SEDRO-WOOLLEY — A recent quarterly newsletter mailed to members of the Sedro-Woolley Museum featuring historic Ku Klux Klan activities in Skagit County has drawn criticism and led to calls for a community conversation on racism, diversity and inclusion.
Councilwoman Germaine Kornegay, who brought the issue up at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, said it wasn’t that the museum included controversial history in its newsletter but that it was offered without context.
“I think the newsletter actually kind of normalized hate and bigotry,” she said.
The mailed newsletter featured retyped versions of two historic newspaper stories describing social gatherings of KKK members in Skagit County nearly a century ago.
On the back of the mailer was a photo of hooded Klan members at a 1926 wedding in Sedro-Woolley. Beneath the photo was an invitation to see newspaper stories inside. At the bottom of one of the retyped stories, words were added inviting museum readers to “share family memories and copies of photos about the KKK, especially their activities in Skagit and surrounding counties, and statewide.”
Kornegay, who is black and the only person of color on the City Council, told the Skagit Valley Herald she was alarmed at the casual presentation of a white supremacist hate group with a call to share memories without mention of the group’s controversial nature.
“It isn’t about hiding history. It’s about putting it into context,” she said of her objection. “Saying it’s a terrible part of our history, it would be appropriate. But this is not logging or how they built the railroad. This is something else.”
She said she had reached out to the nonprofit museum’s staff for an explanation, but was frustrated by their lack of response before Wednesday’s meeting.
Mayor Julia Johnson said museum volunteer and board Treasurer Carolyn Freeman reached out to her instead. Johnson said she invited Freeman to talk about the newsletter and answer questions publicly, but that Freeman submitted a statement and invited the public to speak at the museum board’s next meeting.
“We regret that some of you were offended by our latest newsletter, which was not our intent,” Freeman’s statement said. “We were just sharing a part of our history, not realizing the impact the picture and article had. We do and will learn from our mistakes.”
The Sedro-Woolley Museum’s next board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, at the museum, 727 Murdock St.
“(The museum) does want to hear what people have to say; they do want to connect with everyone,” Johnson said. “They do not condone what the KKK and white supremacy are all about, and again, (Freeman) asks if you have something you want to say or share, please show up at their meeting. I encourage people to do that.”
Two local religious leaders also expressed concerns about the newsletter’s KKK presentation in letters they sent to the council.
“Skagit Valley’s history is marred by white supremacy and racism,” the Rev. Bethany Hull Somers with Burlington Lutheran Church wrote in a letter read by Kornegay. “This article provides an opportunity for local leaders, such as yourselves, to take a stand in restoration and healing of that ugly path. I implore you to take leadership to denounce the historical presence of the KKK, reminding that racism and white supremacy are not welcome in your diverse and thriving community.”
Eric Wangen-Hoch, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Sedro-Woolley, wrote in a letter read by Johnson that he doesn’t believe the museum promotes or agrees with the KKK’s racist ideas.
“At the same time, I feel the publishing of the articles without context was not responsible on their part,” he said, adding that the city should have a conversation with the museum about its approach.
Johnson said Freeman told her that the museum is considering including a disclaimer before publishing “questionable” content to make clear “they are just reporting history but don’t agree with the message.”
City Councilwoman Brenda Kinzer, who is on the museum board, said the articles and photo don’t reflect the opinion of the board.
“We don’t see that newsletter before it goes out, and I’m sure if it had gone in front of the board, it wouldn’t have (been published),” she said.
Kornegay, who was first elected in 2013, said the incident reminds her of her first bid for City Council when a constituent told her he would not vote for her because she is black. She said she has also heard racial epithets in her community and said people need to be aware that racism still exists.
“I’ve been hearing stories from other folks that have experienced the same things,” she said. “It might not affect many of you in this room, but it does (affect) us.”
Kornegay proposed that the council set up a communitywide conversation on racial issues and social justice. She said she took part in a mediated discussion on the same subject in Newhalem.
“We all left respecting each other and understanding each other,” she said. “I would love to see that here.”
Kornegay told the Herald that she supports the museum, but that it should give an explanation and apology to its members to acknowledge the insensitivity.
“This just sets us back,” she said. “The level of insensitivity — they don’t understand how impactful that is.”
— Colette Weeks, director of content, contributed to this report.