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Groups battle over renaming Brea elementary school possibly linked to racist past

The renaming of William E. Fanning Elementary School has been the cause of a great divide among local residents for the last year and a half.

Those who support the 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. But those who oppose the renaming believe there is insufficient evidence to support the move.

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Dozens from both sides of the issue showed up for Monday’s school board meeting. The board was originally expected to vote at the meeting, but that was rescheduled for Jan. 28.

Prior to the meeting, about 40 people rallied in the courtyard of the 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.

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 led members like Rodriguez to fear rising white nationalism. In particular, the death of Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., spurred the local movement.

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 origins.

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 District Attorney Alexander Nelson to push the KKK out of the county and another copy is on file at the Library of Congress.

Fanning’s skepticism of the list received support in a 2017 report from Linda Shay, museum curator of the Brea Historical Society, which was prepared for the school district. It took umbrage with 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 who compiled the report “found no credible or substantiated evidence to support the claim that William E. Fanning was a racist.”

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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