An unflattering angle

Historical photo prompts online furor

This photo of the Ku Klux Klan marching in Chico circa 1920 spurred angry comments and accusations on a Chico Facebook group.

This photo of the Ku Klux Klan marching in Chico circa 1920 spurred angry comments and accusations on a Chico Facebook group.

photo Courtesy of John Nopel Collection and Special Collections Dept., Meriam Library, Chico State

There’s an unmistakable rose tint shading most of the memories shared by the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Chico When,” where members post recollections of bygone businesses, remark on historical photos and openly pine for the halcyon days of yesteryear.

But an image posted to the forum on Sunday (Feb. 1—the first day of Black History Month) challenged some users’ Norman Rockwellian visions of our local past. The black-and-white photo, taken circa 1920, shows a man in a white hooded robe standing next to a Ku Klux Klan float, parading down Chico’s Main Street.

Dayton Sayer, who posted the photo, said he is a life-long history lover who’s lived in Chico since he was 4 years old. He’s also a frequent poster to the Chico-centric Facebook group, which was founded by Jim Secola in 2010 and currently has more than 9,000 members (they also have “reunions” each year, with the fourth installment in September 2014 drawing an estimated 1,200 people).

Sayer, who asserted he is not racist, said he scours Chico State’s online photo collections for pictures that start conversations. They often prompt memories and lead to first-hand stories from others about the people or places in the photographs.

“When I happened upon those Ku Klux Klan parade photos, my jaw just dropped,” Sayer said, noting the picture—and another of the hate group’s procession—is from the John Nopel Collection of historical photographs, hosted online by Chico State’s Meriam Library.

“I had no idea about that dark, dirty secret in Chico’s past, and thought if I found it interesting then other people might, too,” he said. “I had no idea what it would open up. It seems like everyone had some type of strong reaction to share.”

The picture received more than 200 comments in a few short hours, with some demanding it be taken down because they were personally offended or because they believed it misrepresented the local community. Others approved of the post, arguing that it’s important to acknowledge and learn from the uglier aspects of history.

“We can’t just sweep our history under the rug or bury our heads in the sand like ostriches,” Sayer said. “It’s something that needs to be discussed.”

In this instance, the discourse was not all polite. Sayer said he received sometimes crude personal messages from about 10 people accusing him of everything from glorifying racism to recruiting for the KKK.

The photo and accompanying comments were removed Monday, with founder Secola posting the following: “This has been this group’s policy for years: Please do NOT post negative or inflammatory topics on this page. There is enough negativity to go around and we don’t need it here. If you don’t agree then leave the group. Please refrain from political, religious, inflammatory topics or using profane language. Failure to do so will result in your post or comment being deleted and if a continuous problem you may be banned from the page.”

Sayer said he understands the decision but was a little disappointed. “I guess it had run its course, but I think it started a good conversation, and I really enjoyed probably 60 percent of the comments people made. But some people’s immaturity overpowered that.”

A cursory Internet search for “KKK in Chico” leads to a first-person account of a the KKK’s local presence in the 1920s as well as a brief lesson in local black history, courtesy of the Virtual Museum of the city of San Francisco (

Thomas C. Fleming was a renowned journalist who kept working until just months before his death, at age 99, in 2006. Born in 1907, he moved to Chico in 1919 and attended Chico High School and Chico State College. Fleming founded The Reporter in San Francisco in 1944, which eventually became the Sun-Reporter and remains the largest black newspaper west of the Mississippi.

Fleming was perhaps best known for his column “Reflections on Black History.” In a 1998 entry titled “The Klan Marches in California,” he recalls living here when the town’s black population numbered about 65 and “Chico offered no job opportunities for black men” aspiring to be anything other than “farmhands or bootblacks.”

Fleming wrote: “I had heard vaguely about the Klan from the old folks, and suffered from the delusion that they were active only in the Southern states. I was very wrong, for about three years later they marched down the main street of Chico. It was publicized in the paper before it happened.

“Chico had a round auditorium called the Hippodrome, which was used as an indoor skating rink. I think the Klansmen used it for their gathering, following their march.

“I had no occasion to go downtown that day, and I didn’t feel I wanted to watch the bastards anyway. My stepfather, Moses Moseley, was so mad that he sat out on the porch with a loaded .30 caliber rifle and I sat beside him with a loaded 25-20, plus we both had loaded shotguns. I don’t know until today whether either of us would have fired if the Klansmen had decided to march on the street where our house was located.”

Chico State history professor Michael Magliari offered some more perspective on the photo, locally and nationally.

“The KKK was incredibly powerful in the 1920s, not just in the South but all over the United States,” he explained, noting the group’s membership peaked at about 5 million that decade, and that in some California cities—such as Anaheim and La Habra—the hate group seized control of city councils and entire police forces. Even California’s governor from 1923 to 1927, Friend Richardson, was suspected of being a Klansman, and “definitely had the backing of the KKK,” Magliari said.

“Back then, the KKK was also known as being anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant as much as it was for being anti-black,” he said. “They cast a wide net then, and it’s not surprising they found a clavern of supporters here.

“If you look at Chico’s racial history, there’s sadly a lot of intolerance there in the 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with the Native Americans and continuing with anti-black, anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese agitation and policies.”

Magliari said he personally would have sided with those who wanted to keep the photo up: “Like it or not, that picture is part of the historical record. No matter how many times you remove it, you can’t pretend it never happened.”