Driving by Arthur Johnson Park on a sunny day, most Redmond residents would never guess that it was named after a local Nazi supporter.
Local journalist Knute Berger shared the history of the Nazi party’s connection to Redmond to a packed audience last Saturday at the Redmond Public Safety Building. More than 150 people were present, including many retirees who grew up in the Redmond area.
Berger is an editor-at-large at Crosscut and focuses on politics and regional heritage. He is also the host of the series “Mossback’s Northwest TV” on KCTS 9. As an expert of local history and prolific communicator in Seattle, he was introduced at the Saturday Speaker Series as a “man who needs no introduction.” He has a local connection to Redmond: he was a student at The Overlake School.
Fascism in the Pacific Northwest is a topic he has covered thoroughly in Crosscut and reported on in other local publications as well.
The Saturday Speaker Series is presented by the Redmond Historical Society and includes a variety of topics relevant to local history. Upcoming talks include everything from historical views on transportation to the historical experience of women.
In Berger’s talk, he detailed many prominent figures that drove the Nazi agenda in the area in the 1930s. One major player in the Pacific Northwest was a man named Dudley Pelley, who founded a racist and anti-Semitic organization called the Silver Shirts after a life-changing, near-death experience. He believed it was his divine mission to further the ideals of the Nazis in Germany and use violence to advance his Christian and anti-Semitic ideals, Berger said.
The Silver Shirts were active during the 1930s in a few states, including Washington. A lodge used by the Silver Shirts still stood in Redmond until the late ‘80s, Berger said.
Audience members Ed and Lisa Murphy said they live near the site of the old lodge that has since been torn down. In its place is an unassuming residence, but the Murphys appreciated learning about the history of their town, Ed Murphy said.
“It helps us better understand the homes and the streets of where we live today,” said Murphy.
Lisa Murphy agreed.
“It is important to understand the mistakes we made, because we are still making them,” she said. “It’s disappointing.”
Multiple audience members said they were surprised to hear of these connections, although Redmond is not alone in its history of fascist locals. The largest Ku Klux Klan rally in the state took place just a few miles away in Issaquah and hosted an estimated 20,000 to 55,000 people in 1924.
Audience member Sue Gilbert said she was surprised to hear of this fascist history.
“We think of ourselves as so liberal this side of the mountains,” said Gilbert.
Others found personal connections as the talk went on, commenting on local landmarks or organizations that they did not realize had ties to this particular history.
Berger said he was stunned to see how many people showed up and acknowledged that talking about historical fascism can be a difficult topic.
This was the case in 2000 when the executive vice president of the Redmond Historical Society first proposed the topic of fascism for a Speaker Series. Then a member of the board, Margie Rockenbeck said she met pushback when she advocated for it from some of the other members.
One member in particular was quite upset by the idea that the Silver Shirts would be classified as Nazis.
“She was a child at the time and remembered it being like Girl Scouts,” Rockenbeck said.
At the end of the talk, there were more questions from the audience than there was time and many stayed to talk to Berger personally. He talked about how in contemporary society there are many examples of people coalescing behind strong ideas.
“I joke that we’re not going back to the 1950s,” Berger said, “we’re going back to the 1850s.”
Upcoming Saturday Speaker Series include:
March 14: Washington on Wheels: Odd and Innovative Transportation Ideas from the Pacific Northwest
April 11: Women in Our Valley: The Lives of Women from 1860 – 1930
Keelin Everly-Lang is a journalism student at the University of Washington, currently enrolled in the News Laboratory class.