Story by Julia Waggoner // Photo by J.W. Sandison, Whatcom Museum of History & Art
This march of Ku Klux Klan members was not an isolated event in Bellingham history. The Klan burned crosses on top of Sehome Hill and threatened people of color, Jews and Catholics. Then-mayor John A. Kellogg welcomed the KKK to town in a speech at the Klan's 1929 Washington state convention in Bellingham.
Jeff Jewell, a photo historian at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, says some locals challenged the Klan, especially J. J. Donovan, a prominent Catholic businessman who helped build Bellingham in the late 1800s. The KKK aimed to drive out Catholic schools in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1926, the Klan wanted to march in Bellingham's Tulip Time Festival Parade to prove themselves a part of mainstream society. The town was divided about KKK ideology, so the Klan's search for legitimacy caused controversy. The debate grew so intense that three organizers threatened to quit their posts if the Klan float was allowed in the parade. At the last minute Donovan, deadlocked officials, and public scrutiny pressured the KKK into withdrawing.
But, that would not be the last of the KKK's pursuit of public acceptance. Around 9 p.m. on May 15, 1926, the Klan marched through Bellingham after a picnic in Cornwall Park. Marchers started off to the sounds of fireworks exploding at Forest and East Holly Streets and wound their way throughout downtown, led by five men on horseback. Along with a Lynden klanswoman dressed as the Statue of Liberty, three members of the original Civil War-era Klan rode atop the float. Thousands of spectators "jammed the thoroughfares to glimpse the unusual spectacle," according to The Bellingham Herald. The Klan's route led them past the Catholic Church of the Assumption and its school.
In response to intimidating events like this one, Donovan wrote several letters to the editor of The Bellingham Herald. He said local law enforcement didn't record the Klan's violent acts because the officers weren't targets.
Western Registrar Joe M. St. Hilaire wrote a history of the Church of the Assumption. He says we know little about the details of what happened to communities the KKK threatened because fear limited people's responses.
"If there was discrimination withsigns or cross-burnings, the Catholics wouldn't have responded in a way to cause a scene in the papers," St. Hilaire says. "They knew the danger if they did fight back."
Bellingham's Klan lasted longer than most KKK branches, largely because members considered it a social group, but for many spectators the image of hundreds of marching figures in white-hooded robes was threatening and frightening.