In the ongoing fight to rename William E. Fanning Elementary School in Brea, a report written in November cast doubt on the historical veracity that its namesake once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Many years ago, the Weekly wrote about Fanning’s Klan past after his name appeared on a membership list of Orange County Klukkers housed at the Anaheim Heritage Center, a fact that later inspired parents and community members to challenge the Brea Olinda Unified School District board to change the school’s name.
Linda Shay, museum curator for the Brea Historical Society, prepared a 13-page report for the district that lectured about “revisionism” before concluding that no “credible evidence” existed for the Rename Fanning Committee’s cause–a claim that crumbles under the simplest scrutiny.
Of course, the Orange County Register lapped up the whitewash in a laughable article last month on the controversy, including a download link for Shay’s report, while going great lengths not to mention either the Weekly or its former Mexican-in-Chief, Gustavo Arellano (who wrote about the historical Klan in OC for years) by name. Shay does both, sideswiping this award-winning alt-weekly newspaper as an “online magazine” while criticizing Arellano’s work as “editorial commentary.”
The Weekly aside, Shay focuses her efforts on two key questions: was Fanning a member of the Klan during the 1920’s and was the KKK a racist organization in that period? (Yes and yes!) First, she “examines” two membership lists that are a part of the Anaheim Heritage Center’s collection. Fanning’s name appears on the second of the scrolls that Arellano based his award-winning OC Klan series on. Shay writes it’s “critically important” that the lists lack “provenance,” meaning it’s unknown who created them–something Arellano freely reported at the onset of his series seven years ago. She also notes that Jane Newell, Heritage Services Manager, suspects the lists were gifted by Anaheim’s city attorney’s office many years ago, but is unsure about how they became archived there. Shay heavily relies on both to cast a shadow of doubt on the documents, but it’s all bad history.
Just ask James Loewen. The renowned sociologist and historian found Shay’s evaluation of Fanning’s membership in the Klan to be “poorly done” overall and is something that reads like a defense of him rather than an honest assessment. Loewen is the author of several books including the classic Lies My Teacher Told Me and the Gustavus Myers Human Rights Book Award winner Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism where Brea is included (sundown towns were municipalities where blacks had to be out of the city before evening–or else).
“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 cites the example of newspaper articles from the early 20th century without bylines from journalists that historians recreate the past with, incomplete provenance and all. “Shay dismisses the list because the people who supplied it to her couldn’t say exactly how they got it into their collection,” Loewen says. “That’s not what historians do. That’s what someone does who’s trying to discount the question entirely.”
But provenance isn’t the only problem with Shay’s report. Rename Fanning Committee members criticized it at a Feb. 26 school board meeting, and have only strengthened their arguments since. Committee member and Santa Ana educator Mike Rodriguez recently paid a visit to the Anaheim Heritage Center and found what Shay did not.
At his urging, Newell dug deeper and unearthed an Aug. 2, 1972 letter from the late Leo J. Friis to Anaheim Public Library Director William J. Griffith. “I deposit with you herewith a sealed envelope containing a list of names and other material pertaining to Orange County residents who were members of the Ku Klux Klan, with the understanding and upon the condition that the contents thereof shall not be revealed until five (5) years after the date hereof,” he wrote.
Who was Friis? Not only was he Anaheim’s city attorney from 1939 to 1946 and author of many books on OC history (including the seminal 1965 tome Orange County Through Four Centuries, widely considered the first honest assessment of Orange County), but he and his son ran Pioneer Press, which published many books on OC history. Friis wasn’t a subversive historian by any means, so that he of all people identifies as authentic the membership rolls Shay and others have tried to cast doubt on makes the list as meaty as the menu at Choice Burgers in Brea!
But the attempted whitewash doesn’t end there. After trying to toss aside the validity of the Klan membership list rather than truly “interrogate the document,” Shay takes a sharp turn on sundown towns to pick away at Arellano’s writings of Brea’s racist past.
“Though Brea is referenced as a ‘sundown town’ by several residents during the period, there is no ordinance on record establishing it as such,” she writes. Without a formal ordinance, Shay claims Brea’s verification as having been a sundown town is unsubstantiated.
“I don’t know anyone other than Shay who has questioned Brea as a sundown town,” Loewen says. “I have various kinds of substantiation for that claim, which I do make.”
He offers a telling experience about how the absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence. “I was told by the librarian and the archivist at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York that there is no written evidence that the major leagues were segregated prior to Jackie Robinson desegregating them in 1947,” Loewen adds. Going by Shay’s historiography, baseball being white’s only before Robinson would be “unsubstantiated” because a piece of paper didn’t bar blacks from America’s pastime.
Back to Fanning. Shay also reviewed the archives of Brea Progress between 1917 and 1930. She found no articles related to Fanning and Klan activities, but hasn’t let the committee take a look. “Rodriguez specifically asked to be allowed to review those newspaper archives and she denied him access,” says Kristine Percy, a fellow committee member and practicing doctor in Brea. “One of my major questions about this is why are we being denied access?”
Rodriguez was told in person months ago that the archives were too brittle to browse. But if allowed to peruse, committee members might come across unflattering stories about Fanning like an Oct. 1, 1921 article found in the Santa Ana Register about an incident that caused a stir in Brea. Back then, a judge sentenced Irvine B. Love (greatest OC name ever?) to 15 days in jail for beating up Fanning. The school principal testified to slapping Love’s son “lightly” on the cheek for shooting spit wads. Love warned Fanning not to touch his kid prior to the beat down he unleashed after learning he once used a half-inch hose to punish several boys.
Beating students didn’t make it into Shay’s pristine image of Fanning in conclusion. Instead, she writes of him retiring from the Brea-Olinda School District where he served as superintendent and living a civically engaged life as president of the Lions Club and a board member for Brea Christian Church afterward. Why, the city even declared Sept. 28, 1976 as “William E. Fanning Day.” His son, Karl, did note in an oral history interview on file at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) decades ago that his family took him to a Klan rally in Anaheim back in the day. “My parents and the people that went with them, were curious and wanted to see what was going to happen,” he said.
But with the Klan active in Brea during his father’s time, Karl insists that his dad wasn’t a member and opposed the group.
Even though multiple COPH oral histories that feature longtime Brea residents freely admitting to their city’s sundown town past weren’t good enough to verify or even quote, Karl’s memories are presented as absolute truth and used to bolster the report’s overall conclusion.
“We found no evidence in newspaper articles or personal recollections to indicate that Mr. Fanning was in any way racially motivated,” Shay wrote. “Further, our research also substantiates that the behaviors demonstrated by Ku Klux Klan members could be interpreted as admirable in some regards to racially charged in others, we found no point of intersection between the Ku Klux Klan and William E. Fanning directly.” Admirable? Trump after Charlottesville, much?
The committee sees the report as a missed opportunity for the city. “It’s not fair to the children of Brea not to redress the wrongs of the past,” Percy says. “With white supremacist ideas, again, on the rise, it’s important for the city leadership to declare that they will defend all their people against discrimination.”
But at least the Rename Fanning committee now counts an actual historian on their side. “I think that the renaming [of Fanning Elementary] is absolutely appropriate,” Loewen says. “There are, I’m sure, excellent, even important, citizens of Brea that can be recognized who were never members of the Ku Klux Klan.”