For the past year and a half, a debate has raged in the Brea School Board chambers and on social media over whether to change the name of Fanning Elementary School, over allegations that the school’s namesake, William E. Fanning, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. On January 28th, the Board is set to finally take a vote on whether or not to change the school’s name.
At their January 14th meeting, the chambers were full of members of the public on both sides of the issue. After listening to over two hours of public comments, the school board gave direction to the superintendent to bring back potential names, both including and not including the Fanning name, to reflect the school’s new emphasis on science and technology.
The primary source of the allegations is a list of alleged Orange County Klan members (which Fanning’s name appears on) donated to the Anaheim Heritage Center in 1972 by local historian Leo J. Friis. Another piece of evidence is an oral history interview at Cal State Fullerton in which William’s son Karl remembers going to a Klan rally with his family in 1924.
The organizers of the “Re-Name Fanning” campaign cite this evidence, as well as more general historical evidence that, in addition to having an active Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, Brea was also a “Sundown Town,” in which African-Americans were not allowed in the city after sundown—a social reality described in sociologist James Louewen’s book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.
Opponents of the name change cite a study commissioned by the school board last year done by Linda Shay of the Brea Historical Society, which concluded that there is not sufficient evidence to know whether Fanning was indeed a Klan member, and questioned the validity of the list at the Anaheim Heritage Center.
Before the school board meeting began, Re-Name Fanning organizers hosted a press conference and invited local leaders and residents to speak on this issue, all of them urging the school board to change the name.
Gabriel Dima-Smith, a former student in the Brea School District, talked about how his parents ended up pulling him out of the district “due to facing a multitude of racial disparities, both implicit and verbal…Comments like, “Why are you so dark? Why is your hair like that? You don’t belong here” to name a few.”
“Because of this, I too understand the effects of symbols of prejudice and how they can be hurtful to students of color and affect student success. This situation illuminates the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination and how that’s still alive in our public education system,” said Dima-Smith, “I rise today in support of taking steps toward fixing this social cancer. I rise today to ask the Brea Olinda School District Board to re-name William E. Fanning Elementary School and put in the past a culture of hatred and bigotry.”
Dr. Fred Calhoun, President of the Orange County Chapter of the NAACP, told stories of his family that showed that we are not that far removed, historically, from the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.
Calhoun’s great grandmother, whom he knew, was born a slave. His mother’s Sunday school teacher was Martin Luther King Sr. He attended a segregated school in Atlanta in the 1950s, and his family was part of a landmark desegregation case.
He remembers, as a child, going through “white” areas where there were “school kids who’d be yelling to us ’N-word, N-word, N-word’ as they were on the bus.”
“I’m here today because I don’t believe anything about the Klan that is good. I cannot support that. I cannot support a school with the name of Fanning…We’ve got to get rid of that name, and we’ll take any kind of action that we have to—national action, whatever we have to do. We want that name to come down,” said Calhoun.
The Rev. William Moses Summerville, a pastor and human rights advocate, said, “Change the name. Don’t Retain hate…take a step towards reconciliation, as we live in what Maya Angelou calls ‘These yet to be United States of America.’”
The fact that the school board meeting was taking place on the week of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday was not lost on the speakers.
Dr. Patricia Adelekan, a retired educator and a former aid to Dr. Martin Luther King who helped with the March on Washington, spoke at the press conference: “Dr. Martin Luther King believed in a love of community, a community where there was unity, there was harmony, there were rights observed and respected…We have to change the name of the school if it takes that to make our children feel like they belong.”
Sylvia Poareo cited “the importance of acknowledging our history before we can move forward toward healing and reconciliation. There are many in Brea who want to deny its history and as a result are sending an extremely uncaring message to youth of color. This is how institutionalized racism works.”
Julie Ann Muzzall talked about how her grandfather had a tobacco stand on Brea Boulevard next to Neff Cox’s shoeshine stand. Cox was African-American.
“When they were finished with work, my grandfather could walk around the corner to his house…Neff, on the other hand, had to get on a bus at six o’clock and go home to Fullerton to his family. And why did he have to do that? Because Brea was an illegal, unspoken Sundown Town. Who enforced the laws of the Sundown Town? The silent enforcers were the KKK,” said Muzzall, “Our national and local history has not always been equitable or fair. We’ve not always treated all citizens fairly, people like Neff Cox and others…I hope that eventually Brea will learn from their past and change.”
Lori Davies, a 30-year resident of Brea whose children went to Brea schools, said, “To have a Brea school linked in any way to these hateful ideas is a blot on our fine schools and our community.”
Kris Percy, a family physician in Brea, said, “After a year and a half of advocacy from the community, I feel it is time for the school board to do the right thing and choose a new name for this school which will allow all of the children to feel welcomed, valued, and that their experiences matter.”
Gina Clayton-Tarvin, Vice President of Board of Trustees of the Ocean View School District, urged the Brea School Board to change the name: “I want to remind you that this is January, the birth month of the great Martin Luther King Jr, and I want to remind all of you that the USA has come a long way, but it was a long painful road…The KKK was something MLK fought against.”
During the school board meeting, there was a large continent of Brea residents who had organized themselves in opposition to the name change, and wore blue shirts.
William Fanning, the grandson of William E. Fanning, said, “For nearly eight years our family has heard this allegation that our grandfather was a member of the Klan based on the undated, untitled, unknown author of a list found at the Anaheim Museum. We’ve seen the list, we’ve seen the cover letter, we’ve heard the claim that the provenance of the list was secured from its origin, but that’s not the truth. Numerous historians including Jane Newell, the director of the Anaheim Museum, have substantiated that the provenance ends with Mr. Friis, as he does not provide any further details about where the list came from, who authored it, when it was prepared. In fact, there’s about a 50-year gap in the ownership of the list, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The list cannot be substantiated.”
Don Schweitzer opposed the name change and called the allegations against Fanning “malicious attacks.” He said he spoke for “Breans who are proud of our school, our city, and our heritage.”
Drew Hefner, a 20-year Brea resident, said he became aware or the controversy on Nextdoor.com: “Overwhelmingly, this community does not want to remove the Fanning name from the school,” said Hefner, “The community sees clearly that there isn’t any convincing evidence labelling William E. Fanning a KKK member. There’s no wrong here that needs to be made right…this board needs to muster the courage to do the right thing.”
Jim Bailey, Brea resident, who serves on the Fanning PTA, said “an untitled list by an unknown author with an unknown agenda and an unverified chain of custody must not be used as the basis for [changing the name].”
Terry Parker, former PTA president at Fanning, said, “The school board did their due diligence by having a local historian research this assertion. Nothing was found that remotely substantiates the contention.”
Jason Kraft suggested keeping the name, but hosting community discussion forums about the city’s racist past, perhaps partnering with the Brea Historical Society.”
Joanna Fish, current PTA president at Fanning, spoke in favor of keeping the name, and said, “I feel for the Fanning Family and hate to see a man’s name tarnished.”
Deena Summer, a former Brea School Board trustee, said, “Even if Fanning’s name is on a KKK list, we still remain ignorant of his intent. Possibly, as in the movie Blackkklansman, Fanning’s intent was to ameliorate that group’s goals.”
Terry Sullivan, a longtime Brea resident, said we cannot judge the past through the lens of the present: “We can’t possibly put ourselves in the shoes of our predecessors when all we’re willing to see is what’s right or wrong today.”
Mr. Sullivan concluded his comments with, “Hell hath no fury like an electorate scorned,” suggesting that there would be negative consequences if the Board votes to change the name. Indeed, some have suggested online that a recall election could be on the horizon.
Gina Clayton-Tarvin urged council to take action and change the name: “What is your motivation to put this off for over a year? Are you afraid you will be voted our of your seats for having a vote at all? Leadership is not always easy or comfortable.” She called the threat of a recall election “absurd” and a waste of money.
Steven Vargas, Brea city council member, said, “I stand with William Fanning” and noted that his son-in-law is Jimmy Fanning, so his daughter and two grandkids are Fannings.
“I spoke here last month and asked you to have the courage to stand with William Fanning and for Brea history,” Vargas said, and compared the list at the Anaheim Heritage Center to the “Hollywood Blacklist” of communists in the 1950s.
Kristy Russel said, “William E. Fanning and the Fanning family do not deserve the desecration of their legacy by people who assume that a name on a list equals a sold-out commitment to an organization and said that the effort to re-name the school “is just as wrong as those people who have destroyed statues of heroes of that time in the South.”
Steve Shatynski called those advocating for the name change “ill-informed, juvenile, petulant, and dishonest.”
“These are infantile members of neighboring communities who need to figuratively be slapped and told that they don’t get their way simply because they want something and are willing to do or say most anything to get it…It takes courage to stand up to these disgraceful bullies,” said Shatyniski.
“Former Brea School Board member Rod Todd said, “I believe this small group, most of which are not Brea residents, want to further their agenda of social justice and they want to use you to do it.”
After a long string of pro-Fanning speakers, there followed a number of speakers who urged the Board to remove the Fanning name.
Mindy Liron read a letter from her daughter Rebecca, who attended Fanning: “When I was in the first grade at Fanning, I was asked where my horns were because all Jewish people have horns. When my sister was in 6th grade, she was harassed by two fellow students who called her a “f-ing Jew” on Fanning’s campus.
The letter said the school board ought to take into account the experiences of the diverse students at Brea schools: “If you choose to keep the name Fanning, you are saying that you don’t care about the name being associated with a hate group. You are making the statement that Brea cares more about one man’s name than the thousands of former, current, and future students at the BOUSD.”
David This, a longtime Brea resident who attends Brea Congregational church, said spoke in favor of removing Fanning’s name from the school.
“The KKK was a secret society,” said This, “That makes it difficult to find absolute certainty or even to meet the courtroom standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He said that the School Board should ask themselves a few questions to figure out what is probably: Is the list credible and does it have legal provenance? Does it make sense in the racial culture in the 1920s and 30s that a prominent citizen was associated with the Klan? Is there reasonable evidence that Brea leaders—business, faith, educational, and elected, intentionally established a segregated society here in the first half of the 20th century?”
Viviana Martinez also spoke against claims made on Nextdoor.com that she and others in favor of changing the name are “outsiders” and “cockroaches.”
“Many schools and institutions are reflecting on their past and their responsibility for the racism that has occurred in its history,” said Martinez, “It is time to acknowledge it and move on from it.”
Carlota Serna, a Brea parent and resident, said that the lists at the Anaheim Heritage Center “were used by then DA Alex Nelson to bring down the KKK in Orange County in the 1920s.” She pointed out that the file has numerous newspaper articles attesting to the Klan’s activities in Orange County.
Mike Rodriguez, a leader of the Re-Name Fanning campaign, spoke of the way he and others have been characterized on Nextdoor.com as “outsiders” and worse: “A couple of weeks ago, someone called me a ‘La Habra cockroach’ on Nextdoor Brea, an ethnic slur used to dehumanize Mexican Americans and immigrants in general since the times of Nazi Germany,” said Rodriguez, “But that wasn’t even the worst part. The craziest thing was that no one on that Next Door Brea thread called him out and said ‘that’s wrong’ besides a fellow Latina who is a friend of mine.”
“We still have a lot to do today,” said Rodriguez, “We need to change the name of Fanning Elementary; we cannot honor the sundown legacy. We cannot keep the name of a man who was a documented KKK member. His name was on a list that was used to keep the KKK out of elected office in Orange County during the 1920’s, so its a very valid and credible list. He was documented to take his family to a Klan rally…Times are changing, and we need to keep up with the changes or we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the past. Lets begin to educate the youth of Brea about these injustices.”
After public comment, Brea Superintendent Brad Mason discussed how the controversy over Fanning has hindered the school’s ability to promote the school’s new focus on computer science at a time of declining enrollment.
At the last meeting, the board majority asked Mason to bring back new name ideas without the Fanning name. The names he suggested were: Brea Academy of Science and Technology, Falcon Academy of Science and Technology, and Heritage Hills Academy of Science and Technology. Mason said that if the Board decides to do so, a new name could go into effect the 2019-20 school year.
Board Member Nicole Colon said, “It’s been a long night, an emotional night, an emotional ride.” She said she has spent the past two weeks meeting with community members and that she wants to do right by the school and the kids, and therefore she would need more time to make her decision.
Colon added that, “The idea that I’m being bullied by outsiders is simply not the case. I speak with people from Brea…I will continue to keep an open mind with regards to this issue.”
Board Vice President Paul Ruiz, who has opposed removing the Fanning name, accused the “Re-Name Fanning” group members of “using a racist tone to bolster their argument.”
Ruiz said cited his own research on the issue and stated [incorrectly] that the list at the Anaheim Heritage center “provided the names of both Klan members and non-Klan members.” He also stated, incorrectly, that the a 1979 dissertation on the KKK in Orange County by Christopher Cocoltchos does not mention Brea. In fact, there is a substantial section of the dissertation dedicated to Brea.
“It’s our job as parents to teach out children how to use reasoning and critical thinking to come to their own conclusions and make their choices based on those facts,” said school board member Ruiz.
Board Member Carrie Flanders, who was undecided at the last meeting, now favors keeping the Fanning name.
“If we knew with 100 percent certainty that William Fanning was a KKK member, this would be a different conversation. Innocent until proven guilty is not just a cliche, it’s the law we live by,” said Flanders, who cited a poll on Nextdoor.com which showed that 75 percent of those who voted voted to keep the Fanning name.
Board Member Keri Kropke, who favors changing the name, said “this isn’t a court…this is a place where we are trying to improve public instruction and move our district forward….Fanning would want us to move forward, he’d want us to be a beacon of light, and we’re not that right now, and it’s frustrating. We’re not getting to the business of education…but we’re tasked with the job to lead, to show leadership.”
Board President Gail Lyons, who favored changing the name at the last meeting, said that she took issue with the characterization of people as “outsiders” because, with declining enrollment, “we do have a need for students to come to Brea.”
Lyons also questioned the validity of a survey conducted on Nextdoor: “I appreciate the survey that was done on a forum, but you just have to remember that you’re talking a lot to people who are very similar to yourself…most of my friends would never comment on that platform (Nextdoor) because we watch when somebody has an opinion and then somebody has a differing opinion, they are torn apart.”
While the Board was deliberating, former Board member Bill Hall interrupted and said, “Your constituency has spoken to you…right now you have an opportunity to either support what the majority of your constituents have asked you to do, which is include the Fanning name…so you can stand up and be counted as an elected official who listens to their constituency or…a recall is not that expensive.”
Ultimately, with a three-person majority (Ruiz, Flanders, and Lyons), the Board instructed Superintendent Mason to bring names, including Fanning, to their next Board meeting on January 28th.
The Board is expected to vote on a new name change at that time.