript division, wrote Newell on March 7, 2018.

There’s good reason for that assessment: Lewis helped to alphabetically assemble the list from the membership materials he bought. Friis’ list is grouped much the same. Cocoltchos names dozens of OC Klansmen in his work; most appear on the Friis list. Both documents have no address and/or occupation cited for some members.

Just how Friis obtained both of his lists remains unknown. He kept the donation under seal for five years and didn’t tell his Orange County Historical Society colleague Sleeper about it; a Klan folder at UC Irvine’s Sleeper Papers reveals an index card showing the historian searched for the 1922 list long after Friis’ death.

“The people who deny the validity of [Friis’] list are basically saying two of the most prominent historians in Orange County history were sloppy and shoddy,” says Arellano. “No one ever bothered to question the validity of the list until a Mexican writing for the Weekly brought it out. The Anaheim Heritage Center is not, in their right mind, going to keep a list that’s a bunch of lies.”

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Photo by Gabriel San Román

News vans parked outside Brea Civic Center on Jan. 28, waiting for the final vote on renaming Fanning Elementary. School district staff set up outside seating and a speaker blaring audio from the trustee meeting. But the overflow masses didn’t come as they had two weeks before. A handful of pro-Fanning folks wore school-pride shirts, but they fell short of a “blue out” in the seats.

Bill Fanning once again took the podium at the meeting to defend his grandfather. “Today, we know that no list is available in the Library of Congress,” he said. “Evidence that cannot be found and cannot be presented simply is not evidence.”

The younger Fanning, who declined to comment for this story, didn’t mention that the list disappeared in 1982 and that the Library of Congress is using a copy of the Friis list—the very list he and other supporters of his grandfather had long denounced as fake—to aide in their investigation.

Members of the Rename Fanning Committee tried a different approach: They turned the board meeting into a public history lesson with protest signs quoting COPH interviews about Brea’s racist past. Rodriguez held up one sign by an ex-Klansman. “The Ku Klux Klan started out and everybody started joining them, so I went ahead and joined them,” W.S. Norman said. “For years, there never was a colored working there [in the oil fields] until 1945.”

Norman’s name appears on the Friis list.

Backed by the words of an uncomfortable past, committee members continued their lesson to the board. “It is now well-known history [that] Brea was a sundown town,” Julie Muzzall, a resident of the city, told trustees. “If you don’t choose a [new] name, the students will go there with a stigma of the past.”

Rename Fanning activists outnumbered all speakers on the issue. Pro-Fanning folks largely laid down their arms. As the board later proved, they had no cause for alarm. “The main issue for us tonight is not whether or not there’s evidence to support the allegations against Mr. Fanning,” said board president Gail Lyons, scrapping the historical debate aside. “Our focus is we have to make a decision about the best name for the school.”

Illustration by Felipe Flores. Design by Michael Ziobrowski

Trustee Nicole Colon argued that Fanning didn’t belong to the Klan, but she supported changing the school name. Flanders noted she’d only support names with Fanning in them.

Paul Ruiz sided with her.

“This name is painful for a lot of people because they associate it with the sundown era,” said Keri Kropke.

The board first considered the name Heritage Hills Academy of Science and Technology. Lyons, Flanders and Ruiz voted it down. A vote on Fanning Academy of Science and Technology followed. Flanders and Ruiz enthusiastically voted for it; Kropke dissented. A tormented Colon dramatically paused before giving Fanning the decisive nod, followed shortly by Lyons.

The Rename Fanning Committee sat in stunned silence, while pro-Fanning folks greeted the vote with loud applause. And the latter group can count an unlikely ally of sorts.

“I’m actually for keeping the Fanning name, only because the entire world should realize what an embarrassment Brea is,” says Arellano, who calls his award-winning Klan series one of his proudest journalistic achievements. “Let the world know that Brea is very proud of its racist past. They’re so proud that they still have a school named after a former Klan member.”