T.T. Wentworth was KKK leader in 1920s. Now UWF Historic Trust looks to change museum name
The University of West Florida Historic Trust is investigating how to change the name of the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum after newly uncovered historic documents revealed Wentworth was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Escambia County in the 1920s.
Local historian Tom Garner sent a letter to the Pensacola City Council on Sunday laying out part of his research into local historic monuments and their connections to white supremacy ahead of the council's vote Tuesday on whether to remove the Confederate monument in Lee Square.
Garner noted in his letter that T.T. Wentworth Jr. was remembered as a business owner and historian, even being given the nickname "Mr. History" by the News Journal. His collection of memorabilia became what today is a state-owned museum operated by the UWF Historic Trust.
Wentworth was an Escambia County commissioner, the youngest elected in Florida at that time in 1920, and in 1928, he became Escambia County tax collector, a position he held until 1940.
The same year he became a commissioner, Wentworth was also part of the "Invisible Empire" holding the title of "Kligrapp," or secretary, of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Escambia Klan No. 57. In 1925, he became "Exalted Cyclops," the leader of the local chapter of the white supremacist group, and held the position until at least 1928, documents in the UWF Historic Trust archives show.
"Who tells the story of a community?" Garner wrote in his letter. "Who becomes the keeper of its history? Among Pensacola’s earliest storytellers were Exalted Cyclops Wentworth, and Confederate veteran Chipley."
William Chipley, a former Pensacola mayor, was one of the driving forces behind placing the Confederate monument at Lee Square in 1891, and he has his own granite obelisk monument at Plaza Ferdinand.
Documents in the Historic Trust's archives include Wentworth's KKK membership card, letters from Wentworth to the "Grand Dragon, Realm of Florida" and an invoice for Wentworth's "Exalted Cyclops" robes.
"For those unfamiliar with the beliefs and tenets of the Klan, a philosophy with which Wentworth would have been intimately familiar, the organization’s 1922 constitution makes it clear: 'We avow the distinction between the races of mankind as decreed by the Creator, and we shall ever be true to the maintenance of White supremacy and strenuously oppose any compromise thereof,'" Garner wrote in the letter.
Garner spends a lot of time at the Historic Trust archives and has been researching the history of racial violence in Escambia County for more than 20 years. He has been involved in the historic and archaeology community in Northwest Florida for more than 40 years, and in 2015, he discovered the site of Tristan de Luna's 1559 settlement attempt in Pensacola.
Garner told the News Journal he has heard rumors of Wentworth's involvement in the KKK for years and even that there were Klan documents in Wentworth's records from when he was tax collector that are part of the Historic Trust archive.
However, the Historic Trust only recently acquired Wentworth's personal documents from his family's estate, and earlier this year, Garner asked the trust's archivists to view any Klan-related materials that were part of the newly acquired collection.
The archivists are still working to catalog the more than 7,500 items that were part of the collection, which included a box of Wentworth's personal Klan memorabilia.
"They (the archivists) knew it was Klan stuff, but I'm not even sure they have taken the time to read it yet to know what was in it," Garner said. "I may be the only one that knows really what it means because I read everything, and I'm like, holy crap, this puts T.T. Wentworth right in the center of it."
In a statement to the News Journal, the UWF Historic Trust said the leadership of the organization was made aware Sunday evening of Wentworth's role in the KKK from Garner's letter.
"The Trust is actively investigating the appropriate process and approvals required to rename the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum," the statement said. "The museum was named in 1988 by Florida Gov. Bob Martinez. The Trust acquired the museum in 2001, when the Trust became a direct support organization of the University of West Florida. UWF Historic Trust strongly condemns racism and hate and is firmly committed to an accurate and inclusive interpretation of Northwest Florida’s history."
Rob Overton, executive director of the UWF Historic Trust, said he would be recommending a name change to the trust's board. He said the mission of the trust is to collect, preserve, interpret and share the history of Northwest Florida, but honoring a painful part of that history doesn't reflect that mission.
"We would share it, we would tell about it, we would learn from it and interpret it. But honoring it is just not something that, I don't think, the community or us would support," he said.
Wentworth's membership in the Klan occurred when the organization was at the height of its powers after it was re-founded in 1915 and grew to more than 4 million members nationwide by 1924.
"There were many Klan members who held positions of power, whether it was at the kind of town level, the county level, the state level or at the federal level where we have multiple sitting U.S. senators who were affiliated with the Klan in the 1920s," historian Felix Harcourt told the News Journal. "So to see a relationship between those holding public office of some kind and Klan membership is not at all unusual."
Harcourt is a professor of history at Austin College in Austin, Texas, and wrote the 2019 book "Ku Klux Kulture" that examines the cultural influence of the KKK in the 1920s.
The Klan members of the 1920s were often people in positions of power that used their positions to further the group's ideology of white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment.
"The Klan of the 1920s had a deep investment in a particular interpretation of U.S. history," Harcourt said. "Most immediately, they had a particular interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. An interpretation that would represent them as heroes that redeemed the South rather than as a violent white supremacist terrorist organization. … In many ways, the revival of the Klan in the 1920s was reliant on that kind of interpretation of Reconstruction history."
Overton said some of this new information may be included in a new exhibit being planned for the museum that will cover Black experiences in Pensacola in the age of Jim Crow.
Teníadé Broughton, president of the John Sunday Society and a candidate for the District 5 seat of the Pensacola City Council, has been involved in working with the museum on that exhibit. She said she hopes the new information about Wentworth and changing the name of the museum leads Pensacola to have a conversation about its "uncomfortable past."
"Now that it's fallen on our laps, as a generation, as the people who are alive today, we're going to be responsible for how this the stories are told," Broughton said. "And it's no longer the time for them to be hidden. It's to be shared and put in proper context, for future generations, so that they will have a better understanding of our city's past than what we have now."
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
This story originally published to pnj.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.