The History of America’s Most Racist Frat Was No Secret—Except to Joe Kennedy IIIHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Senate, Confederacy, Democratic Party, fraternities, Lost Cause
Since 1923, the Kappa Alpha Order has located its “Spiritual Founder” in General Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army that spent four bloody years trying to fight back Black emancipation. (Fun fact: The frat’s actual co-founder, James Ward Wood, managed to accidentally shoot himself in the foot while on leave during the Civil War, thus ending his tenure as a Confederate soldier.) As historian Taulby Edmondson notes, the Kappa Alpha Order blends two mythical paragons of white masculinity: the Southern gentleman and the medieval European chivalric knight. The Kappa Alpha member handbook describes the society’s motto as “Dieu and les Dames,” or God and the Ladies, and states its mission “centers on reverence to God, duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct as inspired” by Lee himself. The Lost Cause mythology, a counterfeit version of antebellum Southern history filled with unblemished white belles and benevolent anti-Black racism, pretty much leaps straight off the page.
Among Kappa Alpha’s earliest members following its 1865 founding was Samuel Zenas Ammen, an ardent white supremacist whom the frat continues to hail as its “Practical Founder,” citing his “seminal influence on the organization.” In a lengthy 1922 volume on Kappa Alpha’s origins, Ammen—using a refrain that appears in other early histories of Kappa Alpha’s founding written by its own members—describes the group’s membership thusly: “Southern in our loves, we take [Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson and Lee as models of character. Aryan in blood, we exclude the African from membership.”
In the same treatise, Ammen paints Reconstruction—the years between slavery and Jim Crow when Southern Black folks briefly attained the right to vote—as a time when “white citizens were disfranchised, to give control of the States to negroes.” He goes on to highlight a kinship, or perhaps more precisely, a brotherhood, between Kappa Alpha and the KKK. “[W]hen we were organizing, in the academic sphere, for the defense of Southern culture, another organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was forming, in the political and economic spheres, to overthrow the carpet-bag governments that were bankrupting the Southern states. The Klan soon achieved its object, which was just, patriotic and limited.”
Edmondson, the historian, notes that upon the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation—a filmic adaptation of Kappa Alpha member Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman—the movie was enthusiastically received by members of the fraternity, who wrote about how the film illuminated the ties that bound the KKK and KA.
“[T]he Birth of a Nation, one of the greatest productions ever presented on a moving picture screen, has a vital relation to the fraternity world. That the Ku Klux Klan and Kappa Alpha Order were intimately related is the gist of the sketch… The actions and the membership of the Klan are shrouded in mystery. But its members wore upon their breast the circled cross of the Kappa Alpha Order. And the Klan served, by militant, warlike means, those same ideals which our Order was organized to cherish.”
The historian notes that until the 1950s, chapters of the Kappa Alpha fraternity literally called themselves “Klans.” In response to the arrival on campus of the first Black students to integrate the University of Georgia in January 1961, Kappa Alphas there flew the Confederate flag at half-mast. According to Craig T. Greenlee’s memoir November Ever After, “the all-white Kappa Alpha fraternity” at West Virginia’s Marshall University in 1970 “were known for parading the Confederate flag at public functions… It was as if they were bound by some irrevocable oath to gleefully wave that flag widely recognized by Black folks as a symbol of unbridled bigotry.” After an intramural football face-off between the very white Kappa Alphas and the Black United Students organization, the fraternity’s racist Confederate taunt finally led to a full-scale fight. “It was so clear that this white fraternity deliberately went out of its way to antagonize Black people,” Greenlee writes.
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