At the December 10 Brea School Board meeting, three of the five Brea School Board members gave direction to the Superintendent to change the name of Fanning Elementary School over allegations and evidence that William Fanning, the school’s namesake was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
The efforts to re-name Fanning began last year with organizing efforts of a group called “Re-Name Fanning” led by Michael Rodriguez, a history/ethnic studies high school teacher in Orange County, and Kris Percy, a family doctor in Brea.
Michael Rodriguez urges the Brea School Board to re-name Fanning Elementary School.
The evidence that William Fanning was a member of the Ku Klux Klan comes from a 1924 list of 1200 Orange County Klan members that that is at the Anaheim Heritage Center and at the Library of Congress. Additionally, in an interview conducted by Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History, Fanning’s son Karl talked about going to a Klan rally with his parents in the 1920s.
There is also a 1979 UCLA doctoral dissertation called “The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California during the 1920s” by Christopher Cocoltchos, which describes the Klan’s activities in Brea and other neighboring cities, especially Anaheim and Fullerton.
Notably, according to this dissertation, many Fullerton civic leaders joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, including Superintendent of Schools Louis Plummer (which Plummer Auditorium is named after).
During public comments before school board discussion, a number of members of the “Re-name Fanning” group gave reasons why Brea should change the name of Fanning Elementary School.
Kris Percy noted that list of Klan members was gifted to the Anaheim Heritage Center by noted Orange County historian Leo Friis, who was known as “Anaheim’s historian laureate” and that the list was used by then District Attorney Alexander Nelson to take take down the Klan.
Kris Percy discusses evidence that William Fanning was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
She also noted that the Klan’s activities are “well-documented in newspapers from the time.”
Percy discussed the historical context of racism in the 1920s and 1930s, when Brea was a ‘Sundown Town’ where African-Americans were not allowed to be in the city after dark (as documented in the book Sundown Towns by sociologist James Loewen), and Mexican-American students were treated as second-class citizens, as evidenced by the recent exhibit at the Brea Museum, “A Class Action: The Struggle for School Desegregation in California.”
“The taint of a de facto segregated era is not in keeping with the vibrant, diverse community that Brea has become. We can recognize Mr. Fanning’s achievements and positive attributes while choosing a new name for the school which reflects our values as a multicultural city of the world in 2018,” she said.
Michael Rodriguez quoted from Cocoltchos’ dissertation: “The Klan won power in Brea, not by challenging the authorities in an election battle, but by quietly enlisting the people in power…Five of the town’s first eight mayors were Klansmen as were six of the ten councilmen who sat on the board of trustees from 1924-1936…Klansmen dominated during these years, providing 50% of its city marshals, and 67% of its fire chiefs.”
“Fortunately there were people at this time who knew the dangers that the KKK posed in society, such as Alexander Nelson, the District Attorney and Ernest Ganahl of Anaheim—and they stepped up to stop them,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said that this issue is not just about history but about the continuing threat of racism even today.
“We started organizing the Re-Name Fanning campaign last August after the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, where a Neo-Nazi killed Heather Heyer and injured over 30 other people. Today, this racism is being normalized once again,” said Rodriguez, “So, it’s still a problem today, and that’s why it needs to be addressed.”
David This, a long time Brea resident said, “If there’s reasonable suspicion that one of our precious schools is named after someone associated with the KKK, along with many prominent citizens of the time…my recommendation is that you board members land on the side of caution and end any hint of an association with a racist past and find a new and more fitting name for this wonderful school.”
Julie Ann Muzzall, whose family has been in Brea since 1911 (before the city was even incorporated) talked about how her grandfather had a tobacco stand on Brea Blvd. next to a shoe shine stand where Neff Cox, the city’s only African-American, worked. Because Brea was a sundown town, Cox had to get on a bus every night at 6pm back to his home in South Fullerton.
Muzzall said that this history was kept from her until she discovered it later in life.
“I really believe families can carry secrets that don’t come out,” she said, pointing out that she learned as an adult that her great grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and that her great-grandmother was part African-American, a secret that was closely guarded in her family.
“That history is carried with me, and that was a secret that my family kept. They couldn’t let me know, in the city of Brea, that my great-great grandmother, who happens to be buried at Loma Linda with all my family, that she was part African-American. And why? Because they were afraid,” she said.
A few members of the public, including Brea City Council member Steve Vargas, argued against changing the name, and questioned the validity of the list of Klan members.
Brea City Council member Steve Vargas urged the Brea School Board not to change the name.
“William Fanning was a Spanish American War veteran…and I can tell you that to disparage a war hero is wrong,” said Vargas, “I would ask you to have the courage to stand with the family of Brea citizens who have given so much to this school district and to our city.”
After public comment, the Brea School board members weighed in on the issue.
Board Member Paul Ruiz opposed the name change. He said that he had conducted research online and spoken with his 91-year old father about Brea history and said he did not believe the allegation that Fanning was in the Ku Klux Klan.
“I cannot find anything except this man being a great advocate for this city—building our schools,” said Ruiz.
Board Member Carrie Flanders said she was undecided on the issue, saying that she had received 20 letters asking the Board to keep the Fanning name.
Board Member Keri Kropke said that she supported changing the name.
“This continues to be a stain for our good schools, places of enlightenment,” she said, “And whether or not we agree on the facts, what we know for certain is that we’re still quagmired in it, and I believe we need to lead our school out of that.”
The Brea School Board discusses the question of changing the school’s name.
Council Member Nicole Colon, whose kids went to Fanning, also supported a name change.
“Our kids need to move on, our school needs to move on,” said Colon, “For me, it’s about moving on for the kids. We’ve got to create a safe environment for our kids.
The final decision came down to Board President Gail Lyons, who said she supported the name change.
“For me, it is about these kids and future kids, staff, students, the families that are in Fanning,” said Lyons, “At the end of the day, we have to be true to what we are responsible for, and that’s our kids…I want to extract out kids from the argument/battle going on. So I am in favor of changing the name.”
Though a majority of board members (three) said they support a name change, the official vote will likely come before the board in January.
Members of the “Re-Name Fanning” group were in a celebratory mood after the meeting.