Did My Great-Grandfather Vote for the KKK?

My grandfather’s father started a moving company in Oakland in the early 1900s. The company is still run by the family, in the hands of a cousin on another branch of the family tree.

My grandmother’s mother lived in San Francisco’s Cole Valley into her 90s. 

I myself grew up in San Mateo, as did my mother. We both spent our childhoods splashing friends and tipping canoes in the Russian River.

In this region that draws a constant stream of fresh blood from across the country and the world, I have always been proud of my roots around the Bay. We are an old Bay Area family. Not Newsom big-money old, just an everyday family, regular people. That is, white people.

Growing up in San Mateo in the ’80s, it was easy to get the idea that we were past race. My crew were Bay Area kids with last names like Takayoshi, Watanabe, Chin, Gin, Chan, Punzalan, Caravaca, Johan, Esposto and Mazini. Some of us were white kids, but who cares? Race was not an issue. Or so we white kids thought.

30-plus years later it is clear that this country is not post-racial. The incidents of racist violence that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing push for policy reform make it clear that the events of history matter now.

Sometimes our history is told more clearly in fiction than it is in history books or reporting.

For example, in school I learned about the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. In fact, there were 38 recorded massacres during the 12 months of 1919’s “Red Summer.”

So when I saw the hyperrealistic opening scene of 2019’s prescient Watchmen television series, I thought, “Well, this is an alternate history. I know about the race riots—because I was still using that language for the massacres—but U.S. army planes bombing the Black neighborhood is obvious artistic license.” Sadly, not.

According to eyewitness testimony gathered at the time, the Oklahoma National Guard really did hand-drop bombs from biplanes onto Black businesses and houses. The scene and major plot lines were inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing on the Tulsa Massacre, but the work of art—led by a white showrunner—brought the facts to a much wider audience.

Similarly, in reading the horror gumshoe novel Lake Miskatonic, by local author Jeff Pollet—white—I learned this hidden gem of history: the KKK once ran Oakland. Not underground or behind the scenes. From City Hall. And the Sheriff’s Office.

Burton Becker, vice president of the local Klan chapter, was elected to the Sheriff’s office in 1926. Another officer of the local Klan, William Parker, won the race for city commissioner of streets, a hugely influential position in that decade that cemented the automobile as the primary mode of transportation in the growing town.

Along with allies among city commissioners, the county jailer and at times a sympathetic mayor, this amounted to significant influence in city politics.

Read “The Sinister, Evil KKK In Oakland Once Ruled City Hall” (EBX, Feb. 21, 2017) to see how that foundation of power quickly eroded.

What strikes me is that although these men ran as populist reform candidates, their ties to the Klan were not obscured. In fact, the Oakland chapter of the KKK was impressively media savvy for the time, inviting press to elaborate showcases of their membership rites in iconic locations such as the Oakland Auditorium and the hills of Berkeley’s Tilden Park.

The candidates’ ties to white supremacy, or “Americanism” as it was called at the time, would have been clear to the electorate. In fact, this is how they won—by targeting Catholic Italian and Irish minorities moreso than the smaller populations of Black or Jewish Americans. 

Which begs the question: Did my great-grandpa vote for the KKK?

There is no way to know for sure. I cannot lean on character testimony. His oldest grandson, my uncle, has passed. My aunt, last of her siblings, was born too late to know him. There are no records of individual voting of course, and he lived a few generations too early to leave a trail of sympathies across the internet. Note: Our family is English Catholic.

Even so, what would such a conversation look like? How do white families, in particular Anglo families who avoid talking about anything awkward, open up to the possibility of our own implication in the abuses of the past?

Although abuses and inequities continue in the present, looking at the past is particularly instructive in shaping our understanding of today. Ignoring uncomfortable possibilities of my family history only reinforces the white supremacy inherent in the most insipid remnant of Americanism—that there is no “white” America or “Black” America, there is only America. Spoiler, it is the white one.

I am Anglo and Greek. Greeks only gained “white status” sometime in the mid-20th century. My wife is descended from the Eurasian people of Macau, so she carries the privilege and burden of the “model minority” designation assigned to Americans of Asian descent.

In this overdue age of BLM anti-racism, my wife was recently encouraged to read the best-selling book, White Privilege, as part of a staff-wide effort to address implicit racism at her work. As one of the two BIPOC members on staff, she had to wonder, did this mean she was to be considered white? Was it a wink and a nod that, “You’re one of us?” And does that mean non-Black equals “white enough”?

The assumption that she should “do the work” was pure lilly white in its thinking. Not even being asked if she thought if reading the book would have value for her made her “feel erased,” in her words.

Erased. Like the Tulsa Massacre. Like the possibility of my family’s support for white supremacy. Regardless of our race, we all have to ask these questions of our own family’s past, because when we drag an eraser across any color we are always left with the same thing: empty whiteness.

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