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‘Make Things Right’: Florida activists grapple with revelations about Klan leader

On the third floor of a quiet history museum in Pensacola, Florida, stands a relic from the past that may disturb visitors: a figure dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform – a white, visibly worn robe with a tall, pointed cap and a hood that drapes around the face.

Also on display at the Pensacola Museum of History at the University of West Florida (UWF) are patches that adorned Klan members’ uniforms and a copy of a Klan handbook known as the Kloran. Behind the figure is a cross, nearly destroyed by fire – a relic of the Klan’s infamous calling card.

The uniform is only one part of a large cache of memorabilia and documents associated with a man named T.T. Wentworth – a prominent local politician in the early 20th century, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a once-highly regarded preservationist known as “Mr. History” in this Gulf Coast city.

In the 1920s, Wentworth had another title – that of “exalted cyclops,” designating him the leader of the local “klavern” of the Klan.

That revelation came in 2020 amid a debate over the future of the city’s towering Confederate monument. Along with a historian’s examination of Klan documents that lay hidden within Wentworth’s personal collection for decades, the discovery has ignited an effort to reckon with the city’s history – particularly the history of its vibrant Black community.

The leader of a now-defunct historical foundation that once heralded Wentworth’s version of the past – which ignored the contributions of Black people to society – has embarked on an educational campaign to tell the truth about Black history and to provide scholarships for aspiring Black college students.

Jamin Wells
University of West Florida professor Jamin Wells concluded that, with a few notable exceptions, T.T. Wentworth “did not collect material related to African American history nor did he meaningfully include the African American experience in his histories of Pensacola.” (Courtesy of Jamin Wells)

The city’s racial reckoning gained steam after Jamin Wells, an associate professor of history at UWF, spent a year digging into Wentworth’s collection, which came into the possession of the UFW Historic Trust in 2019. They included a membership ledger, correspondence, photographs and a variety of other documents. The documents provided a rare look at the inner workings of the Klan in the 1920s, a period of Klan resurgence, when the group claimed several million members nationwide and marched 25,000-strong in full regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. 

In his report, Wells wrote, “‘Mr. History’ didn’t tell the whole story. The most glaring omission relates to African American history. With a few notable exceptions, Wentworth did not collect material related to African American history nor did he meaningfully include the African American experience in his histories of Pensacola.”

The explicit omissions obscure the contributions of Black people to the region’s economic development and have had a significant impact “on community identity,
politics and policy,” Wells wrote.

“Some may wonder, ‘Why does this story matter?’” Wells said in an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Some may say, ‘Who cares, it was 100 years ago, and he’s dead, so what’s the point?’ But our community’s defining storyteller left enormous gaps and holes in the history he wrote. And those gaps have profoundly shaped what this city thinks it was and, by extension, what it might become.”

Exalted cyclops

At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Pensacola was divided nearly evenly, with roughly the same number of white residents as Black. But as Jim Crow segregation – and the terroristic violence and intimidation that went along with it – became deeply entrenched across the Deep South, the city’s Black population began a steep decline as many families moved to Northern cities. At the same time, an influx of white, rural Protestants arrived in Pensacola.

By the early 1920s, membership in the Klan – which had been formed as a white supremacist, vigilante organization just after the end of the Civil War and virtually disappeared within a decade – began to explode. A new iteration of the Klan employed modern marketing techniques appealing to an increasingly nativist Protestant population as an enforcer of white, Protestant supremacy and defender of local morality.

In his early 20s, Wentworth, who had opened a successful bicycle shop, became Florida’s youngest-ever county commissioner in 1921 and later served as tax collector for 12 years. He also became the first documented member of the Pensacola Klan klavern in 1921, based on a membership card he left behind.

As he grew in prominence, so did the local Klan. By 1925, Klan membership had grown to as many as 1,000 members in the county. That was the year the local police chief granted Wentworth “police powers,” according to documents that Wells reviewed.

Wells described Wentworth as a “political animal” who “leveraged every position he had” to gain power and personal advancement. At the time, it wasn’t unusual for politicians and community leaders to openly be Klan members. Wentworth’s affiliation was well known at the time. 

“They brought their circle of hate to virtually anything,” Wells said. “They wanted a pro-white, Protestant society – and they were militant about it.”

Along with his other activities, Wentworth was effectively rewriting the city’s history. “As a fierce advocate for history, Wentworth was acutely aware of the power of historical narratives and the value of preserving historic documents,” Wells wrote in his report. “He also knew how to deploy history to bolster community identity and economic development.”

Indeed, when he died in 1989, then-Gov. Bob Martinez lauded Wentworth for his efforts, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, saying he “gave Pensacola one of the greatest gifts an individual can give to his community – its past.”

The secrets

Pensacola Museum of History
A portrait of T.T. Wentworth, shown in a 2020 photo, was once at the center of the Pensacola Museum of History’s plaza. It has since been covered with a UWF Historic Trust logo. (Credit: Gregg Pachkowski/Imagn Content Services)

For many years, Wentworth operated a private, roadside attraction known as the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Museum. In the online publication Flamingo, journalist Craig Pittman described it as “a dusty repository of oddball knickknacks,” including such items as a petrified cat that is still on display at the Pensacola Museum of History.

In the early 1980s, he donated some 250,000 items to a historic preservation group that opened a museum in City Hall named the T.T. Wentworth Florida State Museum.

But the Klan collection lay hidden in the attic of a Wentworth family home. The UWF Historic Trust found the artifacts in 2019.

The discovery came as a surprise to Sharon Yancey, Wentworth’s great niece and president of the former T.T. Wentworth Jr. Historical Foundation.

“I didn’t know about the documents or that my uncle was the leader of the Klan in Pensacola,” Yancey said. “When I found out, I was stunned. I had been the president of the Wentworth foundation for over 20 years and would not have been if I had any idea. Shock turned to anger at my aunt and uncle for not telling me.”

During the debate over the city’s Confederate monument that arose from the national debate over Confederate memorials following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, local historian Tom Garner dropped the bombshell on the city. He had been researching the history of racial violence in the town for decades and had burrowed into the newly discovered Klan documents in the Wentworth collection at the museum before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the archives. In a letter to the city council, also published in the Pensacola News Journal, he revealed the truth about Wentworth.

Soon after, Yancey began receiving phone calls from prominent local leaders asking for a statement from the family and the foundation.

“We issued a statement three months later, hosted a public acknowledgment service and are now working on the restoration phase,” said Yancey, who wants to “make things right” for Pensacola by embarking on an educational campaign to reveal what’s been hidden from the Black community for decades.

“T.T.’s Klan of the 1920s relegated Black people as ‘the other,’” Yancey said. But also, “‘the other’ was anyone who was not white and Protestant, including immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Sound familiar?”

The SPLC’s recently retired chief of staff and culture, Lecia Brooks, said it’s all too familiar.

“The words used may change over the decades, but the technique is often the same when it comes to hate propaganda of the past and present,” Brooks said. “It is certainly about fear of ‘the other.’ It is about depicting a group as untrustworthy and capable of destroying a beloved way of life – sometimes even democracy itself. Hate propaganda fuels the creation of the unlevel playing field to keep that group from gaining a foothold in society.”

Rewriting the script

With the support of the UWF Historic Foundation and several UWF departments, Wells brought together an advisory group that included experts in Black history and leaders of local history organizations. They launched a project to digitize the Klan documents and produce a report based on them. The report came out in the summer of 2021, right after Pensacola removed its 1891 Confederate monument in Lee Square.

“The release of the preliminary report and digitized documents got a lot of local attention,” Wells said. “But the entire advisory group felt that there was more work to do.”

Yancey, who was a member of the advisory group, said that pursuing a campaign to educate the community about the history that Wentworth hid is “the way out.”

But she wants to do more than that. Yancey would like to provide full scholarships to aspiring Black college students, and she’s planning to do so, although there are details to work out. Some schools in Pensacola with a large Black student population are notorious for not providing a solid education – and Yancey wants to be an advocate for changing that, to “make things right.”

“There is an attitude of, ‘These kids will never amount to anything,’” she said. “It would be wonderful to find a way to change that – and it would also be an acknowledgement of the city’s past, but hopefully, not their future.”

Brooks agreed.

“The best way to address the past is to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to harm the Black community today,” she said. “Ensuring that Black students have the opportunity for a quality education is a wonderful place to start.”

On June 30, 2021, the city of Pensacola removed Wentworth’s name from the history museum housed in Pensacola’s old City Hall, and a new sign now reads that visitors are at the Pensacola Museum of History at UWF. A stone portrait of Wentworth embedded at the center of the museum’s plaza has been covered with a UWF Historic Trust logo.

“We are lamenting the loss of the story of the Black community in Pensacola,” Yancey told the Pensacola News Journal. “That’s what we lost in every way. Their story has been buried by T.T. Wentworth. We plan to fix that.”

Picture at top: In a 2020 photo, University of West Florida Historic Trust researchers (from left) Jacki Wilson, Rob Overton and Jamin Wells catalog artifacts from T.T. Wentworth at the Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center. (Credit: Gregg Pachkowski/Imagn Content Services)