Meet the secret society that infiltrated Denver’s Ku Klux Klan during the height of its power

Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook was an early civil rights leader in Denver who was able to pass undetected at Klan meetings.

The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers)denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers)

When the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power in Denver, one man from Denver’s black community infiltrated the group and tried to blunt the impact of its terror. Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook’s light complexion allowed him to pass for white, and at great danger and cost to his personal health, he attended Klan meetings and relayed their plots back to Denver’s black residents.

Terri Gentry knows this story well, and it’s not just because she’s been working at the Black American West Museum in Five Points for a decade.  Westbrook was her grandmother’s godfather and her great-grandfather’s best friend.

Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook seen on the wall at the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) black american west museum; history; five points; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado
Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook as seen on the wall at the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“My grandmother told me this story probably since I was two years old,” she says. Sitting at a long table in the museum’s office on California Street, Gentry needs only dive into her own memory to access Westbrook’s story.

Terri Gentry shows a photo of her twin, performing grandmother and great aunt, Ernestine and and Josephine McClain, godchildren of Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook. The Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) black american west museum; history; five points; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado
Terri Gentry shows a photo of her grandmother and great-aunt, Ernestine and Josephine McClain. The performing twins were the godchildren of Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

As Gentry tells it, Westbrook came to Denver in 1906 from Mississippi on the heels of other black homesteaders who staked out what is now Cherry Creek. Westbrook was an active member of the fledgeling community and helped to establish Dearfield, an all-black agrarian community in Weld County. He was also a member of the Boulé, the first all-black Greek fraternity that was founded in Philadelphia in 1904 and brought to Denver in 1921.

A Polaroid from a Boulé meeting. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
A Polaroid from a Boulé meeting. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers)

By the 1920s the homesteaders had been ejected from Cherry Creek so the city could build a dump there, and they instead flocked to the Five Points area for jobs as railway porters and in slaughterhouses. As the community thrived, Denver established “covenants,” or racially determined neighborhood boundaries, to keep it from moving east of Downing Street.

At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining power at the state’s highest levels, controlling the state House and Senate and Denver Mayor’s Office by 1925.

View of a burning cross on Ruby Hill, in Denver, Colorado; a man in Ku Klux Klan uniform and hood is to the side. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-595) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a burning cross on Ruby Hill between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-595)

The Klan, says Gentry, made their presence and power known by igniting crosses on Table Mountain for the whole city to see. At meetings they would plot ways to terrorize Denver’s black community, which was fighting to expand Five Points eastward to High Street.

And that’s where Westbrook comes in. With fair complexion, Westbrook was able to enter Klan meetings without question.

“They didn’t know that he was a black man,” Gentry says.

The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The first members of the Boulé in Denver, with Westbrook at bottom left. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers/Inverted colors)

For several years, says Gentry, Westbrook listened in to the group’s plots and relayed information back to his community. This was an extremely risky endeavor and would not have been possible without extreme confidence.

Gentry says only a small number of people knew about Westbrook’s work, most likely the fellow members of the Boulé. Westbrook probably used his fraternal network to tip off community members who might have been targets of Klan activity, in Gentry’s words, “taking the wind out of their sails.”

The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The first members of the Boulé in Denver. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers/Inverted colors)

According to a history of the group, the Boulé was formed by black intellectuals, “college men” who were “willing to ally themselves in common causes and to agree to sacrifice for these causes.”

The History of Sigma Pi Phi, fiftieth anniversary edition. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The History of Sigma Pi Phi, fiftieth anniversary edition. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/The Clarence and Fairfax Holmes Papers)

While the group’s stated goal was to combat isolation among black professionals, founding members’ words could point to a larger purpose.

“Concerted action,” they proclaimed in their first meeting, “brings about those things that seem best for all that cannot be accomplished by individual effort.”

The Founders: Richard J. Warrick, Henry M. Minton, Algernon B. Jackson, Edwin C. Howard. Seen in the History of Sigma Pi Phi, fiftieth anniversary edition. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/) denver public library; archive; archival; dpl
The Founders: Richard J. Warrick, Henry M. Minton, Algernon B. Jackson, Edwin C. Howard. Seen in the History of Sigma Pi Phi, fiftieth anniversary edition. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/)

And indeed Westbrook sacrificed much for his clandestine work. He was never caught by the duped Klansmen, Gentry says, but instead suffered a great deal of stress.

“He died 10 years before my great-grandfather,” she says. “My grandmother said she thought that the stress of his life really impacted his health.”

Terri Gentry can be seen in the reflection of her great grandfather Thomas Ernest McClain at the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) black american west museum; history; five points; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado
Terri Gentry can be seen in the reflection of her great-grandfather Thomas Ernest McClain at the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Westbrook had every reason to worry. It was an era when people were being kidnapped, beaten, intimidated, run out of town and potentially even bombed by the Klan, and Westbrook could very well have been killed for his espionage.

Today the Boulé is known as Sigma Pi Phi. Local membership includes former mayor Wellington Webb. Other prominent members were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Upstairs in the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) black american west museum; history; five points; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado
Upstairs in the Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Westbrook’s portrait hangs in the Black American West Museum. It’s open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or by appointment. Don’t forget to ring the bell when you get there.

The Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) black american west museum; history; five points; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado
The Black American West Museum. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

More reading for Black History Month

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @kevinjbeaty.