When the great wave of Mexican immigration poured over into El Norte during the Mexican Revolution, war-torn refugees fleeing a decade of violence did not encounter a monolithic American culture. Some cities throughout the West were initially part of the Spanish Empire, and then México.
Other cities throughout the West, were never part of Mexico, but rather founded after 1848. Urban centers such as Houston, Bakersfield, and Fresno were built after the Mexican American War, with no Spanish or Mexican foundation.
Roughly 1 in 10 Mexicans – or 1 million – uprooted their lives due to economic and social instability of the violent Revolution. The great majority entered the U.S. from Ciudad Juárez and into El Paso. From El Paso, labor contractors and the hope for better lives and futures beckoned Mexicans to cities like Chicago and Los Ángeles. Mexicans who ventured to towns and cities along the California coast encountered downtown areas similar or identical to cities in México.
Since California was once part of New Spain and its colonial enterprises (including the Mission System) then part of México after it gained independence from Spain, urban centers along the California coast had been built along the same municipal guidelines as those in México: a plaza mayor surrounded by government buildings and a main church. The architecture spoke to a Mexican past.
During the colonization of California and its natives, beginning in July 16, 1769 when Father Junipero Serra founded San Diego de Alcalá, the mission chain provided the foundation for an expanding national enterprise. Although the Church had plans to build missions within the great Central Valley, the temperature proved too hot for the crusading Mexicans – salvation stopped at the cool, coastal range.
Those Mexicans, therefore, that entered the Central Valley during the Mexican Revolution encountered no Spanish-Mexican architecture anywhere between the Sierras and Coastal Range and between the Tejon Pass and the Sacramento Delta.
Unlike San Diego, Los Ángeles, Santa Bárbara, and Monterey, which were originally founded by Spanish-Mexicans, Fresno was founded by Anglo Americans for Anglo Americans. No Spanish architecture in Fresno greeted Mexicans fleeing the Revolution. What they entered was a New South, founded by refugees from another Civil War just two generations before.
The 1870 census reveals that about 65% of Anglo settlers in the greater Fresno region were from the South, with many fleeing the collapse of the Confederacy and the Washington, D.C.-based federal government. The history of Mariposa and Fresno counties, and subsequent founding of the city of Fresno, reveals a powerful Southern presence, one that would erect a distinct cultural scaffolding for future generations.
The massive immigration waves from Eastern and Southern Europe that characterized the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as 10% of the Mexican population arriving during the Mexican Revolution created anxiety among many White Americans across the nation, and Fresno County was no exception. Indeed, between 1910 and 1930, Fresno County experienced the greatest percentage increase in its Mexican population, more than any other county in California.
Asian immigration also posed a threat. Leading California Progressive Chester H. Rowell, editor of the Fresno Morning Republican, was a vocal critic of Japanese immigration. In a 1913 article, the Fresno politician quotes an Elk Grove farmer to humanize his anti-Japanese stance, “Up at Elk Grove, where I live,” he said, “on the next farm a Japanese man lives, and a white woman. That woman is carrying around a baby in her arms. It isn’t white. It isn’t Japanese. I’ll tell you what it is, it is the beginning of the biggest problem that has ever faced the American people!” Such ideas of miscegenation between Asian and Anglo, and Mexican and Anglo, found fertile ground in the New South of Fresno County.
One year – 1924 – stands out as a watershed for race relations and racial ideologies. Indeed, in 1924 three national historical markers take place, as well as a Fresno event that epitomizes the national zeitgeist of the moment.
– On May 26, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, also called the 1924 Immigration Act. In essence, the Act was in response to a growing anxiety over non-White, foreign peoples immigrating into the U.S. The act upholds upheld a White supremacist vision for America. Specifically, the law bans banned any further immigration from Japan and, through a quota system places placed severe restrictions on Southern and Eastern European immigrants, those more brown, Catholic, and Orthodox peoples who did not measure up to the Anglo-Saxon standard.
– Two days later, Congress passed the Labor Appropriation Act of 1924, which created the U.S. Border Patrol as a policing force between international check points. The Border Patrol, like the Immigration Act, was in response to a rising anti-immigration sentiment across the nation, what it meant to be an American, and who were the best immigrants to make good Americans — and who were not.
– In 1924 America experienced the zenith of KKK membership. Roughly Approximately 7 million of 114 million U.S. citizens residents (1 out of every 100), that is 6 out of every 100 Americans were enrolled KKK members. In May, the Fresno chapter of the KKK kicked off a 10-day “Klan Fiesta” at the Fresno fairgrounds that drew 50,000 attendees from throughout California and the Southwest. At the time, Fresno had a population of 45,000.
Klan spokesman Charles J. Hall proclaimed in Fresno, “The foundation of this country is the American home, the school, the church and the law. I’m for this institution because it stands for those institutions first, last and all the time. It is made up of people who are Americans, all American. We want free schools in this country, schools where the children are taught to speak the English language and reverence the flag.”
The ad’s header proclaimed in all capitalized letters, “FRESNO KU KLUX KLAN,” followed by “State Wide Fiesta and Public Ceremonial.” Klan members from Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Tulare, Dinuba, Porterville, Clovis, Selma, Bakersfield, Taft, Los Ángeles, Venice, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Ventura, from San Diego to Eureka, “and many others,” showed up.
Five hundred cars from Los Ángeles alone drove to Fresno. The May 27 edition of the Visalia Daily Times noted that Goshen residents “Bob Carson and George Rasmussen motored to Fresno Saturday evening to attend the Ku Klux Klan carnival.”
The activities include a “Big Klan Wedding.” Miss Sarah Roberta Tripp, a local teacher, married J.J. Goodrich of the Sugar Pine Mill at Pinedale. On May 19, 150 women were naturalized into the Klan while an airplane equipped with a burning cross and the letters KKK lit with electric lights flew above. On May 24, the Klan swore in 2,000 during “the largest naturalization ever held in this state.” Adding to the carnival-like atmosphere, life-sized dolls dressed in full Klan regalia were sold.
Between the laughter and fun, nationally recognized Klan lecturers J. Rush Bronson and Rev. Horace Lackney (a former Texas Ranger) delivered powerful speeches on Klan doctrine, the state of American society, and the Klan’s vision for a moral, progressive, and White national future.
Captain G. W. Price, an Imperial representative, also attended. A “huge fiery cross” was erected in the middle of the carnival. One reporter’s account: “Nearly everything had been camouflaged to portray in some manner the name of the hooded organization. There were Klan ice cream pies, Klan beverages, Klan books and Klan music, and lots of application blanks to be had for the asking. A dance hall occupied the center of the machinery building of Fresno County’s fair grounds. All the attendants and the band were adorned in Klan robes. Klan police eyed the antics of the dancers, watching an opportunity to drag the unwary before the Klan ‘Kangaroo Kourt.’ Klan money, denoted as notes, flooded the carnival grounds, used at the various carnival attractions. The K notes were necessary, and the coffers of the organization overflowed with the money of those who sought to take home dolls, hams, bacons and lamps through their ability to throw darts and toss rings.”
On May 20, Rev. Lackney preached: “The Klan is not anti-Jew, nor anti-negro, nor anti-Catholic. We are against only those who are disloyal to the United States and its ideals and institutions.” Two nights later, however, Lackney also preached, “You in the North may be the social and mental equal of the negro, but in the South, we are his superior and we are not going to be governed by him.”
No matter how the Klan attempted to reframe their image, their organization was founded on the bedrock of white supremacy and the belief that negroes (to use the terminology of the day) were inferior in every respect to White people. What does the 1924 KKK fiesta tell us about the historical moment for the nation, California, and Fresno?
First, Fresno was a prime location to hold the congregation for two important reasons. From the early 20th century, because of its central location and success of the city’s boosters, Fresno gained a reputation as the place to hold statewide conventions. In fact, at the same time as the fiesta, a statewide gathering of insurance businessmen from all across California gathered in downtown Fresno.
Furthermore, Fresno’s Confederate beginnings and subsequent flourishing of Southern values in the region, offered the attendees the perfect social and cultural environment to freely express their strongly held beliefs. It was their white supremacist safe space.
That this fiesta took place on the West coast is telling about California in the early 20th century. Just because the South lost the Civil War, in many ways it did not. Yes, the South was physically annihilated, hundreds of thousands of young men dead, cities in ruin, the social structure collapsed, yet the culture and ideology lived on, and among Southern refugees who spread across the nation – not to mention the thinks leaders, thinkers and politicians who were allowed back into powerful positions and in national and state governments. Congress and Supreme Court.
In some ways, late 19th and early 20th century Fresno was indeed the New South, with powerful families who still nurtured cherished mental and spiritual roots in the Confederacy. These were not illiterate country bumpkins, but included many highly educated movers and shakers, and those that held political and social reigns in the city.
What this says about the nation is clear, especially when taken into context with the creation of the Border Patrol and passage of the 1924 Immigration Act – all in the same month! America was experiencing the height of a racist zeitgeist, one that infiltrated hundreds of thousands of homes, not only in the backwoods of Alabama, but in the police precinct of Fresno, in churches and fraternal organizations throughout California and the Central Valley.
The concrete foundation of the New Southern edifice that was poured following the Civil War, continued to be built upon by future generations. A year later, in 1925, the first junior KKK club in California was established at Fresno High, and Fresno Technical High School.
Dr. Patrick Fontes is a professor of American history in Fresno.
This is part of a series on Stop The Hate, a project funded by the California State Library.