Brooklyn Center leaders are confronting allegations that favorite son Earle Brown belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and they may soon opt to separate the city from a name that adorns many of its most prominent buildings.
Even the city’s summer festival, Earle Brown Days, honors the man who served as Hennepin County sheriff, helped found the Minnesota State Patrol and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1932.
But at a City Council work session last week, members expressed concern about information on Brown in “The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota,” a book published in 2013 by Minneapolis high school teacher Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle. They’re weighing name changes for the Earle Brown Heritage Center, Earle Brown Drive and Earle Brown Days.
On Monday, the school board is expected to officially give Earle Brown Elementary a new name, Brooklyn Center Elementary. It decided to rename the school last month.
“The children in Brooklyn Center today deserve to go to a school that’s not named after someone with alleged affiliations to supremacist groups,” said Superintendent Carly Baker.
Brooklyn Center isn’t the only suburb taking action against a troubling name. Days after a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike was toppled and set ablaze by protesters June 19 in Washington, D.C., Hopkins city workers took Pike’s name off the Hopkins History Center, a former Masonic lodge.
Earle Brown, then only 25, inherited a farm in what would become Brooklyn Center from his wealthy grandfather in 1905. The village of Brooklyn Center was formed at a meeting held at his farm, and he soon became the settlement’s most prominent citizen.
Brown was twice elected Hennepin County sheriff in the 1920s, and in 1929 he launched the Highway Patrol and served as its first chief. After bequeathing his farm to the University of Minnesota, he died in 1963 at age 83.
Today it’s hard to drive anywhere in Brooklyn Center without seeing his name. There’s the Earle Brown Terrace assisted-living facility, Earle Brown Tower office center and Earle Brown Farm Apartments. Many of the sites are near Earle Brown Drive.
The Minnesota Klan in the 1920s targeted mostly immigrants, Catholics and Jews; there were few Blacks in the state. In her book, Hatle writes that Brown told a Minneapolis grand jury in 1923 that he’d joined the Klan so he could spy on it. The book says he was initiated at the Dyckman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, known to be a meeting place for local Klan members.
As sheriff, Hatle writes, “Brown did nothing ... to stop the Minneapolis Klan chapters from meeting or burning their crosses in Hennepin County.” She writes that Brown “would have been aware” of numerous Klan activities in Robbinsdale, where she says crosses were regularly burned.
Brown’s campaign manager in his 1932 gubernatorial race said charges of his Klan membership were politically motivated, Hatle writes, but they were never categorically denied. She suggests that Brown may have sought racial restrictions on the use of the property he left to the U.
Hatle said she first brought Brown’s Klan membership to the attention of city officials last year. Council documents mention that another scholar who has studied Brown’s diaries disputes Hatle’s account and found no evidence that Brown was a Klan member.
Mayor Mike Elliott plans to invite Hatle to a council meeting to make her case, said City Manager Curt Boganey.
“These are very serious allegations and assertions about the character of Earle Brown,” Boganey said. “The council is very interested in talking to [Hatle] and getting more information before making a determination on how it wants to respond.”
Meanwhile, another debate has flared. The Albert Pike Masonic Lodge in Hopkins was purchased from the Masons in 2015 with the condition that the signage remain. That agreement has expired, said Mary Romportl, interim president of the Hopkins Historical Society, which leases the building from the city.
Historical Society officials have long discussed taking down the Pike name, Romportl said, but the heated national conversations about memorializing Confederate figures “finally got us moving.”
“We don’t want to erase any part of Hopkins’ history ... but our city is much more diverse than it once was and we want to serve everyone,” she said.
The lodge was built in 1901 and named for Pike, likely because he was a prominent Freemason both before and after the Civil War, Romportl said.
The Historical Society hasn’t received any feedback about the sign change, she said, adding that she hopes it will help address any confusion about what the building houses now.
“There was never a feeling about needing to get rid of the image of the Masons from town,” Romportl said. “But the name Albert Pike really wasn’t a part of our history.”
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440