SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Community members packed the Sedro-Woolley Museum on Thursday night in the wake of the museum’s decision to put a photo and news stories from the 1920s featuring the Ku Klux Klan in its quarterly newsletter.
About 50 people filled the seats in the museum board meeting held in an old theater exhibit, while about 20 lined the hallway outside.
Twenty-three spoke, sharing their shock at seeing the newsletter, their anger about the museum’s insensitivity to the racism represented by the KKK and their hope that the community can now move toward inclusivity and compassion for all.
“Our history has ugliness in it, which is the reason we’re here tonight,” pastor Bethany Hull Somers of Burlington Lutheran Church said. “I just want to make a really clear statement that white supremacy and racism are evil.”
A few people of color and members of the LGBT community shared their perspectives on the need to denounce hate and support diversity.
“Hate, violence and racism is not welcome and has absolutely no space in our community,” Sedro-Woolley School Board member Enrique Lopez Cisneros said to the museum board. “It might not have been your intention to hurt anyone, but it brought horrific historical trauma to our community.”
Several who spoke echoed the words “It hurts my heart” used by the youngest speaker, 7-year-old Zelda Le Jeunesse.
“If you talk about the KKK without saying it’s bad, I would feel scared and sad,” she said.
At least one in attendance wore a “Black Lives Matter” button, and another a sweatshirt from the Southern Poverty Law Center that read “Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice.”
The main concern of those who spoke was that the museum published the image and news stories with no context regarding the racially motivated, violent activities of the group.
“It’s imperative, always, that the context be clear,” said Kathy Reim, an advocate for the LGBT community in Skagit County.
Shasta Berg recounted how she felt when she pulled the newsletter out of her mailbox.
“You cannot just put pictures like that out there without explaining it,” she said.
Speakers also reminded those in attendance that discrimination based on race and sexuality has been cited as the motivation for recent shootings in the United States, and that violent KKK activities are part of the recent past.
J Lee Cook, a black man living in Bellingham, said that as a 12-year-old his mother saw a black man that had been hung from a tree by the KKK.
“The people that were leaving that particular little event were those that were in that picture — the same type,” he said.
Sedro-Woolley resident Steve Garey said he witnessed racially charged violence while attending high school in the South during the 1960s “Jim Crow” era of segregation, and was appalled to see the content of the newsletter.
He emotionally recited the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing that it ends “with liberty and justice for all.”
“Not just those who look like us or come from the same place or speak the same language or go to the same church,” he said. “It’s for all of us.”
Another common theme was that the museum failed to formally apologize for the newsletter, with no acknowledgement of it on the museum website or its Facebook page a month after the newsletter gained attention.
“A mistake was made that could have been rectified fairly quickly,” Zelda’s mother, Stephanie Le Jeunesse, said. “The way to do it is not to ignore the problem.”
She and others who spoke offered to provide their services to the all-volunteer museum in an effort to help avoid future mistakes through copy editing and social media expertise.
Sedro-Woolley Mayor Julia Johnson said the city is preparing to conduct sensitivity and inclusivity training, and invited the museum board to participate.
After hearing from those who came to speak, museum Director Carolyn Freeman shared what she sees as the silver lining of what was printed in the August-October newsletter: The start of a community-wide discussion about discrimination and diversity, past and present.
“This will be a continued discussion,” she said. “This is a learning experience for us.”
Sedro-Woolley City Councilwoman Germaine Kornegay, who is black, raised concerns about the museum newsletter at the council’s Aug. 14 meeting.
She said Thursday she was glad to see the turnout for the museum board meeting and to hear the perspectives.
“I brought it up just for this reason: So that we can start having some dialogue and having some communication, so that we can all get on the same page and also so that we can save the reputation of Sedro-Woolley,” she said. “We need to be spreading all over that we are accepting and all are welcome here.”