When footage of the University of Oklahoma’s SAE fraternity singing a disgustingly racist chant — which included the phrase “there will never be a nigger in SAE” — emerged a couple weeks ago, I felt many things, but surprised wasn’t one of them. The video may have been taken at a private fraternity event on a bus, but I know firsthand that pervasive racism in white Greek organizations is not a new thing. I spent four years at a mostly white college in Kentucky, where daily acts of racism occurred in front of my face. So after seeing the way that some Southern white college students act in the presence of black people, it did not surprise me at all that they’d sing a fun little song about lynching niggers when they think we can’t hear them.
Transylvania University is a small college (yes, it really exists; yes, that’s really what it’s called; no, I didn’t major in bloodsucking) in Lexington, Kentucky. The school was a handful of blocks away from the better-known University of Kentucky and an hour and some change away from Louisville, where I’m from. That’s why I chose the school, in part; I was an anxious kid who wanted to start over with a new group of classmates, and nearly every high school student in Louisville enrolls in either the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville. Transy was far enough away from home yet still close enough for regular visits, had a great academic reputation, and a really cool name. And they gave me a scholarship. I decided to commit to Transy without visiting the campus; I felt like I knew enough about it, and again, they gave me the biggest scholarship of any other school I’d been accepted to (I was also really into vampire lore at the time). But on move-in day, my already rioting heart nearly stopped beating altogether as my mother and I turned into the dorm parking lot to find a Confederate flag in every window on the second floor of one of the boys’ dorms.
When I enrolled at Transylvania in 2000, there were about 1,100 students, and about 20 of them were black — which, as I understand it, was a school record (Transylvania was founded in 1780). A quick Google image search of the school name yields acres and acres of smiling white faces, except for the occasional basketball player. The college itself is about two blocks of bright green grass and rich brown brick buildings punctuated with trees that explode white in the spring. The apex of the campus, the building proudly displayed in their marketing materials, is a stark white building with big, stately columns called Old Morrison. There’s no sweet way to say that Old Morrison looked like the Big House on an antebellum plantation, so I won’t try to be poetic about it. So: It looks like massa’s house, and paired with all the heavy limbed trees and the blazing pink blooming trees and the bluest sky you’ve ever seen in your life arching forever overhead and all the melodic country accents traveling along with you as you walk through the courtyard, it sometimes feels like you’re walking through a scene in Gone With the Wind. And we all know what that was like for black folks. (Spoiler: slaves. We were slaves.)
The back of the school, known as “back circle,” is anchored by a large oval lawn punctuated with trees here and there. Transy’s student dormitories are situated around this circle; the flow of traffic, once you enter the circle’s entrance on the right-hand side, moves right, past the two boys’ dormitories collectively known as Clay/Davis. You first come to Davis Hall, home of upperclassmen and fraternity members — this is the building that housed the row of Confederate flags that greeted my mother and me. After that is Clay Hall, where Transy’s freshman boys live. Davis Hall was named for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, while Clay Hall was named after early 19th century Kentucky politician Henry Clay, who owned slaves (but magnanimously freed them after he died). Davis attended Transylvania, and Clay was once a faculty member there. Forrer Hall, the girls’ dorm, rounds the circle. (Another man with the last name of Clay — Cassius, who was an abolitionist — is also a Transylvania alum. There aren’t any buildings named after him.)
Here’s why there was a Confederate flag in each of those windows on the second floor in Davis Hall. The school, being as small as it was, had Greek organizations, but rather than having separate Greek housing, they had Greek floors in the dorms where all members lived. The floor with the Confederate flags in the windows was inhabited by the men of Kappa Alpha Order, known as the KAs. Every black person on campus (and those who were attuned to racial insensitivity) knew to stay away from the KAs. They were the good ol’ Southern boys, and the organization itself was founded on loaded terms like “chivalry,” “modern knighthood” (gee, why does that sound familiar?), and the “ideal Christian gentleman.” They list Confederate commander Robert E. Lee as their “spiritual founder,” which still doesn’t really make much sense to me, and though it wasn’t their official emblem, they were very, very fond of the Confederate flag. Those windows and the flags in them belonged to the KAs.
When I saw the row of flags in the building I instantly told my mother that I wanted to go back home. She told me, of course, that wasn’t an option, and so I dealt with it as best I could. I went to class, tried to be open and sociable, and vented to my handful of black friends when we were alone. But those flags never let me forget that I was not wanted at any point in history, not then and not now, not in my temporary home, the place where I slept, the place my mother was spending her hard-earned money to send me.
Growing up in the hood, you assume that living where white folks live means safer streets and unlocked doors. But I never feared for my safety more than I did at Transylvania University. Those flags were often the first things I saw in the morning and the last things I saw at night, smugly watching me scurry to class, snickering, mocking. Well, I do declare! Look at that uppity coon, making like she belongs here, like she’s one of us. This is what happens when you teach ‘em to read. Hope that nigger makes it home before the sun goes down.
I couldn’t understand why we had to work so hard to get the KAs and their supporters to understand that those flags were unwelcoming to nonwhites, that they meant something totally different to us, descendants of people who were enslaved and murdered and disenfranchised on the turf that those flags flew over. I didn’t understand why they pushed back so hard against us. We do not feel safe, said black kids in campus forums and anonymous discussions and newspaper articles. This is painful. This hurts us. This distracts us from learning. And the fact that you don’t care for our happiness or well-being hurts us even more.
Their rebuttal was, “It’s heritage, not hate.” The flag was just a symbol of Southernness and Southern pride, not racism, not slavery. The cognitive dissonance makes me laugh even today.
Another incident: During my freshman year, I remember going to my dorm room window, which faced a big green lawn across the street, after hearing chanting outside. It was dark and raining, and through the streetlights I could see a bunch of shirtless KAs, at least one draped in the Confederate flag, singing “Dixie” beneath the trees (“Dixie” is listed as one of the “Songs of Old KA” and members are reportedly to stand facing the South when it plays).
I don’t think we changed any minds, but the Confederate flags were eventually taken out of the KA windows. At the time I thought that it was because of the fuss we made, but according to these KA laws, displaying the flag was banned in KA chapters everywhere in 2001. The flag business was just the tip of the iceberg. Long after the flags were removed their whispers still clung to the air and became screams inside my head whenever I saw someone I knew to be a KA.
Some time after the flags had been taken from the KA windows, I went to my first and only frat party. I had a natural mistrust of fraternities — they aren’t exactly known for being pro-woman — and my time at Transy gave me motivation to mistrust white men in particular. Throw liquor in the mix and it seemed like an all-around bad idea for a black woman to wander right into the heart of the cesspool. But I was curious, so I went with two of my best friends on campus, both black women, to check out the scene. We may have moved through the halls of Phi Kappa Tau, Delta Sigma Phi, and Pi Kappa Alpha, but I’m not certain. All I remember is the KA Hall, my heart in my throat, my eyes wide as spotlights trying to keep an eye simultaneously on my friends, all the drunk men, and the nearest exits.
I remember the stares, people silently but obviously wondering why we were there. In a sea of skinny white girls and burly blond boys, three thick black women definitely stuck out like flies in buttermilk. I was instantly uncomfortable — the flags had been removed from the windows, out of public view, but many of the KA brothers still had their flags displayed in their rooms. The flags seemed oddly glad to see me and the fear on my face. You scared, nigger? You should be scared. Somebody oughta put you in your place. Maybe tonight.
We did not stay long. We made our grand exit after seeing a mountainous white boy walking toward us, cheeks flushed raspberry red, blond hair aflame, full-size Confederate flag draped around his shoulders. His face and eyes were blank; he seemed asleep on his feet, stare transfixed, walking a slow, deliberate pace. We moved out of the way as he approached and he moved past us, continuing his trek. We left immediately after and I felt like I’d just survived something, like I’d escaped rather than walked calmly out the front door. As we walked back to our dorm, the sound of rap music snaked through their open windows behind us, barely concealing the taunting of the flags on the walls. Look like we got ourselves some runaways! Don’t stop walkin’ till you get to Africa, nigger!
As if Confederate flags and singing Dixie in the moonlight and terrifying parties weren’t enough, there was Old South Week, a weeklong celebration leading up to the KA spring formal. It includes a parade wherein the men dress as Confederate soldiers and the women in attendance (nearly always white) dress in hoop skirts, high-piled curls, and other Southern belle regalia (just look at how much fun these Texas Old South partygoers were having back in the ’70s, complete with a guy in blackface with “slave” written on his chest just in case someone didn’t get it).
The first and only time I saw one of my schoolmates dressed as a Confederate, I was alone, walking the paths through the impossibly green courtyard lawn. I saw him in the distance, wearing pale blue from head to toe, and I chuckled and shook my head thinking about how crazy it would be if he were dressed as an actual Confederate soldier. The closer I got, the deeper my heart sank until my sadness was interrupted by a cackle that started at my toes and bubbled up and around my teeth before thudding heavily into the ground. What else can you do but laugh when you see someone in this century dressed as a Confederate soldier? What does anyone do in the face of absurdity? You laugh. But it wasn’t funny.
KAs celebrate Old South Week at many colleges and universities in the South. KAs at the University of Alabama issued a formal apology to the historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority after their Old South parade — in which they were decked out in full uniforms — “happened” to pause in front of an anniversary event they were having.
Kappa Alpha issued a national ban on the donning of the Confederate uniforms the following year. But, like the moving of the flags from the windows, nothing really changed at Transy. I still felt unsafe and unwelcome. Could’ve had something to do with the huge portrait of Jefferson Davis hanging in the lobby of the hall that the KAs called home.
The boys’ dorms may have been named after both Davis and Clay, but Davis received the most fanfare. A 9-foot statue of Davis hung in the lobby of his namesake residence hall, and a huge bust of him lived in the campus library. In April 2001 (April also happens to be “Confederate History Month” in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia and in spots of other Southern states), someone vandalized the door of a black male friend of mine by scrawling “nigger” on it in black marker. My friends and I hurried over to take pictures of the graffiti before the administration painted over it, which we knew they would do quickly. Newspapers reported that someone scratched another slur into the same door later, but I don’t remember that.
The incident spurred another round of “important conversations” on campus that typically lead nowhere, but this time did lead to the removal of the portrait of Jefferson Davis, which I definitely saw as a good-faith effort to at least pretend to care about whether or not students of color felt safe and welcome on campus. I hoped that we were finally chipping away at what really was a modern-day Confederate fort housing men who actually thought of themselves as Confederate soldiers, who flew the stars and bars and faced the south to sing “Dixie.” Then-university president Charles Shearer said of the incident and the portrait, “If you have African-American students who live in that hall … I can understand how that would make them feel.”
His understanding apparently ran out four months later when the portrait was rehung in a different part of campus (“A portrait of Confederate president Jefferson Davis has risen again at Transylvania University,” reported the Associated Press), its removal now positioned not as an attempt to ease worried brown hearts and minds as it was before, but as a preplanned maintenance removal. The same article contained praise for Shearer’s decision to rehang the picture from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a nod to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
And so Davis Hall remained Davis Hall, home to Confederate sympathizers of all ages. I often wrote articles for the school paper complaining about the racial climate on campus (the newspaper staff was amazing and allowed me to run some pretty sharp-tongued pieces), and at least one was ripped out and taped to a wall in Davis with the words “A FINE EXAMPLE OF IGNORANCE” scrawled across it with a marker that looked a lot like the one used on my friend’s door.
The day before my graduation day, I walked about the lawn of Old Morrison, strewn with lawn chairs placed for the commencement ceremony. We’d already gotten our seating assignments and I wanted to check mine out. Mine was near some scaffolding on the side of the stage, and hanging loosely from the scaffolding, within eyeshot, was a tiny black noose. I don’t know if someone put it there knowing that I would see it. But it sure felt like it.
I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that everybody living in the dorm or on campus was racially insensitive and addicted to Confederate insignia — I met some truly wonderful and beautiful people of all races at Transy. Nor am I positing that members of KA were the only racially insensitive people on campus. But I do mean to paint a picture of why that SAE video, while jarring, did not surprise me. For a black girl fighting to get an education in the South, fraternities were an early introduction to privilege. I learned then that certain people could essentially do and say what they wanted with little more than a slap on the wrist or a moved portrait as punishment.
White fraternities seem to attract the most privileged of already privileged men and boys, and they become breeding grounds for all the “isms” that white exclusiveness can create — sexism, classism, racism. And their offenses are often explained away as mistakes. Someone wrote “nigger” on a black kid’s door? A prank gone wrong. A girl is raped at a frat party? Boys will be boys. A group of white frat boys sings a song about hanging niggers on a bus? Everyone makes mistakes.
This week, as I clicked through my alma mater’s website to jog my memory to write this essay, I noticed that all references to Jefferson Davis seem to have been quietly removed, even from the short list of notable alumni that ends the brief telling of Transy’s history. Davis is slated to be torn down and rebuilt soon. I wonder if they’ll quietly drop his name from that too.
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