DENVER — Nora Flaherty saw the cross burning in front of St. Dominic Catholic Church in north Denver and ran to her home a block away to get her husband.
He grabbed an ax and helped put the fire out, but the Ku Klux Klan members who constructed the symbol of hate already had fled, as Dennis Gallagher tells the story that’s been passed down by his family. Like other longtime Denver families, dealing with the Ku Klux Klan’s one-time dominance of the city has been a generational problem for Gallagher and his kin.
His father was bullied by self-identified Klansmen about being an Irish Catholic when he joined the Denver Fire Department in 1938. In 1970, Gallagher was knocking on doors as a candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives and met a man who said he was a member of the Klan and thus would never vote for an Irish Catholic.
“There’s never been an apology for what the Klan did,” said Gallagher, professor emeritus at Regis University, former city auditor, city councilman, state senator and state representative. “I think that has affected the city for generations.”
Ripple effects of the Klan’s takeover of Denver’s power structures over the course of just a few years in the mid-1920s are still felt, especially after the release by History Colorado this spring of digital copies of the Klan’s membership ledgers from that time period. The more than 30,000 names in the documents include those of the men the Klan’s political machine installed as Colorado’s governor, Denver’s mayor and police chief, judges, state senators and representatives.
But the ledgers also show how pervasive the Klan was in day-to-day life, where the people they persecuted and intimidated would encounter them. The membership rolls show Klansmen worked at banks, pie companies, railroads, grocery stores, pharmacies, the zoo, the parks, the post office, cab companies, cafes, the stockyard, the city jail, the courthouse, laundry businesses, cab companies and this newspaper. They also worked at Denver landmarks, like Elitch Gardens, the Brown Palace Hotel, Union Station and Lakeside Amusement Park.
Those targeted and demonized by the Klan — Blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, immigrants of any kind — lived in fear, said Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and author of Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. They knew the Klan was pervasive and that many parts of the government charged with protecting them were actively involved in the white supremacist organization.
“They were made to be second-class citizens in their home,” Goldberg said. “Their neighbors were either active antagonists or passive bystanders to their pain.”
The stories of that pain and resistance to the Klan have passed down through the generations of families who have lived in Denver over the past 100 years. The work, too, of pushing back against the Klan’s legacy continues as new groups form to espouse the KKK’s brand of white supremacy and public spaces still bear KKK members’ names.
Many iterations of the Klan and similar groups have appeared in Colorado and the U.S. since the Reconstruction era, Jared Orsi, a professor of history at Colorado State University, said during a recent History Colorado event. Although they do not always have the same stated goals or organization, there is a common thread through them all.
“It’s an episodic phenomenon,” Orsi said. “It’s a periodic welling up of deep and dark waters in the American soul. In that darkness lurks a very narrow and excluding definition of who is an American, and a suspicion and fear — even a hatred — of anyone who seems to lie outside of that definition.”
The KKK metastasizes
Denver was supposed to be a better, safer city in the 1920s. Leaders from the prior decade promised to clean up crime, end corruption and eliminate drinking. Nationally, World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
“And it all flopped,” Denver historian Phil Goodstein said. “There is this extreme anxiety, especially in Denver, that something just isn’t right.”
It was also a time when Black people in Denver were moving into white neighborhoods and the city’s immigrant population was growing, including Jewish and Catholic communities. These changes made the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had long held power in the city nervous, Goodstein said.
Enter the KKK.
The Klan of the 1920s was distinct in some ways from the organization that terrorized the South in the 1860s after the Civil War and was responsible for lynching hundreds and suppressing the Black vote. This Klan largely disappeared from the public view by the 1870s.
The second wave of the Klan, which began in 1915 under new leaders, was inspired in part by the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Reconstruction-era Klan’s actions and falsely recast the terrorist organization as a patriotic defender of law and order. While still fervent believers in white supremacy, the second iteration of the KKK expanded its targets to include Catholics, Jews and immigrants of any kind. The new Klan also was far more organized.
“The Klan had a cafeteria of appeals,” Goldberg said. “They would go into a community and find out what the problem was and how they could sell themselves to that community.”
In Denver, the white Protestant majority saw public safety, bootlegging and immigration as the problem. People joined the Klan for a range of reasons, Goodstein said. Political opportunists from both parties wanted to use membership to their political advantage. Others wanted to be a part of a quasi-secret society and relished the ritualism and feeling of participating in something with a “patriotic aura,” he said.
“They realized that those with great power and fortunes received an inordinate share of society’s honors while most politicians were bought puppets of the ruling elite,” Goodstein wrote in his book, In the Shadow of the Klan. “But they never questioned the essential setup. On the contrary, they turned their wrath on those who sought equality with them. An intense patriotism and religiosity filled voids in their social and psychic makeups.”
Denver’s Klan began secretly in well-connected circles but soon went public and spread to thousands of middle-class households, Goldberg said. Working-class neighborhoods tended to have higher membership rates because those people were more likely to live near or work with immigrants, Jews, Catholics and Blacks, said Tom Noel, director of Public History, Preservation & Colorado Studies at the University of Colorado Denver during a discussion hosted by History Colorado.
Although the Klan sometimes painted itself as a volunteer and social organization, its exclusionary and white supremacist ideals were plainly iterated in its writings. The “Creed of the Ku Klux Klan,” as printed on Jan. 31, 1925, in the Boulder KKK publication The Rocky Mountain American, states that one of the organization’s core principles was “white supremacy” and “limitation of foreign immigration.”
At its peak, at least 30,000 men were part of the KKK in Denver — nearly a third of the 107,000 white, U.S.-born men recorded living in the city at the time of the 1920 census. Chapters opened in other Colorado cities, with Denver’s Klan acting as the central hub.
And though their names aren’t in the ledgers, at least 11,000 women joined Klan groups in Colorado, with the largest chapter in Denver, said Betty Jo Brenner, who is working on a book on the women of the Klan.
Under the leadership of John Galen Locke, Grand Dragon in Colorado, the Klan quickly grew in power and took top positions in the city, state and federal governments, as well as rank-and-file jobs in those systems. The ledgers show that at least 186 Klansmen worked for the city of Denver, not including the 53 police officers and 37 firefighters, a Denver Post review found.
Influence extended beyond the government. More than 40 Klan members listed hospitals as their workplace as well as more than a dozen Klansmen who said they worked for public middle and high schools or the school board. At least 45 Klansmen listed a local newspaper as their employer — including 19 who said they worked for The Denver Post. It wasn’t clear what roles they played.
The Klan met regularly in the foothills outside Denver, where they burned crosses to be seen for miles. They hosted picnics and car races and frequently marched. Few acts of physical violence have been directly tied to the Denver KKK during this time, but the organization waged a campaign of intimidation through letter writing and cross burnings. It also pressured members to not shop at stores not owned by Klansmen and to fire employees who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, join the KKK.
But the Klan fizzled in the summer of 1925 after Locke was jailed in connection to tax evasion — a contradiction to the man of law and order he pretended to be. His downfall and the failure of the Klansmen in the legislature to pass bills related to the KKK’s goals, like repealing the state civil rights act, contributed to the KKK’s diminishment in Denver.
“The Klan was not defeated in Denver,” Goldberg said, noting there was never any broad uprising against the group. “The Klan died of self-inflicted wounds in Denver. It’s an open wound.”
An oral tradition
Descendants of Black, Jewish and Catholic families who lived during that time still tell stories their predecessors passed down about the Klan’s reign — and how people stood up to the KKK.
Denver’s small Black community countered the Klan through the local branch of the NAACP and its newspapers, the Denver Star and the Denver Statesman, where writers repeatedly condemned the group. At the time of the 1920 census, 6,075 Black people lived in Denver, which had a total population of 256,491.
One Black physician with light skin, Dr. Joseph Westbrook, joined the Klan and was able to keep tabs on the group’s plans and share them with the Black community, said Terri Gentry, a docent at Denver’s Black American West Museum.
Gentry’s family has been telling Westbrook’s story for four generations. Westbrook was her great-grandfather’s best friend and godfather to her grandmother.
“There were threats to the Black community and the Black community still looked after itself and made sure it increased and strengthened,” Gentry said.
The Klan sent the NAACP president a letter ordering him to leave town, which he refused, and burned a cross in front of his home, according to History Colorado. The KKK also boycotted companies that hired Black employees.
Gentry’s grandmother lived in the Five Points area, like most Black Denverites at the time. Gentry’s grandmother loved her neighborhood and neighbors, but leaving the confines of the area could be a threat.
“You have this double-edged sword: Your community’s a safe haven, but your radar’s up all the time,” she said. “Because if you step outside of your house you have to pay attention. And that hasn’t changed. My radar is still up high.”
Even though Bobbi Furer wasn’t born until a few years after the KKK’s fall, she still felt the fear the group instilled in her parents. They didn’t tell her many stories about living as a Jewish family in Denver in the 1920s, but a sense of fear remained even after the Klan fell out of power.
“They said to me, ‘Don’t talk about it and don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish,’” Furer said.
Her family had to walk a difficult line. They needed customers at their downtown gift and frame store and feared that the Klan would boycott them if the group found out they were Jewish — or worse. For years, her great uncle bought a Christmas tree for his house so that he would blend in with the Christian majority, Furer said.
It wasn’t until she was a teen in the 1940s that she felt comfortable sharing her faith with people who were not Jewish.
The Catholic press issued condemnations of the Klan, which spread conspiracies that all Catholics were allegiant to the pope and not the U.S., said Kevin Jones, a Denver-based staff writer at Catholic News Agency.
Jones’ great aunt was a ticket taker at a Denver theater who once had to hide in a closet because the theater was hosting a Klan event, he said. His grandma once saw KKK members trying to set up a cross to burn in front of a Catholic church.
“We can say there was a lot of anxiety and fear,” he said. “The Klan was a secret society. There was a concern about who was in the Klan — if your employer was in the Klan, you had to watch your step.”
For several nights last month, George Sparks struggled to sleep.
The digitization and release of History Colorado’s membership ledgers revealed one of Sparks’ predecessors, the first director of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as a Klansman.
Someone noticed Jesse Figgins’ name in the ledgers and flagged the museum’s leadership, who on May 4 issued an acknowledgment of the “abhorrent history” that influenced the operations of the museum’s first years.
“For the people in this building, learning about Jesse Figgins was a shock to the system,” said Sparks, the museum’s president and CEO.
Since then, the museum’s archivist has been sifting through Figgins’ correspondence and papers to figure out what Figgins believed and how those beliefs affected the operations of the museum. Figgins ran the museum from 1910 to 1935 and he would’ve personally been involved in curating and creating exhibits, Sparks said.
The museum took Figgins’ name off a collections room, took down a plaque that bore his name and hosted a town hall for staff to talk about the news. Personally, the revelation has left Sparks with a sadness, he said.
“You don’t get to pick your predecessors, but you want to admire them,” he said. “And I don’t admire Jesse Figgins.”
A similar review of History Colorado is underway after the state’s pre-eminent history organization found a former curator, Albert Sanford, and members of the board in the KKK membership rolls. The museum is reviewing Sanford’s work and also looking to see if donors or volunteers were Klansmen.
Overall, History Colorado has received only positive feedback about the release of the ledgers, Chief Operating Officer Dawn DiPrince said. The ledgers are the only document of their kind and size in the U.S. known to the museum. People are eager to learn more about issues of systemic racism, she said.
“This is the form white supremacy took in the 1920s in Colorado, but it’s such a powerful force, it’s got this shape-shifting to it,” DiPrince said. “It just finds new ways to continue thriving in our society.”
Mementos of the old ways of white supremacism remain in Denver, too.
Although a neighborhood named for Klansman mayor Ben Stapleton has a new name — Central Park — after decades of effort, the group that led the most recent campaign is still working to get his name removed from a street in the area. A portrait of Gov. Clarence Morley, a member of the KKK, still hangs in the state Capitol.
Understanding how the KKK rose to power in Denver and the group’s legacy is crucial to making sense of inequalities that continue today, said Nicki Gonzales, an associate professor of history and vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Regis University.
“Your sense of normalcy is so much shaped by the attitudes that are around you, the institutions that are supported by those attitudes,” she said.
The historians who spoke to The Post for this story said there are corollary groups today that espouse white supremacy and prey on peoples’ insecurities.
“What was said at the KKK rallies in the 1920s is almost word for word what is being said today by the alt-right,” William Wei, a University of Colorado Boulder history professor, said during a History Colorado event.
The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is an example of the continuation of the KKK’s white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant beliefs, said Sue Parker Gerson, senior associate director with the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States office and a community adviser to History Colorado’s ledger project. People at the rally chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi nationalist slogans.
“We need to pay attention, especially when we have this treasure trove of data, to look at it and see if it speaks to things that we’re seeing now,” Gersen said. “Does it speak primarily to a blip in history, or are we seeing similar patterns now that we can correct?
“The KKK is on the decline now, but there are other groups that are here to fill the void.”