The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Category: Stories (page 1 of 2)

Reverend C. A. Rexroad: Grand Cyclops of Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan in Spokane

The Ku Klux Klan invokes visions of hooded men burning crosses and intimidating non-whites in southern states. But in the 1920s, those frightening sights would have been familiar to Spokanites, too.

The Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1921 with elected officers, membership dues, and over 100 members. According to local newspapers, the upstart Klan was relying on political influence more than violence to achieve their goals. Most individuals who belonged to the Klan maintained their anonymity, and the members names were rarely published in the newspapers.

One Klansman though, Reverend C. A. Rexroad, was not shy about his affiliation with the robe and hood. Rexroad, a long time minister, moved to Spokane from Butte, Montana where he became the pastor at the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church. Rexroad came under fire when he was outed in the newspapers as the Grand Cyclops of the Spokane Ku Klux Klan. His photo was plastered in the headlines and his bosses were notified of his role in the KKK. 

Due to public outcry, Rexroad was removed as the National Guard Champlain, his membership in the American Legion was questioned, and the board of the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church met to determine Rexroad’s future. The board unequivocally supported the reverend and vowed to “stand behind Mr. Rexroad no matter what comes or goes.”

Klan gathering described in pro-Klan newspaper, The Fraternalist, June 12, 1924.

Although there was no substantial opposition to the Klan, one group formed a resistance. The Organization of the Three Brothers was founded in 1921 with the hope of removing all KKK members from political office in Spokane. (I have not discovered anyone specifically, but this likely means that Klan members did hold political office in Spokane.) Despite their efforts, the Klan continued to grow through the 1920s.

In 1924, under Rexroad’s leadership, the Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a large initiation ceremony on Five Mile Prairie. One hundred and fifty new members were initiated while they stood at the base of a ninety foot tall cross engulfed in flames. According to a pro-klan newspaper, over 4,000 klansman and 3,000 visitors attended the ceremony. Although smaller than chapters in southern cities or in Portland, the Klan was a powerful political force in 1920s Spokane.

 

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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Walter Lawson: Breaking Down Barriers, Upholding the Law

-Walter Lawson served the Spokane Police Department for eighteen years

When the 1900 United States Census was taken, there were 376 black residents in Spokane, making up slightly more than one percent of the city’s total population. One of those residents, Walter Lawson, moved to Spokane in 1894 where he became an officer for the Spokane Police Department.

Members of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before arriving in Spokane, Lawson completed five years in the United States Army. He enlisted for his term in 1886 and became a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of black soldiers often referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. During Lawson’s time in the service, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. They did not see much active combat but the regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War, a months-long armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

After his service, Lawson settled in Spokane with his wife Millie and began work as a porter at downtown hotels. Hauling luggage was not as exciting as soldier life, but in 1899 his military experience paid off. He was hired as a special policeman with the Spokane Police Department.

Officer Walter Lawson soon after he was hired by the Spokane Police Department, c1900, courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

In 1905, a terrible crime occurred in Spokane. An abusive husband shot his wife in the abdomen and knee, and left her to die. The woman bled on the floor for hours before crawling to a neighbors home seeking help. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital where she was treated for her wounds, but her attacker was still at large. Officer Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a .38 caliber revolver fell from the suspect’s pocket. Lawson had his man, and the likely assault weapon.

Officer Lawson worked over eighteen years with the Spokane Police Department serving in various positions including as a stock policeman, a driver, and a patrolman. In 1917, while still working for the department, the well-liked officer, husband, and father passed away. Much of the city was devastated. The Police Chief and fellow officers lauded him as “one of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.” Newspapers across the nation exclaimed Lawson’s death noting that the Pacific Coast was now without a single black police officer.

 This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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“Baby Face” Bobby Landis

-Bobby Landis killed a cop, an inmate, and attempted multiple prison escapes.

Bobby Landis was a scoundrel. Before he set foot in Spokane at sixteen years of age, he was an accomplished thief, who had shot and nearly killed a druggist. His crimes had earned him a fourteen month stay at a reformatory for young boys, and when released he violated the terms of his parole. This was just the prologue of Landis’ wrap sheet, once he arrived in the Inland Northwest he became an infamous criminal and an uncontrollable prisoner.

Detective Roy Fordyce, Image Courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

On November 13, 1929, Spokane Police Detectives witnessed two boys buying a handgun from a pawn shop on West Main Avenue. The detectives, Roy Fordyce and George Bradley, confronted the suspicious pair as they left the shop. The detectives questioned the boys and, after learning they were staying across the street at the dodgy Spokoma Hotel, asked to search their room. The boys agreed and the group headed up to the third floor of the building. It is unclear exactly what transpired after they entered the room, but moments later the unmistakable sound of gunshots poured from the hotel.

The Daily Tribune, 11/23/1929, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin

When the firing came to a stop, the boys were apprehended but both officers had been shot, and Detective Roy Fordyce lay dead on the floor. The suspects were arrested and one of the boys, “Baby Face” Bobby Landis, took responsibility for the murder and confessed to shooting his weapon first. After a dramatic trial, the jury convicted Landis of murder of a police officer. The young murderer was spared the death penalty, in part due to his age and his questionable mental stability, and he was sentenced to life in prison at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.

Landis took the life sentence in stride. Less than a year after he arrived, he made his first escape attempt. The convict made it over the first prison wall but he gave up when guards started shooting at him. Landis was not discouraged though. Eighteen months later, he sprinted across the yard and pole-vaulted over the west prison wall. This time he made it out, but he was recaptured later that day and returned to the prison. In another daring escape attempt, Landis, with a group of fellow inmates, hijacked a prison truck and led guards on a chase through downtown Walla Walla ending in a gunfight that left Landis wounded.

Before he faded from the public eye, Landis added one more dark line to his already extensive wrap sheet. He and another prisoner from Spokane County, Joe McWilliams, had been bumping heads. At some point, Landis had enough of McWilliams antics. One morning, while the two were in the exercise area together, Landis drew a handmade knife and stabbed McWilliams twice, once in the stomach and again in the chest. McWilliams spent the next three months in the prison hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He was not tried for the crime, but “Baby Face” Bobby Landis had killed again.

In just over three years at the penitentiary, Landis nearly escaped three times and killed a fellow inmate. But, despite his turbulent start, the convict settled in to prison life and never committed another major violation. Although he was handed a life sentence, after serving nearly twenty-two years Robert Landis was paroled from the penitentiary in 1951. “One of the prison’s all-time worst headaches had,” according to the Spokesman-Review, “mellowed and matured with manhood.”

This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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The Carl Maxey Bridge

This was a letter to the editor of the Spokesman-Review on March 8, 2018. The letter was published on March 20, 2018.

 

Spokane is building a bridge that connects East Central with the University District. The names under consideration range from uncreative to downright boring, so I would like to offer another suggestion: Carl Maxey Bridge.

In the first half of the 20th century, when blacks moved to Spokane, they were steered to East Central—the black neighborhood.

Carl Maxey

It was Carl Maxey, more than any other single person, who desegregated Spokane. Despite growing up in an orphanage, Maxey attended Gonzaga where he graduated with a law degree. As Spokane’s first black attorney, Maxey was eager to defend those impacted by racist policies and to challenge the structures that perpetrated them.

He took on the school district for refusing to hire black teachers, and he won. He took on barber shops that would not serve black customers, and he won. He took on important social clubs that denied blacks membership, and he won. He took on racist housing policies that had segregated Spokane, and he won.

The New York Times credited Maxey with “virtually singlehandedly desegregating much of the inland Northwest.” Although he did not work alone, this claim is hardly an overstatement.

The new bridge should be named Carl Maxey Bridge.

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Thanksgiving in Spokane: A Tradition of Volunteerism

Volunteers will make 400 happy tomorrow

Tom’s Turkey Drive has been feeding Spokane’s less fortunate for the past seventeen Thanksgiving holidays. The food drive, a collaborative community effort, collected and distributed over 11,000 Thanksgiving meals in 2016. Countless business and individuals donated to the cause and over 7,000 volunteers gave their time. Participating in Tom’s Turkey Drive is a tradition for Spokanites, a tradition building on over 110 years of charity and volunteerism surrounding Turkey Day.  

Feeding the poor on Thanksgiving has been an annual tradition in Spokane since it’s early years. “The newsboys, messenger boys, poor women and children of the city, will eat turkey and cranberry sauce tomorrow,” The Spokane Press proclaimed in late November 1904. The Volunteers of America, a national organization with a Spokane chapter, took on the huge task of feeding the city’s needy. A large group of volunteers prepared endless stacks of meals, set tables and chairs in the banquet room of city hall, and fed nearly a thousand people a festive Thanksgiving dinner—and they did it every year.

Maud Booth, along with her husband, founded the Volunteers of America in 1896. The Spokane chapter, one of the first, opened that same year.

Much as it is today, the effort was a collaborative one. Local markets and stores donated meat, and the organizers encouraged community members to contribute. But not everyone was generous, and The Spokane Press, a worker’s newspaper, was critical of the greedy: “The cost of feeding 1000 poor will not exceed what one rich man of Spokane would expend in entertaining 50 of his friends at his house. Yet the rich man sits in his elegant home, bounteously provided for amid magnificent surroundings, and gives no thought to his less fortunate fellow man.”

Although the paper was critical of the overindulged, it also engaged in poor shaming. The paper referred to the poor as “street urchins,” a “hungry mob,” and the “lowliest walks of life.” The paper and it’s readership hated bosses and big business owners, but it also disdained folks surviving on the backs of donors.

The newspaper, however, is clear about its stance on those that volunteer:

“The Volunteers do it lovingly, cheerfully and without thanks in many cases. The busy world looks on, remarks it is a good thing, but lend no helping hand.
God Bless The Volunteers.
I wish that there were more of them.”


Let me take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful volunteers with whom I have worked. You make the world a better place.

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