“History is what makes us people. It’s what legitimizes our culture, what says who belongs where and who contributed to what.”
Christy Clark-Pujara spoke openly about the job that laid before her and a robust team of UW scholars and Madison activists. Commissioned by University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank last year, the university study group was tasked with investigating UW’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and with suggesting ways to rectify the culture of intolerance that allowed for it’s open and outward presence on campus.
Founded in 1866, just one year after the end of the Civil War, the KKK embodied the post-war sentiment of a white man in jeopardy of losing his majority status in the south and, along with it, his ability to rule the region with a cruel, racist hand. With zeal, the group swept across states reestablishing and reiterating the supremacy of whites over the recently emancipated black population.
Although the group’s activity and prominence waned towards the end of the 1800s, white Protestant nativist groups reinvigorated the Klan’s activity in the early 20th century, reaching a membership of between one and four million by the middle of the 1920s. Rallies, the burning of crosses and marches vilifying immigrants and minorities once again were fronted by the white hoods of the KKK.
While the KKK is inextricably linked with the South, the Klan and its mission traveled much further north than the Mason-Dixon line. Many northern states, despite fighting against the South in the Civil War, became home to monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and racist organizations. Wisconsin was no exception.
In October 2017, following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Blank charged a study group with examining UW’s colorful and controversial past with the KKK in order to protect “the values the campus currently strives to maintain,” increase diversity and create a more equitable campus community.
What’s past is prologue
After its creation, the study group met numerous times to review documents and scholarship from this period of the university’s past, and to discuss how to move forward as an institution in a more conscientious manner.
Chaired and led by UW history professors Stephen Kantrowitz and Clark-Pujara, as well as president of 100 Black Men of Madison Floyd Rose, the study group was tasked with examining two student organizations that existed at UW at the beginning of the 20th century and their lasting contribution and commemoration on campus.
According to the Isthmus, the first of the student organizations, an honorary interfraternity society for juniors and seniors called the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in 1919. The second, a housing fraternity called Kappa Beta Lambda, code for “Klansmen Be Loyal,” was founded in 1924.
While the views of the first organization were more ambiguous and did not have a direct link to the national KKK organization, Kappa Beta Lambda was explicitly a white supremacist organization founded after the national KKK began recruiting members on campus as early as 1922.
Kappa Beta Lambda’s membership was restricted to elite white male students, many of whom held prominent roles on campus during their years at UW. Two of the most recognized members of these organizations were Fredric March — then Frederick Bickel — and Porter Butts.
March and Butts left impressive legacies, both at UW and throughout their professional lives.
After being featured in the 1921 Badger yearbook official photo for the campus KKK, March left UW for the bright lights of Hollywood, where he won an Oscar and became deeply involved in activities that suggest a progressive shift in his political leanings.
These activities included co-founding the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936 and hosting a benefit for the NAACP in 1964. On campus, March’s legacy was enshrined until recently in the lettering above the Fredric March Play Circle in Memorial Union.
While March left his mark in Hollywood, Butts chose to stay in Madison as director of the Wisconsin Union from 1928 to 1968, where he built an environment that has been described as an “open place” that included people from all walks of life — a sentiment that current Wisconsin Union director Mark Guthier echoed. Butts’ name was found, until recently, above the Porter Butts Gallery in Memorial Union.
“Butts led the way [in establishing] the union as a place that was open to all students [regardless of] class standing, background, socioeconomic status; he really led the way for a lot of those things before words like diversity and inclusion existed,” Guthier said. “He was the one saying that the union was here for every student no matter who they were.”
However valuable the contributions both men made to UW may be, Blank and the study group pursued their investigation not only into the two student organizations, but also into the broader prejudicial and racist climate cultivated at the university during the 20th century.
The history revealed in the study group’s report is one of exclusion and racism that made campus a place to be “endured” by students of color — a place where white students performed black face competitions and mocked Native American rituals as a part of homecoming festivities.
“Our conclusion from reviewing the history is that the presence of Klan-named groups on campus was not the cause of the culture of intolerance in that era, but was rather a symptom of the culture of intolerance in that era — not unique to UW, but nonetheless present on this campus,” Kantrowitz said. “What needs addressing is not the actions of a few individuals, but rather the culture of that era and it’s legacies down to the present-day.”
Clark-Pujara explained that “the climate on campus during the 20th century refers to things like black face shows on campus being normative and unchallenged by students, faculty, administration and the community.”
While students of color did speak out against these performances and other racist activity on campus, Clark-Pujara reiterated there was no one within the administration or the majority white student body willing to put an end to the oppressive behavior.
Recommendations for redress
In addition to exploring the university’s history of racism and oppression of marginalized groups, the study group’s report contained two major proposals for the university as it looks to rectify past mistakes: to recover and acknowledge the history of exclusion on campus, and to recommit resources to a more inclusive present.
With the first of the two initiatives — acknowledging the history of the university — the study group suggested the creation of spaces and the encouragement of research devoted to telling the stories of students who were oppressed under the culture of racism and intolerance found on campus.
This process could take several forms, Clark-Pujara said — everything from oral testimonies to going to the university archives.
“It is very important for myself and those on the committee that students of color and non-majority students not be spoken of just as victims,” Clark-Pujara said. “They reacted to what happened to them and they pushed back. This period of the university’s history should be presented and understood from that point of view.”
The second proposal is the commitment of more funding and resources to departments, programs, recruitment and retention of students of color and increased fellowship opportunities.
UW ranks last in the Big Ten in percentage of African American students attending the institution, according to the study group’s findings. And although African Americans constitute 6.6 percent of Wisconsin residents, only three percent of the student body and two percent of the faculty identify as African American. The university also ranks in the bottom half for the percentage of the student body identifying as Asian, Hispanic or international.
One area of the university that would receive more funding under the second initiative are programs devoted to ethnic studies.
The Department of Afro-American studies at UW is the only department dedicated to the study of minority experiences out of the four ethnic studies units on campus. The other three — Asian American studies, [email protected] and [email protected] studies, and American Indian studies — are programs, meaning they receive less funding and wield less power than academic departments.
Clark-Pujara, herself a professor in the Department of Afro-American studies, explains that, even though these programs are lacking funding and resources, they have an enormous role in the ethnic studies requirement at UW, as well as an important role in the experience non-majority students and students of color at the university.
“These programs do some of the heavy lifting with the ethnic studies requirement,” Clark-Pujara said. “They do things like have discussion sections with their courses, so students aren’t just taking in information — they actually have to sit and talk to people about these issues in a social context in a racially, ethnically, religiously mixed room.”
Clark-Pujara said using the aforementioned programs and departments to work towards understanding and redressing the university’s past of exclusion is beneficial for all students, not just minority students.
Ethnic studies classes have been found to increase racial understanding, bolster a sense of community and commonality among students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds and challenge students, especially white students, to move outside preconceived notions with a generally high rate of success.
“Students need to have the capacity to discuss difference in a respectful and comfortable manner. All you have to do is turn on the news today to understand that most Americans cannot do this. This department and these programs work to change that.”
What’s in a name?
The study group, as previously mentioned, was commissioned in a moment charged with questions about race relations in America and about how to reconcile the country’s racist past, venerated in monuments and institutions bearing the names of Civil War veterans or white supremacists, with social progress.
The study group at UW stopped short of suggesting the university remove March’s and Butts’ names from the spaces they occupied on campus, a decision that diverges from how some other comparable institutions dealt with similar situations. This was a decision that opened a necessary conversation on campus about the power of names and the power of reconciliation.
“We didn’t want the conversation to become only about names and that is often what happens,” Clark-Pujara said. “We’re not saying that names aren’t important, but redress is also important.”
Rather, Clark-Pujara said the study group wanted discussions on campus to focus on questions about rectifying and redressing the culture of intolerance that plagued and still plagues UW’s campus, and for that discussion to drive necessary cultural change and financial investment.
But Adan Abu-Hakmeh, a former UW student and former Wisconsin Union Directorate vice president, strongly disagreed with the group’s decision to not call for the removal of Butts’ and March’s name from their prominent display on campus.
“Students asked the UW administration to remove the names, and this study group [suggested] ‘alright, we’re commissioned to go and investigate all of the history and see why this was even something that happened,’” Abu-Hakmeh said. “That’s great, and they did that, but I think they then disrespected the fact that the only thing students asked for was removing the names by not recommending their immediate removal.”
Abu-Hakmeh, then a UW student, filed a hate and bias report against the university following the release of the April report.
Her report, supported by more than 400 students, charged the university leadership with contributing to “active harm towards students, alumni, faculty, staff and Union members by disregarding the urgent removal” of the names of Butts and March from campus spaces.
“The overwhelming positive response from students was really incredible because there were a lot of people who — because of their job, position at the university or financial aid — were not able to put their own name on the report, but they wanted me to know I had their support,” Abu-Hakmeh said. “I knew I wasn’t the only person [affected by the university’s decision] and I didn’t want to silence any other voices.”
But not everyone supported the removal of those names or was happy to see them go. A flyer circulated throughout campus and the wider community expressed “outrage” at the Wisconsin Union’s decision to remove Butts’s and March’s names from their display.
“When the reputations of two decent men can be smeared by false charges of racism, it’s time to stand up to those who assume they deserve to be the moral arbiters for the rest of us,” the flyer read.
But the removal of the names notwithstanding, the study group’s focus was on taking steps to rectify the culture of intolerance at UW which allowed for these organizations’ presence on campus in the first place.
So what’s next?
At the beginning of August, the Union Council, citing Abu-Hakmeh’s hate and bias report in its deliberation, voted to remove the names of Fredric March and Porter Butts from the spaces they previously occupied within Memorial Union.
Their names will remain in the building in some capacity, most likely as part of a historical exhibit outlining their professional contributions to the university.
“The new information [about Butts or March] will appear somewhere else: maybe in a corridor somewhere with a really well done historic piece telling what Butts’ contributions to college unions were,” Guthier said. “Ultimately it’ll be an individual choice whether to read it or not to read it: You won’t have to engage in that space or choose to honor them.”
Wisconsin Union votes to rename rooms associated with KKK-affiliated group membersThe Wisconsin Union Council passed a resolution Monday to rename two rooms at the Wisconsin Union named after members of Read…
“This was an example of students today wanting to [condemn] what happened in the past and asking for some evidence that [UW administration and Union officials] are listening to them. I hope this serves as a moment that teaches students that positive change is possible, that they can impact the history of the university and the story the university tells,” Guthier said.
The removal of the names from the popular spaces, however, is not the end of the long road to redress which the university must walk.
According to the results of the campus climate survey released in the fall of 2017, only half of students of color at UW reported feeling as though they belong at the university — compared to 75 percent of white students.
A similarly low 50 percent of African American, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern students reported feeling generally respected on campus, in comparison to 83 percent of white students.
With the exposure of UW’s history of exclusion, these survey results challenge the progress the university has made since the early 20th century, and asks the age old question: What power lies in a name?
“Our history is a bit more complex, it’s going to take some understanding and some learning and people are going to have to be willing to do that. It’s going to tax people’s ability to pay attention and to really unpack the complexity of the racism that existed here,” Clark-Pujara said. “But to ignore someone’s history is to deny them personhood.”