The KKK Ruled Denver a Century Ago. Its Legacy is Still FeltHistorians in the News
tags: Colorado, Denver, Ku Klux Klan, western history
Nora Flaherty saw the cross burning in front of St. Dominic Catholic Church in north Denver and ran to her home a block away to get her husband.
He grabbed an ax and helped put the fire out, but the Ku Klux Klan members who constructed the symbol of hate already had fled, as Dennis Gallagher tells the story that’s been passed down by his family. Like other longtime Denver families, dealing with the Ku Klux Klan’s one-time dominance of the city has been a generational problem for Gallagher and his kin.
His father was bullied by self-identified Klansmen about being an Irish Catholic when he joined the Denver Fire Department in 1938. In 1970, Gallagher was knocking on doors as a candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives and met a man who said he was a member of the Klan and thus would never vote for an Irish Catholic.
“There’s never been an apology for what the Klan did,” said Gallagher, professor emeritus at Regis University, former city auditor, city councilman, state senator and state representative. “I think that has affected the city for generations.”
Ripple effects of the Klan’s takeover of Denver’s power structures over the course of just a few years in the mid-1920s are still felt, especially after the release by History Colorado this spring of digital copies of the Klan’s membership ledgers from that time period. The more than 30,000 names in the documents include those of the men the Klan’s political machine installed as Colorado’s governor, Denver’s mayor and police chief, judges, state senators and representatives.
But the ledgers also show how pervasive the Klan was in day-to-day life, where the people they persecuted and intimidated would encounter them. The membership rolls show Klansmen worked at banks, pie companies, railroads, grocery stores, pharmacies, the zoo, the parks, the post office, cab companies, cafes, the stockyard, the city jail, the courthouse, laundry businesses, cab companies and this newspaper. They also worked at Denver landmarks, like Elitch Gardens, the Brown Palace Hotel, Union Station and Lakeside Amusement Park.
Those targeted and demonized by the Klan — Blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, immigrants of any kind — lived in fear, said Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and author of “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.” They knew the Klan was pervasive and that many parts of the government charged with protecting them were actively involved in the white supremacist organization.