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Brea divided over school named for man who some say had ties to Ku Klux Klan

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Liliana Estrada, 15, holds a sign during a rally in support of changing the name of William E. Fanning Elementary in Brea.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

A push to rename William E. Fanning Elementary School has been the cause of a great divide among Brea residents for the last year and a half.

Those who support a name change claim William E. Fanning, a former Brea-Olinda School District superintendent, had ties to the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1920s. Opponents believe there is insufficient evidence to support a renaming.

Dozens people on both sides of the issue showed up for a school board meeting earlier this month. The board was originally expected to vote then, but the vote was rescheduled for Jan. 28.

Before the meeting, about 40 people rallied in the courtyard of the Brea Civic Center in support of renaming.

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Protesters held signs that read, “Time to take action” and “We will change it.” Speakers armed with megaphones made their cases at a lectern.

“I cannot support a school with the name of Fanning,” said Fred Calhoun, president of the Orange County arm of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “We have to get rid of that name. We will take any action we have to.”

Carlota Serna has two children in the Brea school system.

“I can’t do nothing knowing that a school in our district bears a name of a member of the KKK,” Serna said.

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Mike Rodriguez, an original member of the group supporting the renaming, said the information about Fanning’s potentially divisive past arose from a 2011 OC Weekly article by Gustavo Arellano, who now writes for the Los Angeles Times. Arellano wrote a series of articles exposing possible members of the KKK in Orange County using a list — which some believe holds the names of former klan members — at the Anaheim Heritage Center as a reference. Fanning’s name is on the list.

The renaming campaign was put into motion after a series of national events — including the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 -- led Rodriguez and his allies to fear rising white nationalism.

The list became the primary evidence for supporters of renaming the school.

But William Fanning, the grandson of the elder Fanning, questions the validity of the list because of its unknown origin.

While Arellano acknowledged the lack of provenance in his original series, he has contended that the list’s authenticity was supported because it was used by former Orange County Dist. Atty. Alexander Nelson to push the KKK out of the county, and a copy is on file at the Library of Congress.

Fanning’s skepticism of the list received support in a 2017 report prepared for the school district by Linda Shay, museum curator of the Brea Historical Society. The report disputed the claim that Fanning was in the KKK.

“We do not know who created the list or when it was created or what it represents,” the report says.

The researchers “found no credible or substantiated evidence to support the claim that William E. Fanning was a racist,” the report concluded.

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Rodriguez remains unswayed.

“That report is very biased, and very myopic, and really is not a critical examination of William Fanning and his involvement with the KKK,” Rodriguez said.

In an article written last year, Gabriel San Román of the OC Weekly defended the veracity of the list and criticized Shay’s report.

William Fanning said he’s been interviewing family members and going over his grandfather’s documents. He said he hasn’t uncovered anything that hints at racism.

“The challenge here for us is we are being asked to prove a negative — to demonstrate proof that he wasn’t in the KKK,” Fanning said. “People don’t normally leave things in their life papers of what they didn’t do.”


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