A History Of Racism At Sigma Alpha Epsilon
The fraternity came into the national spotlight after its members this year were caught singing a racist hymn with decades-old roots that they “learned” on a leadership retreat. A BuzzFeed News review has found that racially charged incidents are part of the fraternity’s 159-year-old story.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon was born, in secret, on March 9, 1856, “in the late hours of a stormy night” by the “flicker of dripping candles” in a mansion in Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama. The original intent of the eight founding members, an SAE brother wrote decades later, was “to confine the fraternity to the southern states.”
Instead, SAE grew far beyond its Southern redoubt. It took 27 years to open the first Northern chapter, because “to go to a northern college would mean to lower the standard of the fraternity by taking unworthy men,” William C. Levere, a devoted SAE member, wrote in his 1916 book A Paragraph History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Its notable alumni list grew to include author William Faulkner, U.S. President William McKinley, and scores of professional athletes. Today, the fraternity boasts 15,000 members at 219 chapters and 20 colonies around the nation. Upon induction, pledges have to memorize the creed, called "The True Gentlemen," part of which reads, “A true gentleman is a man ... who thinks of the rights and feelings of others.”
But on March 8, 2015, a grainy cell phone video of fraternity members from the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter shouting a racist chant spread across the internet. The young, mostly white men — dressed in formalwear and apparently emboldened by alcohol — were on a private bus heading to a mixer commemorating the fraternity’s 159th birthday when they broke into a version of a segregationist hymn:
“There will never be a n****r at SAE ...
you can hang him from a tree,
but he'll never sign with me;
there will never be a n****r at SAE."
The chant was no mere isolated incident. A BuzzFeed News review of SAE’s own historic documents and its appearances in news reports — along with interviews of several people involved in past racially charged incidents — shows that the fraternity does have a long history of generally unchallenged intolerance toward minorities that met such little resistance it became ingrained in the fraternity’s very culture.
(BuzzFeed News sought to speak to every living person named in this article. In instances where people do not provide an interview, BuzzFeed News could not reach them for comment. It should also be noted that many fraternities, not just SAE, have struggled with integrating and have also received attention for apparently racist acts.)
To partly understand that chant’s place in history, look back to the University of Georgia 54 years ago. A version of the chant was sung on January 9, 1961 – the day Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter became the first black students to step onto the campus after a judge's ruling.
That evening, hundreds of well-dressed and white students — including fraternity brothers — watched a smiling student carry a black-faced effigy across campus. It was then hung from a noose slung over the the school’s historic black iron archway.
The students chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate...eight, six, four, two, we don’t want no jigaboo” — a popular rallying cry for whites protesting desegregation in schools around the nation. They also yelled, “There’ll never be a n****r in the [fraternity] house,” inserting various fraternities’ names, according to Robert Cohen, a professor of history and social studies at New York University who wrote a paper on the chant. (While many fraternities attended, it’s unclear if SAE was there.)
After the cell phone video depicting the University of Oklahoma students was discovered earlier this year, outrage spread fast and discipline was swift. Administrators shut the fraternity down. Two students were expelled and later publicly apologized. The fraternity’s headquarters announced investigations into all reported racist acts, started a hotline, and appointed a director of diversity. “The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” Executive Director Blaine Ayers said in a March statement.
But as more stories of alleged racism in different SAE chapters nationwide subsequently came to light, SAE was forced to publicly confront the idea that the incident at the University of Oklahoma was not isolated and that the quick action taken was a rarity.
The incidents stretch back to more than 150 years ago — when one of SAE’s earliest members argued in Congress in support of slavery — and continue up to March 2015.
The fraternity hosted minstrel shows in the 1900s, “Martin Luther King Jr. trash” parties in the 1980s, and “n*****s and hoes” parties in 2010. Blackface was used in the 1930s, and a white brother impersonated Tiger Woods in the 2000s. Confederate flags were draped proudly in some SAE houses from at least 1950 to 2015. The institution of slavery, supported by an SAE member in the 1860s, was celebrated as part of a chapter’s party in 1987.
And the segregationist chant sung at the University of Oklahoma was apparently longstanding tradition. The university’s investigation of the incident found that older brothers taught the chant to the younger ones during a “leadership cruise.”
“While there is no indication that the chant was part of the formal teaching of the national organization,” OU President David Boren said in March, “it does appear that the chant was widely known and informally shared amongst members.”
“This is not an accident,” Cohen, the NYU professor, told BuzzFeed News. “It shows that a larger fraternity milieu that existed during the desegregation era has been preserved. You put in a time capsule and half a century later it exists in its pristine form.”
Cohen said that such racist chants must have been preserved by the fraternity’s alumni who “were never really happy about desegregation and resisted it.”
In most of the alleged racist incidents, universities and SAE chapters followed a standard response: The chapter apologized for the actions of a few and vowed to teach members about diversity. In some cases, the universities levied sanctions, including interim suspension, against the chapters. But most disciplinary efforts went by the wayside or drew only slap-on-the-wrist penalties from university or Greek officials. And today most university and SAE officials, when asked by BuzzFeed News, can’t fully explain whether those actions fostered lasting diversity and tolerance.
Until this year, SAE had never announced a fraternity-wide plan to counter racism in its ranks, despite numerous documented instances of racial intolerance. The result, Cohen said, is that for more than a century and a half, SAE couldn’t banish tactics seen in the era of Jim Crow from their place on fraternity row.
Segregation and Confederate Nostalgia
SAE says its creed, known as “The True Gentleman,” is “based upon the ideals set forth by our Founding Fathers.”
Several of those founders and some of SAE’s earliest pledges worked to keep segregation alive in the United States. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, one of the first initiates at SAE’s University of Mississippi chapter — who went on to become a senator and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — delivered a speech at the Capitol in 1860 justifying slavery.
“Our proposition is that when these two races are brought into contact, the supremacy of the white man must be acknowledged,” he said. When Lamar died in 1893, he was buried in a casket adorned with a flower arrangement fashioned after the badge of SAE.
Of all the college fraternities, SAE sent the largest percentage of its members to the Civil War when it began in 1861, Levere wrote. More than 60 died. Six of its seven founders wore the Confederate Army’s gray uniform, including the fraternity’s chief founder Noble DeVotie, who Levere said was the “first man to lose his life in the Civil War” when he drowned after falling off a wharf.
At that time even discussions of race were discouraged. SAE made that clear in the 1888 issue of its magazine, The Record. An editorial in the magazine disapproved of another Southern fraternity — Kappa Alpha — for inserting a Harper’s Weekly article on race problems in the South in its journal. “We take it for granted the qualification for membership in K. A. is at least ‘male white,’ and further than that we can't see how the order — as a fraternity — can be interested in race issues or other similar political problems of our land.”
As SAE flourished, its brothers moved on to positions of power, taking action that had lasting negative political and social repercussions for racial equality.
Member John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham, the 35th governor of Kentucky, was “admired” by SAE, according to an issue of The Record from 1900. Beckham passed the Day Law in 1904, which mandated racial segregation in all schools in the state for nearly half a century. The law was proposed by a legislator, Carl Day, who called for an end to the “contamination” of white students at college.
Clifford Davis was a Ku Klux Klan leader, a Democratic U.S. representative, and an SAE member from Tennessee. He was also Memphis’ commissioner of public safety in the 1920s. Under Davis, 70% of the Memphis police force were Klan members, worsening race relations in the city, according to the 1993 book Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers by Michael K. Honey. According to Honey, police violence was rampant against labor and civil rights organizers through the '30s. By the '40s, “the only connection Negroes have had to the Memphis police force has been Negro heads colliding with nightsticks in the hands of white policemen,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche observed in his 1973 book The Political Status of the Negro in The Age of FDR.
Several fraternities, including SAE, grew increasingly politicized as a response to President Harry Truman’s establishment of a civil rights committee in 1946 and desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. Around this time, the Confederate flag, once largely confined to tributes to Confederate dead, became a symbol of “resistance to federally enforced integration,” according to a 2000 inquiry by the Georgia state government. Many fraternities adopted them for this reason. "Kappa Alpha, Kappa Sigma, S. A. E., and Phi Delta Theta fraternities have brought Confederate and Alabama state flags out of the mothballs and once more they are flapping in the warm Southern breeze," reporter Jim Harland wrote in a July 1948 issue of the Crimson-White, the University of Alabama's student newspaper.
Today, the Confederate flag can be spotted in photos behind college students posing at SAE parties.
SAE spokesperson Brandon E. Weghorst told BuzzFeed News in June that the fraternity does not endorse the Confederate flag. “Never has it been part of our insignia, emblems or marks since our founding,” he said. “Although we believe in freedom of speech, we reiterate to our members that the flag should not be used in conjunction with Sigma Alpha Epsilon.”
Still, the Confederate flag was seen flying on the front lawns of the SAE house at Valdosta State University in Georgia as recently as 2009.
And former and current students at Oklahoma State University (OSU) told BuzzFeed News that the Confederate flag was a permanent fixture in one of the rooms at the SAE house dating back to 1987. The flag was visible to anyone who walked across the street.
It was only on March 8, 2015 — the night that Oklahoma University’s SAE members were caught singing the racist chant — that the flag was finally taken down after a report about it in O’Colly, the student newspaper.
In recent years, several Southern fraternities, including Kappa Alpha and SAE, have come under fire for wearing Confederate uniforms and costumes at social gatherings and hosting slavery-themed parties. One of the most important social events at the University of Georgia’s SAE chapter is the Magnolia Ball, described — in a 1960 issue of The Record — as a spring activity where the “clock was turned back 100 years to the ‘gracious living days’ of Southern belles with their [hoop skirts] and bonnets and stately Southern gentlemen with long plantation coats and top hats.”
A similar party at SAE’s Oklahoma State University chapter is the “Plantation Ball,” described as a “prestigious three-night date party” and one of the “premiere date parties on campus” held during the last week of April to commemorate the fraternity’s Founder’s Day.
In 1987, Paul Littlejohn, the then-president of the NAACP chapter at Oklahoma State University, had just left his first meeting with the NAACP student body when he saw about 100 SAE brothers and pledges outside the chapter’s house across the street from his apartment. They were celebrating an event leading up to the Plantation Ball.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News in May, Littlejohn, 49, said he saw them from a distance and thought, “Oh, they have some black pledges now. I’ve never seen that on the all-white fraternity and sorority row.”
But when one of the pledges came closer, Littlejohn realized he was wearing blackface and was dressed in “raggedy clothes” — like a slave. One of the SAE brothers came over — all the brothers were dressed up as plantation owners — and put a rope around the pledge’s neck. “Come on, n****r, let’s sing,” Littlejohn heard him say.
He described how some pledges with ropes around their necks serenaded the sorority houses with the “old Negro spiritual — ‘Swing low, sweet chariot.’” One of the brothers, who was playing a banjo, gleefully asked Littlejohn to join them.
“I was outraged,” Littlejohn said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening in front of my eyes.”
The next day, hundreds of students from OSU and Langston University marched on the OSU campus in a peaceful protest. According to an Associated Press report of the incident, SAE apologized to the black students and said they would take necessary action to avoid repeating this “regrettable incident.”
But Littlejohn told BuzzFeed News that no SAE member ever met with him or apologized to him. According to him, OSU called a Department of Justice representative as a mediator. The representative met separately with the administration, SAE members, and black students to talk about diversity and sensitivity training. The DOJ told BuzzFeed News that it wouldn’t have records of such mediation from 30 years ago.
“I was totally dissatisfied and totally embarrassed for my university to actually do nothing about it except for so-called sensitivity training which as far as I know never happened,” Littlejohn said. “There was no punishment for SAE, nothing.” Oklahoma State University didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding Littlejohn’s claims.
Littlejohn added that the Confederate flag hung in one of the rooms at the SAE house when he was a student from 1984 to 1987. “If I had Facebook and Twitter at that time, the administration would have acted quickly,” he said.
This April, the OSU chapter renamed the Plantation Ball to the Phoenix Ball after the racist chant went viral, OSU’s communications director, Gary Shutt, told BuzzFeed News. But according to a current OSU student, Montinique Monroe, the name is the only thing that appears to have changed.
In an April 5 op-ed for O’Colly, the student newspaper, Monroe said she saw a fellow student in the cafeteria wearing a T-shirt that read “2014 SAE Plantation Ball” with a picture of a cotton plant. “I felt hurt,” Monroe told BuzzFeed News. She made calls to OSU and SAE officials and was told about the renaming.
“I would be the village idiot if we didn’t realize that we’re under a lot of scrutiny because of the unfortunate acts that have happened at the University of Oklahoma,” James Conrady, SAE’s house corporation president, told Monroe. When asked about his decision, Conrady told BuzzFeed News he had nothing more to add.
Monroe said that Conrady told her the fraternity would otherwise not change the nature of the event, which is held every March on the fraternity’s Founder’s Day.
Weghorst, SAE’s spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News that the Plantation Ball was not a national event and was not conducted at all chapters across the country. “There is no national, sanctioned event that is endorsed by the headquarters or our leadership,” he said. “Chapters plan their own social calendars.”
Blackface and Racialized Parties
One of the earliest forms of racialized entertainment adopted at fraternities was the minstrel show — a song-and-dance routine performed in blackface that was part of American culture from the 1820s through to the 1950s.
White men darkened their faces with burnt cork, spoke in mocking imitation of black speech, and sang “Negro” songs not just for laughs but to defend the practice of slavery. While live performances declined after 1919, minstrel acts were popular throughout cinema and television up until the 1950s, with films such as 1927’s The Jazz Singer (the first film with dialogue). The movie, starring the popular Al Jolson in blackface, featured the song “My Mammy” — an homage to the racial caricature of a happy black slave woman serving her white masters.
Even as minstrel shows declined in popularity in the '30s, they thrived on white college campuses — with fraternities leading the way. In 1947, the SAE chapter at the University of Mississippi sponsored a minstrel party on its Oxford campus where “guests enjoyed a floorshow showcased by George Gulley's interpretation of Al Jolson's famous ‘Mammy,’” Trent Watts, an associate professor of American studies at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, wrote in his 2008 book White Masculinity in the Recent South. SAE continued to perform minstrel shows into the late '50s.
After the civil rights movement in the '60s integrated schools across the country, blackface performances went underground. For fraternities they were confined to parties at Greek houses owing to “an awareness of African-American and broader public sentiment against the use of blackface” and the fraternities’ need to protect their image, Watts wrote.
On January 17, 1982, the SAE chapter at the University of Cincinnati hosted the Martin Luther King Jr. trash party at the fraternity’s house on the eve of the national holiday honoring the civil rights leader.
The MLK party flyer, published in the 1982 issue of Cincinnati Magazine, called it a “rebellious celebration” to “honor the life and death of the (great) liberator.” The flyer said that guests would only be admitted if they brought at least one of 45 listed items. These items included “a KKK white hood, a picture of James Earl Ray [who was convicted of MLK’s assassination], fried chicken - original recipe, a stolen hub cap, a cancelled welfare check, food stamps, a large transistor radio, a bottle of Afro-Sheen, an issue of Ebony, a native headdress, corn row hair, your father - IF you know who he is, a pimp, bongos, a spear, a social worker.”
It also asked guests to “paint your face BLACK.”
More than 100 people showed up at the party, all white. They were told to tear the flyer up, the UC News Record student newspaper reported.
“At the party some wore black clothing,” Cincinnati’s then-NAACP president, Marion Spencer, told the Bryan Times. “Some painted their faces black. Some dressed as pimps. Some carried large portable radios and fake guns.”
In the aftermath of the party, the NAACP urged the university to disband the fraternity, which was indefinitely suspended at that point. SAE’s national organization said it was reviewing the situation and “may take punitive action” against the chapter.
The then-president of SAE’s Cincinnati chapter, whose name was on the MLK party flyer, signed an apology letter to the university’s president, Harry Winkler, saying, “We deeply regret the role the fraternity had in perpetuating a crude and unbecoming ethnic stereotype.”
Winkler imposed a two-year suspension of SAE in February 1982, and ordered the chapter to come up with a plan that “will contribute to their awareness of the wrong they have done,” the New York Times reported.
When asked about the implementation of this plan, University of Cincinnati’s director of public relations, Mary Bridget Reilly, told BuzzFeed News in May that she could “find no one involved with Student Affairs or Fraternity or Sorority Life at the university who was here in 1982 in order to now have any such plan or to know specifics from such a plan from nearly 35 years ago.”
She added that the university has a longstanding Racial Awareness Program that was founded, in part, due to the MLK party incident in 1982.
When asked about the racial makeup of the SAE chapter at the University of Cincinnati, Reilly said that racial and ethnic diversity of the university’s student organizations was "not tallied," but that the school’s nondiscrimination policy applied to all of them. The University of Cincinnati chapter is currently one of the top five SAE chapters nationally, according to its website.
In 1992, the SAE chapter at Texas A&M University was fined $1,000 for hosting a “jungle party” featuring members in blackface and grass skirts and an activity called "slave hunts." The theme wasn’t new. A “jungle party” was held by the Delta Psi fraternity in 1952.
And in 2002, a Syracuse University senior and SAE member went to a campus bar in black body paint as part of his Tiger Woods costume during the fraternity’s annual bar-golf tour. The university placed SAE on interim suspension but did not reveal what action it took against the student, Diverse reported.
In an email sent to students with the subject “Spring 2002 Blackface Incident Update,” Syracuse’s director of diversity education wrote that 11 black students presented Chancellor Kenneth Shaw with a list of 12 demands in light of “the unfortunate incident.”
The email, provided to BuzzFeed News by Syracuse, said that the university took actions to address the demands of the students. However, Syracuse could not provide BuzzFeed News with the specifics of these actions. “We all agree there is still some work to be done,” the director said in the email.
“Unfortunately, this year’s bar-golf tournament was scarred by our insensitivity toward the African American community,” SAE said in a statement at the time. “We should have recognized how the Tiger Woods costume could be offensive and cruel.”
In 2006, the SAE chapter at Baylor University in Texas held an E-Dawg party, referring to the Seattle-based rapper. On Facebook, pictures of the party showed students wearing bandanas and holding 40-ounce bottles in brown paper bags. One student covered herself in bronzer to appear black, the university’s student newspaper, the Baylor Lariat, reported.
At an NAACP meeting to discuss the incident, the chapter’s SAE adviser, Dr. James Henderson, defended the fraternity as the “most inclusive” on campus and said that the intent of the SAE members was not to be racist. "Many of the white students we have on this campus have not experienced the racism you guys have on this campus; it's not a part of their background," Henderson told NAACP members.
In 2009, SAE’s chapter at San Diego State University held a “Cowboys and Navahoes” party where the men dressed in Old West clothing and the women adorned themselves with war paint and Native American headdresses. Other chapters, including those at University of La Verne and Eastern Kentucky University, have held “Cowboys and Indians” parties.
And at the Louisiana Tech SAE chapter, one of the biggest annual parties — “Hookers and Hoodlums” — is known to most of its members as the “n*****s and hoes” party. Men dress up as gangsters, a former pledge, who was part of the chapter in 2010, told BuzzFeed News.
In December 2014, the all-white SAE chapter at Clemson University in South Carolina threw a “Clemson Cripmas” party named after the Crips — a black street gang formed in the late 1960s in Los Angeles.
Photos of the party uploaded on social media, with captions of #MerryCripmas, showed partygoers flashing gang signs while dressed in baggy pants, oversized T-shirts, bandanas, and thick gold chains. One of the photos featured students in front of a Confederate flag.
In the midst of a social media backlash, SAE’s national headquarters suspended the chapter’s activities and its top officers. SAE said that the decision of a few brothers to hold the “inappropriate theme party” was “inexcusable.”
In April this year — 17 months after the incident — Clemson announced a two-year disciplinary probation for the chapter and an order to educate its members about alcohol, social justice, and gangs.
Racial Slurs and Assaults
On March 30, 1990, Ann Dean, a black sophomore at Kansas University, was delivering pizzas to the SAE house near campus when she encountered Matthew Willenborg, a 19-year-old student and SAE brother, along with several other members of the fraternity.
Dean, now a 44-year-old photographer in Lawrence, Kansas, told BuzzFeed News that when she arrived at the floor, the brothers, who appeared to be drunk, harassed her.
“I started going down the stairs, [Willenborg] pushed me, and I fell along with the pizzas,” Dean said. “They started throwing the pizzas at me and then [Willenborg] called me a “n****r bitch.”
Willenborg was reportedly arrested the following month when he and his roommate allegedly beat up a man in an unrelated incident. Willenborg was also reportedly charged with disorderly conduct and battery in Dean’s case.
The incident sparked a protest of about 500 students, demanding that the university combat racism. Dean believed that without those protests, Willenborg would not have been charged in her case.
Willenborg, who resigned from SAE, was sentenced to 30 days in jail but was granted two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He was asked to pay a fine of $192, not to consume alcohol for two years, and to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. He didn’t return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
He did not return to KU in the fall, according to his lawyer. A Lawrence Journal-World report from Willenborg’s court hearing quoted his attorney as saying “this whole thing got blown way out of proportion” and that Willenborg made “a few inappropriate comments on a night when he and his friends had a few drinks.”
“It was drunkenness and ignorance and foolishness,” Dean told BuzzFeed News. She said that Willenborg called her to apologize after the incident but “it came off as hollow and insincere.”
KU appointed a seven-member panel to review SAE. But the school said it was unable to take action against Willenborg because the SAE house was off campus grounds. SAE signed an agreement to teach its members about racism, to hold presentations on cultural sensitivity, and to try to recruit minorities after the KU panel found that the fraternity lacked racial sensitivity programs, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.
But Dean said she was unsure how effective these programs were. “Every time something like this happens, it’s like, let’s do some diversity training. We don’t know how far that goes in getting any real understanding across.”
Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, KU’s news service director, told BuzzFeed News that “because SAE has remained on campus since that incident, it would suggest they met the requirements and sanctions.”
These sanctions required SAE to design a recruitment program that “addresses the inclusion of minority members” and discuss “human dignity issues.” They were to periodically update the assistant director for Greek life for three years after the incident.
Barcomb-Peterson said that SAE’s KU chapter is “currently a very diverse chapter and has made diversity a priority over the years,” but she said they did not keep statistics on the racial makeup of the chapter.
“What black person is going to want to pledge SAE?” Dean said. “When you have a history of racism, you’re not going to get a lot of black, brown, or any other ethnicities wanting to pledge your house.”
Dean’s case wasn’t the only racially charged physical or verbal assault related to SAE.
In 2006, Biancha Darden, a graduate at the University of Memphis who is black, attended an SAE party with her white boyfriend, Marshall Simpson. It was “one of the worst times of my life,” Darden told BuzzFeed News in May.
After the party, SAE brothers harassed Simpson, telling him, “you’re fucking n*****s now” and “it would be best if you date a white woman,” Darden then told the Daily Helmsman. A few days later, Simpson was told by SAE members that they didn’t want his black girlfriend coming back to the fraternity house.
"Not only did they not want me there, they also didn't want intermingling with blacks period," Darden told the Helmsman. “In a way it is a shock to me because I thought these guys were supposed to be educated men, gentlemen in a sense.”
Darden, who currently resides in Clarksville, told BuzzFeed News that people began to leave the party when she and Simpson showed up.
The fraternity and university officials said they would investigate the incident. But, as one student told the Helmsman, “the same type of people who made the statement are gonna be the same people who investigate it. They're going to assure us that this thing will be taken care of in a professional matter and we're supposed to go back to our normal lives and forget about it."
Simpson soon left the fraternity, which in the wake of the incident was temporarily suspended by the university until the spring of 2008. SAE’s national organization also suspended two of its members for making comments that “were inappropriate and unbecoming,” a spokesperson told the New York Times.
SAE has sought to frame these events as isolated examples of poor judgment. Without addressing specific instances or members, SAE’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in June, “Regretfully, just like any large organization, we have members who make poor decisions.” He also said that like other campuses or companies, “we do not necessarily know the personal biases or upbringings of our members.”
“We want to take any opportunity we can, like some of the instances you mention, to use those mistakes as teachable moments for our young men, particularly at a time when they are growing and learning the most.”
An Unchallenged Culture
It is a pattern that has repeated itself for decades: An SAE member does something racially insensitive or abusive, and the fraternity and perhaps the university issues talking points or seemingly slap-on-the-wrist punishments in response. Blame is placed on the actions of a few “who failed to live up to our expectations or who violated our policies,” as Weghorst said in his statement to BuzzFeed News. “They reflect poorly on SAE, and they do not represent us.”
There didn’t appear to be an acknowledgement that this might be a broader national issue until the racist chant went viral this year.
“That to me is the most troubling thing,” said Robert Cohen, the New York University professor. “It’s about a culture and a practice of segregation that seems to have gone unchallenged.”
History only explains how racist chants, Confederate symbolism, and discrimination were introduced to Greek life. “It’s being sustained,” Cohen said, “because there is no counterpressure for the organizations to get with the 21st century American political culture and to desegregate.”
Matthew Hughey, a University of Connecticut professor who studies race in Greek life, estimated that historically white fraternities and sororities are only 3% to 4% nonwhite.
In response to growing concerns about the lack of diversity in SAE after the Oklahoma University video, the national organization of SAE said that approximately 20% of its 15,000 members self-identified as a minority or non-Caucasian, based on data gathered since 2013. The headquarters, like its chapters, could not provide data on racial makeup before this period or of its individual chapters.
While SAE national said the fraternity maintains a nondiscrimination policy regarding membership, the chapters retain autonomy in recruiting new members.
Integration was a struggle for most traditionally white institutions, and fraternities — including SAE — were no exception.
In her book Integrating the 40 Acres: The Fifty-Year Struggle for Racial Equality at the University of Texas, Dwonna Goldstone wrote about the University of Texas at Austin’s struggle with integration in the '60s. Black students in fraternities were excluded from white Greeks’ parties and often endured hostility from them. Fraternities and sororities of black students were also not allowed to be members of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association.
At a campus debate about integrating white fraternities in 1963, a former UT student advocated for the desegregation of Greek organizations, Goldstone wrote. But the then-chapter president of SAE, Johnny Musselman, argued against it, saying that the integration of of fraternities and sororities went against “natural law.”
He argued that Greek organizations had the “right as Americans” to discriminate.
“Types of people hang together," Musselman said. "If you're going to have people that are going to work together, live together, and accomplish things, you're going to have people who come from similar backgrounds." (Four years after that debate, Douglas Washington became the first African-American to pledge a white fraternity — it’s unclear which — at the University of Texas at Austin.)
Daniel Sheehan, a civil rights attorney, said in 1966 he had to resort to bare-knuckle parliamentary procedures to secure the first black pledge into Harvard’s SAE chapter.
Writing in his 2013 book The People’s Advocate, Sheehan said that as the fraternity’s social chair, he nominated an African-American, Tommy Davis, as a member. Sheehan wrote that Davis “was the first black man ever to receive a nomination for membership in SAE in the entire history of that old, traditional southern fraternity.”
He wrote that during the voting process, Davis was “blackballed,” a tradition which allows members to veto a nominee without offering an explanation. When Sheehan confronted the brothers about why, one member explained he had heard that Davis dated white women.
“If he were ever to show up at one of our SAE social gatherings with a white date, why, I just don't know what I would do,” the member said, according to Sheehan’s account. Sheehan emphasized how Davis was a defensive safety of the varsity football team and pressed “twice his weight in the varsity weight room.”
Sheehan also threatened to blackball every other nominee until Davis was recruited — and on the seventh ballot, he was. But Davis rejected the membership because of the circumstances under which it had happened, Sheehan wrote.
In Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999, a book documenting black students on MIT’s campus, a former student, Waayl Ahmad Salih, described his experience as being one of the only three black members of SAE in 1968.
Salih, now a 65-year-old emergency physician in California, told BuzzFeed News in June that SAE typically recruited only one black pledge a year. He said that he was picked because he fit the mold of an SAE member: “an academic jock.”
A year later, Salih left the fraternity after witnessing SAE’s secret initiation ceremony. “I was shocked when the brothers and the chapter’s president came in carrying candles and wearing these robes and hoods that looked just like the Ku Klux Klan’s,” he said.
Salih said he also decided to disaffiliate from SAE when he found out about the origins of the fraternity. “It wasn’t just the ceremony. I looked at the history of SAE back in Alabama during reconstruction. The Klan-shaped hoods weren’t just a coincidence,” he said. “I thought, I have to get out of this organization. I didn’t want my name on anything associated with SAE.”
In 2011, the SAE chapter at George Mason University denied bids of at least nine students of color, accepting only one black member who “sounded like he knew English,” a former SAE member told BuzzFeed News.
Austin Nicol, who left SAE in 2011, said that the black member was a student athlete and “that might be the only reason he was let in.”
Nicol said he was part of a bidding process where the brothers stalked potential pledges on Facebook and rejected bids from some minorities, saying things like, “Is this guy going to steal from us?” They also judged them on whether they were using "African American Vernacular English versus white sounding English.”
Nicholas Syrett, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the 2009 book The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, told BuzzFeed News that fraternities are focused on maintaining their prestige by being exclusive organizations. In this year’s University of Oklahoma case, “they used this racist chant in order to emphasize their own prestige and exclusivity,” he said.
SAE’s spokesperson, Weghorst, said, “We cannot explain actions or decisions of members, former members or administrations in the past, and our collegiate brothers cannot explain the ones that took place when they were either not yet born or not enrolled in college.” He added, “We can learn from the present and alter the future.”
SAE’s “in-depth” investigation across the fraternity’s 237 groups is ongoing and will take time, SAE’s executive director, Blaine Ayers, said in his March statement after the OU chapter’s chant went viral. “We remain committed to identifying and rooting out racist behavior from SAE.”