Residents, educators and activists finally inched closer this week to their goal of having William E. Fanning Elementary School in Brea renamed. The long, protracted battle met its turning point at Monday’s Brea Olinda Unified School District board meeting where trustees expressed exhaustion over the year-and-a-half long debate surrounding Fanning’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920’s. But the fatigue proved unnecessary; the history surrounding Fanning, who served as superintendent of Brea schools for more than a decade, is solid. It’s a lesson a majority of trustees have refused to learn even as they moved towards having a vote on renaming the school site.
“I have read everything that I can read,” said trustee Paul Ruiz. “I’ve researched the documents I can find online. I checked Smithsonian Institute documents. I can not find this man doing anything–except being a great advocate for the city–building our schools.”
It didn’t help that the past board received a whitewash of a 13-page report on Fanning written last November by Linda Shay, museum curator for the Brea Historical Society. She claimed at the time that “no credible evidence” existed for the Rename Fanning Committee’s cause while trying to discredit former Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano’s historical journalism on Fanning and the Klan in Orange County as mere “editorial commentary.”
Fanning’s name appears on one of two lists of OC Klan members that Arellano based his award-winning historical series on–and that past District Attorney Alexander Nelson used to bust Klukkers. Shay previously criticized the scrolls of lacking “provenance” before historian and sociologist James Loewen of Lies My Teacher Told Me acclaim weighed in by criticizing the Brea Historical Society’s report as having been “poorly done” overall.
Earlier this year, Rename Fanning Committee’s Mike Rodriguez paid a visit to the Anaheim Heritage Center after the report and confirmed who added the lists to their Klan collection. “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,” Leo J. Friis wrote Anaheim Public Library Director William J. Griffith in an Aug. 5, 1972 letter.
Friis, of course, authored Orange County Through Four Centuries, hardly a progressive treatment of the county’s history but the first objective study of its kind. When trustees and community members dismiss the sturdy history of Fanning’s Klan membership, they’re also rejecting the former Anaheim city attorney’s work.
Despite the naysayers, the Fanning fight has gathered new friends along the way. “I really believe that families…can carry secrets that don’t come out,” said Julie Ann Muzall, a Brea resident with family roots in the city that stretch back to Fanning’s day. “I didn’t know until this whole Fanning thing came out and I started doing my research that my grandfather…had a tobacco stand on Brea Boulevard. At that tobacco stand, there was a shoeshine stand.” That’s where Neff Cox, an African-American, worked.
The two men forged a friendship but Cox had to leave before dusk as Brea was a “Sundown Town,” another historical fact that Brea burghers have tried to deny the historical veracity of. Muzall came out in favor of renaming Fanning Elementary in her comments to the board.
In order to progress towards that, activists needed the support from a three-member majority in the first meeting of a new, downsized school board. It came rather reluctantly. Trustee Carrie Flanders expressed sympathy for the Fanning family and cited 21 letters received by the board in the past five days favoring keeping the school name. “I can’t show proof he belonged to the KKK,” Flanders said of Fanning. But she cited concerns over school children being caught in the mire of an ongoing debate. “It’s not fair to our school and our kids,” Flanders added.
Supporters of changing the name also sent letters, including a 28-page one by a Brea resident and parent who attached the Klan listings and other supportive documents in stating there’s “credible evidence” of Fanning’s membership in the Invisible Empire.
Scorn for the Weekly was evident in comments made by trustee Nicole Colon. “It’s not fair and it’s not right that someone put someone hooded in front of our marquee,” she said of one of the Weekly‘s “Welcome to Ku Klux Kounty” cover story shots. “It’s disgusting if you ask me!” Colon refused to even say “KKK” because she steadfastly believed Fanning didn’t belong to the Klan. “That said, our kids need to move on, our schools need to move on,” Colon added. “As much as it sickens me to some extent, I think we have to change the name.”
Trustee Keri Kropke also favored changing the school name, but didn’t hold her nose when expressing such support. “Whether or not we agree with the facts, what we know for certain is that we’re still quagmired in it,” she said, diplomatically. “We need to lead our schools out of that.”
The trio gave direction to the superintendent Dr. Brad Mason to research new names, estimated costs and a timeline. An actual vote on Fanning Elementary may happen as soon as January 14. The Rename Fanning Committee is planning to hold a press conference and rally on that day before the start of the school board meeting.