Willoughby: Aspects of Colorado history we would prefer to forget
Animosity toward immigrants, as expressed in today’s call to “build a wall,” has tarnished more than one period of U.S. history. Today’s alt-right stance resembles a sentiment that swept Colorado during the 1920s.
My mother grew up in Aspen and survived two anxious periods. One of her grandfathers emigrated from Ireland and his wife emigrated from Germany. As a very young girl during World War I, she faced taunts from her peers for being German. The situation resolved when her parents announced that the family would cease speaking German at home.
Mother attended high school during Colorado’s most virulent anti-immigrant periods. Fortunately, public hatred held sway for only five years — formative, teen years for her.
In 1921 the Ku Klux Klan sent a representative from Georgia to recruit new members in Colorado. Within a short time, thousands joined the KKK. Changes within the state had ripened it for action. Immigrants, mostly of Catholic faith, had arrived to work the coal mines and to find employment in Denver.
Soon, KKK members infiltrated the state Republican Party and dominated politics. Among others, they instituted Gov. Clarence Morley, a majority of the legislature, the secretary of state and a Supreme Court judge.
Prohibition added a facet of allure. The KKK used this issue, popular among Protestants, as a wedge against Catholics. The KKK attempted to pass a state law that would prohibit wine for church ceremonial purposes. But when the Episcopal Church joined Catholics to align in opposition, the proposition failed.
Another facet: entertainment. The KKK sponsored family events, and one picnic in Denver attracted 100,000 participants. Membership grew in Grand Junction, where the KKK took on trappings of a fraternal order. A KKK parade in 1924, the first on the Western Slope, drew a crowd from surrounding communities of at least 100, according to a story in the Aspen Times, and perhaps as many as 1,000, according to the story’s headline.
Despite these more socially acceptable facets, the KKK mainly aimed to intimidate Jews and Catholics. They derided immigrants of those faiths, whom they claimed were taking Americans’ jobs.
A strong KKK presence pervaded Canon City, due to jobs in nearby coalfields and because the Benedictines were building an abbey and school there. A posting by Michelle James to the Colorado Historical Society describes the more sinister actions of Colorado’s KKK:
“My grandfather was a barber and had his own shop in Canon City in the early 1920s. He was told by the KKK not to cut Catholics’ hair. He told them he didn’t ask a man his religion before he cut their hair. Consequently, the Klan burned a cross in his front yard.”
The Aspen Daily Times ran 122 articles about the KKK between 1923 and 1926, but not a single story delved into local activity or members. Nevertheless, in the 1924 election, Clarence Morley, a Republican, garnered only 367 out of nearly 1,000 votes for governor in Pitkin County. That poor showing occurred at a time when his party swept the state — a reversal from several years of Democratic success.
My mother preferred not to talk about the more negative times of her youth. Although most Aspen Times articles criticized the KKK, she must have wondered whether they would come to Aspen and attack Catholics like her. But few, if any, reports of personal intimidation made news, if they were reported at all. Many of the articles described commonly violent clashes between Klansmen and anti-KKK groups.
Eventually, voters perceived the Ku Klux Klan as an organization dedicated to furthering the selfish ambitions of leaders by debasing every religious or fraternal body as well as every public office useful to that purpose, according to librarian James Davis in The Colorado Magazine (1965).
A split in the Republican Party, Democratic opposition and legislative inaction marked Morley’s term. The Ku Klux Klan reigned in Colorado only from 1924 to 1926, and Morley governed the state for only two years. Afterward, an indictment for mail fraud related to his stock brokerage firm landed him in Leavenworth Prison. Three years after his release, at the age of 79, the day after I was born, he died.
Whether we forget history or not, it may repeat it within our lifetimes.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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