Courtesy of Jeremy Wilson
A Texas college fraternity chapter is fighting with its national leadership about how to confront the organization’s legacy of racism, at a time when college students across the country, especially students of color, are calling for such introspection and actions by white classmates and administrators.
Leaders of the Kappa Alpha Order chapter at Southwestern University say it was recently suspended by the national organization for attempting to reckon with the fraternity's past by issuing a statement criticizing its ties to the Confederacy. The national leaders say they have no problem with the local chapter's intent, they just took issue with how the chapter went about it stating it.
"The issue was the procedure, not the sentiment," Larry Stanton Wiese, executive director of the national organization, said of the statement. It did not follow the fraternity's official protocol, he said.
"I would’ve hoped that the message itself would've outweighed any policy," said Jeremy Wilson, a senior at Southwestern and a member of the local chapter. "Because it was the right thing to do."
The disagreement began shortly after the chapter posted a statement on social media on July 13 that denounced the fraternity’s ties to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. Wiese informed the chapter soon after that it would be suspended for the remainder of the year, according to a letter sent to Santiago Fernandez, the chapter’s president.
Leaders of the Southwestern chapter in Georgetown, Tex., had been communicating with the national fraternity before putting out the statement, allegedly agreed to revise it, then released the unrevised version, the suspension letter said. The chapter “violated the trust of your advisors and … misrepresented your intentions to both your advisors and to national officers,” Wiese wrote.
The statement that was posted said the chapter had been making “internal efforts to distance” its members from the Confederacy and Lee, who is labeled the “spiritual founder” of the fraternity. The chapter called on the national organization to cut its ties to Lee and asserted that “anything short of a public denouncement … works against our morals and doesn’t allow us to engage our community in the way that it deserves us to.”
“By acknowledging our history and educating ourselves, we pledge to make proactive efforts to begin mending wounds our organization has inflicted and ignored for too long,” the statement said. “KA nationally has a deeply troubling history that active chapters can no longer cry ignorance to; our chapter has a duty to step up and force changes that will produce more compassionate and well-rounded young men.”
The Kappa Alpha Order makes its ties to Lee known on its website. The fraternity’s first chapter was founded at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., then known as Washington College, during Lee’s presidency of the college in 1865. Though Lee was never a member of the fraternity, the organization says it pays tribute to “his religious convictions, exemplary ideals, values, strong leadership, courtesy, respect for others and gentlemanly conduct.”
Wiese explained an email to Inside Higher Ed that the fraternity’s “relationship with Lee is constrained by history to his time as president.”
“He provided a source of leadership and an example of gentlemanly conduct that inspired the [Washington College] students, KA’s founders among them,” Wiese wrote. “Many historians claim that no one did more to unify the country after the war than Lee. KA does not deify Lee. Like any of us, Lee was flawed, he made serious mistakes, and errors in judgment. This is an increasingly important lesson for developing tomorrow’s leaders.”
In an appeal of their suspension, the Southwestern chapter wrote that the racist legacy of the fraternity goes deeper than Lee. Samuel Zenas Ammen, one of the organization's founders, praised the goals of the Ku Klux Klan, the appeal letter said, referencing an archived Kappa Alpha document.
Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University in Washington, who attended Louisiana State University in the 1990s, recalls Kappa Alpha fraternity members hosting “antebellum”-themed parties on the campus, waving the Confederate flag and dressing up like Confederate soldiers. Toldson is co-editor of a new book about campus racial unrest, Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope (Teachers College Press), and he has been assisting his alma mater in confronting its own racist history, including with its predominantly white fraternities.
Toldson was a member of the first historically Black fraternity chapter at LSU to have a house on “fraternity row,” Alpha Phi Alpha, which was across from Kappa Alpha’s chapter house. While the Black fraternity had some social events and interaction with other white fraternity and sorority chapters, Kappa Alpha members “never so much as exchanged a hello with me,” Toldson said.
“We never had any interaction with Kappa Alpha. It was cold between us,” Toldson said. “Because of their tradition and what they represented, there was an understanding that they didn’t have a need for any interaction with Black people and Black people didn’t want to have any interaction with them. I’m fascinated with the dynamic that’s happening right now.”
Wiese said Kappa Alpha banned the use of the Confederate flag and uniforms in 2001 and 2010, respectively, and noted that many chapters had already abandoned them before the national leaders took action.
But Wilson, the Southwestern student and chapter member, said the fraternity’s legacy continues to dissuade students of color at the university from joining. Wilson, who has been a member since spring 2017, said several interested students of color who initially wanted to join the chapter because they connected with some members chose not to because of the fraternity’s connections to the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 2017 when the first Black member of the chapter graduated as a Kappa Alpha, remaining affiliated with the chapter all of his four years of college, Wilson said.
“It’s been really unfortunate that there are people that we’ve considered perfect candidates to join the organization, but based on reputation and history, that was the deciding factor for them,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who is white, fully backs the statement that led to the chapter's suspension. He said he is “completely disobeying and disregarding” instructions from the chapter not to publicly speak further about the issue, but that it’s worth the risk to move the fraternity forward.
“I want to create change within this organization,” Wilson said. “I’ve felt that disaffiliating myself would not give me that platform to do so. So while I’m still a member, it’s important for me to do what I can to push for those changes. I want to be able to be really proud of this organization and know that the type of gentlemen that they want to produce and put out into the real world are well educated and strive for something better.”
As colleges and state and local governments, national parks, and even the U.S. Congress are addressing connections to Confederate figures such as Lee and racial injustice in American society, Kappa Alpha’s direct ties to this very legacy are not sitting well with some current members of the fraternity. There is a petition circulating online that calls for Kappa Alpha to denounce Lee outright. Nearly 900 people had signed the petition as of July 22.
Wilson said the goal of his chapter is not to completely erase Lee’s legacy, but to acknowledge it. Limiting information about Lee’s influence on the fraternity to his time as president of a college after the Civil War paints a “romanticized picture” of Lee, he said.
“The point is to educate ourselves and be actively antiracist, not just get rid of him and create this comfortable unawareness of KA’s legacy,” Wilson said. “We need to own this problematic history and actively speak out against that.”
The fraternity’s inaugural chapter at Washington and Lee issued a statement of its own denouncing Lee before the Southwestern chapter did so, and it was not punished.
“After careful deliberation, our chapter has recommended Kappa Alpha Order eliminate all traditions tied to the Confederacy,” the Washington and Lee chapter statement said. “We feel a continued connection with Lee will hinder our ability to live up to the standards of the Kappa Alpha Order.”
Wiese said in the suspension letter that had the Southwestern chapter published a statement about its stance without consultation from national leaders and advisers, as the Washington and Lee chapter did, it would not be in violation of the fraternity’s bylaws. Releasing a chapter statement in and of itself is not a violation, the letter said. But the Southwestern chapter "unfortunately acted in bad faith" and "insubordinately" by breaking its apparent agreement with national leadership to revise the statement, Wiese said in an email.
“We have been having a dialogue with approximately 19 other chapters that have similar ideas but have been respectful and working within the required process of the national organization,” he wrote.
Wilson noted that Wiese also called the Southwestern chapter’s statement “threatening or incendiary” in the suspension letter, even after the chapter agreed to take out parts of the statement that Kappa Alpha had requested be removed. National leadership sent the chapter a revised statement that they recommended be used, which Wilson said was “watered down” and “softer than we wanted it to be.”
The chapter members also dispute that they ever agreed to verify a final version of the statement with national leadership before publishing it. The chapter engaged in dialogue with national leaders in the first place as a courtesy to them -- it’s not required by the organization’s bylaws, Wilson said. He believes the content of the statement should have outweighed the way in which it was developed.
“We expected them to support the new statement because we did take out all of the things that they wanted us to take out, but … we were able to paint the picture that we wanted to,” Wilson said. “Did we think that a suspension was going to come of it? That was a possibility in the back of our minds.”
The disagreement between the local chapter and its national leaders has particular resonance during a moment when college and university leaders are also taking it upon themselves to confront such controversial issues in response to national protests and debates about racial inequality in American society.
Southwestern University president Laura E. Skandera Trombley showed support for the Kappa Alpha chapter on her campus in a July 20 email to the university. She noted the death of United States representative John Lewis, a renowned civil rights leader, and said Lewis’s words, particularly a recent quote about getting into “good trouble” to achieve justice, “took on a particular timbre” when she became aware of the chapter’s statement.
“These young men are our students, practicing our core values, and publicly acknowledging what is important to them,” Trombley said. “They are indeed making ‘good trouble’ that will encourage our community to have open discussion about examining the past, re-envisioning how we understand each other, while giving us direction to shape a shared future.”