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For eighty years the state historical society had two long books that went largely unnoticed by none other than researchers who knew what they were looking for. The ledgers were owned by a private organization and contained details of the men who had attended that organization’s meetings, including their names, addresses, occupations, and whether they had paid their dues.
“The kind of thing you’d expect from any organization,” said Jason Hanson, chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research for History Colorado, “but then you know which organization.” It was the Ku Klux Klan that had the power centers in Colorado firmly under control in the mid-1920s.
History Colorado recently digitized the two ledgers: KKK membership books primarily for the Denver subway, but also for other parts of Colorado, probably from 1924 to 1926. The ledgers contain about 30,000 names of people associated with the KKK, and underline how prominent the clan is what then; With digitization, this information is now easily available.
“Last year our curators decided that enough time had passed to make them more widely available, especially when the protests against racial justice began,” says Hanson. “This is work that the history of Colorado can do for more justice and racial justice.” A federal grant covered the costs for digitization.
“The fact that the ledgers list places where people work makes this one of the best tools I’ve ever seen for showing what we’re talking about when we say systemic racism,” says Hanson. Ledger books include people who have worked at the Capitol, the Denver Police and Fire Department, and even the State History Museum, a predecessor of the History Colorado Center on 1200 Broadway.
Ben Stapleton was elected Mayor of Denver in 1923 when he was a senior member of the KKK.
Denver Public Library
Former Denver Police Chief William Candlish and former Governor Clarence Morley and Mayor Ben Stapleton are in the ledger. During the racial justice protests last summer, residents of the Stapleton neighborhood decided to change the area’s name to Central Park. “Researchers will find other prominent names,” predicts Hanson.
The Ku Klux Klan was a mainstream Colorado movement in the 1920s, with its anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-black positions, according to Bob Goldberg, a professor at the University of Utah who led the ledgers to research his book Hooded Empire: The used Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.
“The Klan was holding a wrestling match, there was car racing, there was a big picnic for 20,000 people,” he says. “The Klan was out. The Klan was on KOA radio. They were in control of Denver and had no trouble showing their control.”
The ledgers are filled with almost 30,000 names.
In fact, the largest “Klaverns” in the United States during the 1920s were in non-southern states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, California, and Colorado, Goldberg notes. The majority of the clan members in Colorado were skilled workers rather than unskilled workers, and he added, and mostly married men in their thirties.
A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News released the ledgers to the state historical society in 1940. They belonged to the Colorado KKK Grand Dragon John Galen Locke. “We picked them up from this reporter, but the curators at the time decided they were too controversial and explosive to display and make available,” says Hanson. “These curators recorded the ledgers for fifty years.”
In the 1990s, History Colorado began making the ledgers available to researchers via microfiche, but did not advertise the fact that it had the ledgers. “We all know that there is a huge difference between coming to a research center in a museum or flipping a microfiche, or being able to browse it from the comfort of your own home,” notes Hanson.
In preparing for the ledger reveal, History Colorado worked with a number of community advisors, including many who “may have had ancestors that the Klan was targeting,” explains Hanson.
“We worked with them to make sure we put them in the right context when we released them, that we heard their stories of resisting this organized hatred and that we were ready to share them, and it was really wonderful working together. “
The State Historian’s Council will discuss the ledgers during Lifting the Hood: Denver’s KKK Ledgers, a free online program on Wednesday, April 28th at 7:00 pm. register here.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh works for Westword where he covers a range of topics including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves talking about New York sports.