History Colorado releases Denver Ku Klux Klan ledgers — The Know

For most of its 144-year statehood, Colorado has been a hotbed of institutional discrimination and racism that privileges white culture over all others. That’s the case in most states, unfortunately, but forward-thinking historians have been working to shed light on that in recent years.

Exhibit A: History Colorado’s digitized Ku Klux Klan ledgers, which debuted online this week at historycolorado.org/kkkledgers. The archive, which contains 1,300 pages of original KKK membership records, only covers the years 1924 through 1926, but its contents are stunning.

The 30,000 people listed in the books extend to every strata of society, highlighting the widespread racism built into Denver’s political and cultural life less than a century ago.

“Some people honestly are surprised by this history, and I think there’s interest in just coming to terms with these truths,” said Dawn DiPrince, History Colorado’s chief operating officer. “We always like to say there’s a lot to love about Colorado history, but that tends to overshadow some of the darker chapters.”

Many people often think of the KKK — a racist hate group that targets Black Americans, as well as Jews and LGTBQ people — as something based in the southeast part of the United States. But the number of registered KKK members in Denver in the mid-1920s represents nearly a third of the 107,000 adult white males living here at the time, Denverite reported.

“Reminding people that this is also part of our history is essential to moving forward,” DiPrince said. “You have to be honest about hard truths, as well as the things we love and celebrate.”

The ledgers include specific locations, individuals and institutions — including History Colorado. The business information associated with work locations such as the State Capitol, City Fire Department, and State Hospital, as well as the sheer number of entries in the ledger, also illustrate the widespread presence of the KKK in Denver, officials said.

“In a spirit of more actively naming and confronting systems of inequality, History Colorado aims to make these items available as freely and widely as possible,” officials wrote.

The digital archive was announced this week, but the ledgers had been on public display at the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver before that. The difference here, DiPrince said, is the digital accessibility that was made possible by a $5,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board. The funds went toward labor costs to digitize all the pages and catalog them with the searchable PDFs, said John Eding, History Colorado’s communications manager.

“As long as I’ve known History Colorado, the (ledgers) have been part of an exhibition and available to researchers who want to come to the History Colorado Center to do research,” DiPrince said of the museum at 1200 N. Broadway. “You can’t rifle through the pages online, but you can now see all that information without having to come to downtown Denver.”

In fact, DiPrince said, the interest in the new digital archive has been strong and instant. Scholars and researchers from around the world have already contacted the museum about using it, which is why History Colorado officials have been careful to present the ledgers in context, and not just as historical curios that may or may not inform the present.

“We worked with community advisors to make sure with we weren’t just dropping this into the world,” DiPrince said. “That could be traumatizing, or there could be ways in which is seems like it’s celebrating white supremacy. We were really intentional about about providing a larger context.”

It’s not just a story of victimization and oppression, DiPrince said. The posting of the digital archive comes with links to stories of people who resisted the KKK at the time, such as Dr. Joseph Westbrook. He infiltrated the KKK long before Det. Ron Ferguson went undercover to bust them in Colorado Springs in the 1970s (a story that was made into Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman”).

The KKK ledgers, which list prominent Denverites including state governors and public safety officials, were donated in the 1940s but gathered dust for years until they were unsealed for public viewing, DiPrince said. Now she hopes they can be lessons to current and future generations.

The release of the ledgers, which are now the single largest archival item digitally available from History Colorado’s massive collection, will be followed by a free, live online roundtable starting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 28, and featuring the History Colorado State Historian’s Council (register at h-co.org/roundtable).

Historian Bob Goldberg, author of “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado,” will also talk about the scale and scope of the KKK in the state at 7 p.m. on June 15, DiPrince said. Required advance tickets and more information are available at historycolorado.org/kkkledgers.

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