'We are truly sorry': Wentworth family laments KKK past with Pensacola faith leaders

November 29, 2021
(Pensacola News Journal) - With the hot afternoon Florida November sun bearing down, a group of about 50 people gathered at the Hunter Amphitheater at Community Maritime Park on Sunday to participate in an "acknowledgment and lament" service organized by the Wentworth family.

It was the first public gathering to acknowledge the revelation last year that Pensacola historian T.T. Wentworth Jr. was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

The revelation occurred after it became public that the University of West Florida Historic Trust had obtained hundreds of pages of Klan documents from the 1920s that belonged to Wentworth.

The Trust responded to the information by removing Wentworth's name from the museum downtown and commissioning an academic report on the documents.

Sharon Yancey, the last president of the Wentworth Foundation and Wentworth's grandniece, delivered a statement of "acknowledgment and lament" from the Wentworth family on Sunday. She said Sunday's service also was focused on coming to terms with the roles churches played in aiding the Klan during that time.

UWF assistant history professor Jamin Wells, who wrote the report commissioned by the UWF Historic Trust, said the KKK used Pensacola churches to recruit members, and the Klan organization often grew out of church groups.

"Men's groups, women's groups, pastors and church leaders were often some of the first members of a community to join the Klan, and this was the case in Pensacola," Wells said at the service Sunday. "Public recruitment efforts included dramatic displays of hooded Klansmen interrupting church meetings and services to preach their creed from the church pulpit. That happened in white Protestant churches across Escambia County."

Wells said some churches and church leaders at the time did resist the Klan, but that was the rare outlier.

"The Klan was publicly turned away from at least one downtown white Protestant church and another pastor delivered a sermon chastising the Klan," Wells said. "This was a remarkably rare criticism from a local church leader in the deep South at this time. Much more common, however, were the pastors who spoke at local Klan rallies, wore Klan robes and delivered last rites at Klan funerals."

One of those churches detailed in the Wentworth report was the Gadsden Street Methodist Church. A newspaper account at the time detailed the Klan's recruitment effort there, where the church allowed Klan members in full regalia to interrupt a worship service to recruit members.

The Rev. Jack Hinnen, the current pastor of Gadsden Street United Methodist Church, said Wentworth was a member of his church in the 1920s and was even married there.

"My heart, it hurts," Hinnen said. "It hurts because a church that for so long has tried to share hope with our neighbors instead has a history of trying to terrorize our neighbors. We let society lead us, instead of the other way around."

The Rev. Jean Tippit, district superintendent for the Pensacola and Mariana/Panama City districts of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, also delivered a statement on behalf of the conference, which is made up of more than 1,000 churches.

"The findings of Dr. Jamin Wells showed a church that turned a blind eye to our sin and gave our blessing for the KKK to act in our stead," Tippit said. "It grieves me to hear how we have failed our communities, our members and our God. We must do better. We acknowledge our sinful pasts so that we might redeem our future together. Therefore, the Alabama West Florida Conference and the Pensacola District join the Wentworth family in the deep work of reconciliation within our communities and to atone for our silence and racism."

In the statement from the Wentworth family, Yancey acknowledged the details of the Wentworth report and apologized to those groups of people and their ancestors who were discriminated against, adding that those actions were not compatible with the Christian faith.

Yancey pointed out that when Wentworth was elected as the county tax commissioner in 1928, he was responsible for enforcing the state poll tax, which prevented most African Americans from voting.

"If you or your ancestor paid a poll tax to vote or were denied the right to vote, you were denied one of the basic and fundamental rights of American democracy," Yancey said. "For that, we are truly sorry, not only for you or your ancestors, but for our democracy."

Yancey said the white supremacy promoted by the Klan has left tragic scars on the African American community and Wentworth's place in shaping the popular understanding of Pensacola history has had even deeper impacts.

"Most sadly, we have lost the local African-American story," Yancey said. "T.T. was very intentional about the way he shaped the history of Pensacola, and it did not include the African-American story. As a result, your historical documents and collections have never been displayed, and the full representation of this aspect of Pensacola's past has not been acknowledged. And in most cases, this story was not even told. Your history is difficult to research in Northwest Florida because of this. We have a lot of listening to do about your story, and it's very important that your story becomes part of the narrative of Pensacola's story."

The Rev. H.K. Matthews, a famed Pensacola civil rights leader, attended Sunday's service and told the News Journal that he commended the Wentworth family for putting together the service.

"I applaud them," Matthews said. "It took a lot of guts, it took a lot of faith and it took a lot of righteousness for them to do what they did. … It makes me feel that there's still hope."

Other faith leaders who delivered remarks were the Rev. Dr. Michale Hoffman, rector of Christ Episcopal Church; the Rev. Dana Brady, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church; and Rabbi Joel Fleekop of Temple Bethel.

The Rev. Freddie Tellis, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church, capped off the service with a sermon.

"This is not about white guilt," Tellis said. "This is not about asking for handouts. This is only about doing what's right and being fair."

Tellis pointed out while this may feel like history, he remembers when as a child, he was forced to use separate water fountains and restrooms at department stores in downtown Pensacola.

Tellis said there are still racial disparities today in American society and noted the backlash occurring to critical race theory, taking down Confederate monuments and prominent news coverage of missing white women, but almost none of missing Black women.

However, Tellis said, actions like those of the Wentworth family to acknowledge the history can start to tell a better story for America.

"To the members of the Wentworth family, I salute you," Tellis said. "I salute you for standing up to the members of your own community and family that tried to stop you from doing this. I salute you for being accountable. I salute you for your courage and steadfastness. What you're doing is not easy, but necessary. What you're doing is not comfortable, but crucial. What you're doing is not popular, but essential. What you're doing is not acceptable to some, but imperative to all."

Following the service, Gadsden Street Methodist Church opened its sanctuary — the same one that was filled with Klan members trying to recruit in the 1920s — for people to come and pray.

At the church, Yancey announced that the Wentworth Foundation was organizing a restoration committee to be chaired by Pensacola businessman Quint Studer and Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, and more announcements on further action would be coming in January.

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.

All photos by Jeb Hunt. Click here to see more photos