The Campus Confederate Legacy We’re Not Talking AboutRoundup
tags: racism, higher education, Confederacy, fraternities, colleges and universities
Taulby Edmondson is an adjunct professor of history, religion, and culture at Virginia Tech.
In October 2017, I received a letter from the Virginia Tech chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order — a fraternity with 119 active chapters nationwide — accusing me of defamation. I was a doctoral candidate at the time. The letter claimed that an off-hand remark I made during my American Civil War class — criticizing the organization’s continued defense of the "Lost Cause" white-supremacist icon Robert E. Lee — “attacked and cast aspersions” on the chapter and its alumni, and demanded that I publicly retract my comments and apologize.
Rather than apologize, I went to work. As a historian, I knew KA wasn’t hiding its investment in the Lost Cause, an ideology that endorses the virtues of the Old South and views the Civil War as an honorable and heroic struggle for the Southern way of life, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery and white supremacy. In its member handbook, "The Varlet,” the fraternity combines its ideal of the Southern gentleman with a dedication to a medieval chivalric fantasy of European knighthood. “Emulating chivalric ideals and genteel ethics,” "The Varlet" (2018) reads, “KA translates these timeless philosophies into the culture of American colleges and universities.” The Order considers Lee as its “Spiritual Founder,” whose “exemplary ideals, values, strong leadership, courtesy, respect for others and gentlemanly conduct” are reflected in the founding of KA.
Pro-Confederate iconography is a focus of the continuing movement to remove white-supremacist symbols from the national commemorative landscape. But as statues come down, living legacies of the Lost Cause social movement remain on our campuses. And, as Lawrence Ross and Anthony James, two scholars studying campus racism, write (in their works Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses (2016) and “Political Parties: College Social Fraternities, Manhood, and the Defense of Southern Traditionalism, 1945-1960” (2008), respectively), KA “is by no means alone with its symbolism” when it comes to “fostering a racially hostile environment,” even if historically it has “more than any other . . . encapsulated" neo-Confederate ideals. Removing the Confederacy from our campuses will require more than removing statues and renaming buildings; we must confront the organizations promoting the myth in our midst.
It was never my intention to become an expert in “Confederatized” college frats. But when I upset the local KA chapter, the national organization demanded I prove my allegations. So I did. At a meeting with KA representatives — which I was required to take with my then dean — the conversation grew heated. When time was up, I hadn’t budged, and Executive Director Larry Stanton Wiese of KA proposed that I provide proof for my assertion that his organization historically supported white-supremacist causes. The dean, in an effort to quell tensions, directed me to take on Wiese’s research question. Against my own desires, I put my dissertation and teaching on the back burner and went to the archives.
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