Fraternity That Reveres Robert E. Lee Faces Revolt Over Racism

By Amy Harmon

The Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter fraternity house at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
The Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter fraternity house at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Great Read

How a racial awakening unfolded in a white-dominated brotherhood known for its veneration of the Confederate general.

The Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter fraternity house at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Amy Harmon

Kappa Alpha, one of the nation’s largest and oldest college fraternities, is not unaccustomed to fending off charges of racism.

Its embrace of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, as a “spiritual founder” has rankled students and faculty members. Black student groups have protested its antebellum-themed spring formals. One campus demanded an apology after Kappa Alphas recited a chant lamenting the Union victory in the Civil War.

But the killing of George Floyd has for the first time started a racial reckoning within the fraternity’s own chapters. Members of the Southwestern University chapter demanded that the fraternity drop its association with Lee and investigate the racial harms they say Kappa Alphas have inflicted. “KA nationally has a deeply troubling history that active chapters can no longer cry ignorance to,” they said in a statement drafted over often-tense Zoom meetings and GroupMe texts.

The unusual breaking of ranks was initiated this summer by Noah Clark, a Southwestern alumnus who had, in 2017, become the first Black student to graduate as an active member of the college’s Kappa Alpha chapter. Kappa Alpha’s national organization then suspended the chapter, angering even some Black students on the Georgetown, Texas, campus who have not typically regarded Kappa Alphas as allies.

“My first reaction was, ‘I can’t believe they’ve gone and done this,’” said Pierce MacGuire, 29, referring to the chapter posting the statement. Mr. MacGuire, an alumnus who voted for President Trump, lent his support to the statement after being approached by Mr. Clark. He added, “It’s not a group you would typically expect to be the people on the front line of a protest.”

The national ferment over race has reached many American institutions, including professional sports leagues, major corporations and Hollywood. Yet the dissent within Kappa Alpha, pieced together through interviews and by reviewing text exchanges and other documents, caught many familiar with the fraternity by surprise.

Kappa Alphas at Southwestern are “not known for doing the work of race relations,” said Ivan Maina, co-president of Ebony, a Black student group at Southwestern. A few years earlier, when some members pushed to remove a portrait of Lee hanging in the fraternity house, the majority voted to leave it up. The chapter, home to both liberals and conservatives, is officially “apolitical,” many members said.

But discomfort with Kappa Alpha’s reputation on race had been building in the chapter for some time. Privately, some of its younger alumni had begun to call the fraternity’s depiction of Lee “indoctrination.” More Latinos had joined the chapter. And a call to action by Mr. Clark — one of three Black alumni in the chapter’s 137-year history — after Mr. Floyd’s death proved hard to ignore.

“I think everyone has wanted to do something like this, but the courage within the active chapter has never been there,” said Jeremy Wilson, a senior member of the chapter, who like all active members who spoke to The New York Times for this article did so against the chapter’s instructions.

ImageJeremy Wilson, a member of Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter and a senior at Southwestern. 
Jeremy Wilson, a member of Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter and a senior at Southwestern. Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

In the days following Mr. Floyd’s death, Kappa Alpha had released a statement from its national headquarters in Lexington, Va. “Any act of racism is abhorrent and betrays everything for which Kappa Alpha Order stands,” it read.

The Southwestern chapter had posted one, too, noting its donation to the Black Lives Matter Global Network. But the skeptical comments that fraternity brothers received from other students stung. As one member characterized the typical response: “‘Cool, but isn’t your spiritual founder still Robert E. Lee?’”

A historical marker outside of the Kappa Alpha Order’s Xi chapter fraternity house at Southwestern mentions that the fraternity was “founded in 1865 by former Confederate soldiers at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, during the administration of Robert E. Lee.”Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

And when Mr. Clark, now attending law school in Houston, suggested to the active chapter that this was the right moment to take a public stand on the Lee question, many of its 39 members were open to at least considering it.

Mr. Clark knew that moral support from alumni would help. But he had not expected to hear from Taylor Martin, a white alumnus a few years his senior with whom he had clashed years earlier over displaying the portrait of Lee.

After pledging in the fall of 2014, Mr. Clark had faced little resistance to his insistence that the chapter jettison a chant that all pledges had learned — “one, two, three, Robert E. Lee; three, two, one, the South should have won.”

“I told them it was unacceptable and offensive to me and my family,” he recalled.

His proposal to remove the portrait, donated by an alumnus, proved more contentious. Though it has since come down, it remained hanging during alumni weekend in 2015, in part because Mr. Martin, whose father and uncles had also been Kappa Alphas, advocated for it.

The fraternity had long taught its pledges that Lee was a “perfect gentleman,” and Mr. Martin had believed at the time that his personal traits could be separated from his military leadership in the Confederacy. Besides, he had argued then, it was not wise to alienate alumni donors.

The two hadn’t spoken in several years. But Mr. Martin said he had since come to understand why Lee is widely seen as a symbol of racial intimidation. And discussions with Black members of his church after Mr. Floyd’s death, Mr. Martin said, compelled him to apologize for having “totally missed the plot,” as he put it in a text to Mr. Clark.

“T Mart!” replied Mr. Clark, invoking Mr. Martin’s nickname and waving aside the apology, “Good to hear from you.”

A few days later, Mr. Martin posted the first draft of the statement.

Under Kappa Alpha rules, chapters have wide leeway to make public statements. And by early July, the chapter at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, a school embroiled in a campus-wide debate over dropping Lee from its name, had publicly renounced its ties to the general.

But the Southwestern chapter’s statement was “incendiary,” Larry Wiese, the fraternity’s executive director, told the chapter’s president, Santiago Fernandez. If published unaltered, Mr. Wiese wrote in an email, it “could damage your chapter, the other chapters or the Order as a whole.”

“They said they would immediately suspend us if we release it,” Mr. Fernandez reported to the chat group.

He pasted in the revisions proposed by the national organization.

Strike “racist.” Cut “remedy.” No “demand.”

“What do y’all think?” he wrote.

Especially at Kappa Alpha’s larger chapters, concentrated in the South, some students who grew up celebrating Confederate figures gravitate to the fraternity precisely because of its allegiance to Lee. Even at the Southwestern chapter, which draws members from diverse backgrounds, those discomfited by the Lee connection had long managed to overlook it. And loyalty was a key Kappa Alpha precept.

So it was perhaps not surprising that the chapter’s resolution wavered at the threat of suspension. Some older alumni, who can open doors to jobs, members knew, would almost certainly be displeased. Knowing it was possible, too, that the chapter would forfeit its house — one of the more affordable housing options — the authors acquiesced to some edits.

“Racist” was replaced with “deeply troubling” to describe the fraternity’s history. “Call for” was substituted for “demand.” But the group, which had grown to several dozen alumni and active members, declined to cut the line vowing to “engage with our community in order to learn what pain we have caused and how we can remedy it.”

As the negotiations stretched on, some grew impatient.

“It’s outrageous to me that we’re still debating this,” wrote a recent alumnus.

Others still hesitated.

“Bro I benefit from being white but you don’t get losing the house,” replied one.

At least one white member opposed denouncing Lee on principle. Elijah Norris, 19, who would become the fourth African-American to graduate as a member of the chapter, recalled a series of calls with another who was equivocating. A third who was leaning against the public criticism of the fraternity posted his phone number, inviting those in support to talk one-on-one.

The Southwestern chapter, known within Kappa Alpha by the Greek letter “Xi,” had changed over the previous five years.

Composite pictures from years gone by that contained Confederate iconography were placed in storage. Pledges were told that the chapter did not adhere to Kappa Alpha traditions like toasting Lee on his birthday.

The 2018 edition of The Varlet, the Kappa Alpha Order membership manual, includes a chapter about Robert E. Lee, the “spiritual founder” of the fraternity.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

But no matter how much their own chapter distanced itself from Lee, Southwestern members said, it remained part of the national fraternity, with 121 chapters, 6,000 undergraduate members and more than 130,000 living alumni.

All Southwestern pledges still received a copy of The Varlet, the membership manual detailing how Kappa Alpha was founded at Washington College — later renamed Washington and Lee — when Lee was the school’s president, recounting the fraternity’s adoption of Lee as a “spiritual founder” almost 60 years later, and listing admirable traits attributed to Lee.

Theo Perisic, a chapter member who supplied some key language for the statement, said his mother, having learned of Kappa Alpha’s racial controversies through a cursory internet search, had cried when he told her he was joining the fraternity. Last year, for instance, three Kappa Alphas from the University of Mississippi were photographed posing with guns at a memorial for Emmett Till, the Black teenager whose lynching helped catalyze the civil rights movement.

The fraternity’s power to shape the beliefs of young men, said Mitch Petersen, 26, a white Southwestern chapter alumnus, motivated his work on the statement. Having learned growing up that Lee was a brilliant military strategist, he had recited the “South should have won” chant without much thought, he said, until Mr. Clark and other Black members who quit the chapter helped him see it as an assertion of white supremacy.

“It’s amazing when you’re 18 and excited to be part of a group, that you manage to not make that connection,” he said.

Several white alumni, including Mr. Petersen, said they would quit the fraternity if the statement was not posted. On a Zoom call, Mr. Norris spoke of his own fear of being a target of police violence. In the group chat, Mr. Clark reminded members that his grandparents had been forced to drink from segregated water fountains.

“If we kneel down to nationals now,” he wrote, “I can’t accept that.”

Finally, Mr. Fernandez, the president, called a vote.

The white member who had offered up his phone number voted in favor of the statement.

“Posted,” Mr. Fernandez typed when the total was tallied.

The suspension notice arrived a few hours later.

At the national fraternity’s annual leadership institute in January, its chapter presidents were encouraged to role-play responding to common Lee questions. Nineteen who bristled at the exercise — “a lot of like, ‘deflect, deflect, deflect,’” one recalled — have signed an internal petition echoing the Southwestern chapter’s demands. One was the president of the Vanderbilt chapter, which released a statement calling on the fraternity to acknowledge its “problematic history of racial exclusivity.”

Several groups of Kappa Alpha alumni have issued similar pleas, including one led by Robert Binion, a white pastor who recalls a racist Martin Luther King’s Birthday tradition at the Georgia Tech chapter when he was an officer in the mid-2000s in which members, invoking anti-Black stereotypes, drank malt liquor, threw dice and ate watermelon. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy, of Stanford’s chapter, also denounced the fraternity during his recent Senate campaign.

In correspondence with Kappa Alpha’s critics, Mr. Wiese noted that the fraternity hired a staff member dedicated to diversity education, and that it honors Lee solely as an educator and force for national reconciliation at the end of his life.

The only way to change Lee’s “spiritual founder” designation is by a vote at the biannual convention next summer, he said, and there is no indication that the measure has majority support. The national staff, Mr. Wiese said, is agnostic. But in an email to the insurgent chapters after suspending the Vanderbilt chapter, he noted that suspended chapters do not get a vote.