By Sherwood Callaway ‘16 (he/him)
In the spring of 2013, I joined the Kappa Alpha Order, a historically southern fraternity with a legacy of racism and ties to the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a decision I deeply regret, and I’m not alone. Over the past few months, more than 220 Davidson alumni have joined me in signing a letter that severs our ties with KA. Many of us are encouraging students and administrators to remove the fraternity from Davidson’s campus once and for all.
KA was founded in 1865 at Washington College (now Washington & Lee) in Lexington, VA by former Confederate soldiers who revered the southern cause and their college president, Robert E. Lee. Its founders were inspired by another pre-war society, Kuklos Adelphon, which later formed the basis of the KKK.
KA has since expanded to more than 100 chapters at colleges and universities throughout the United States. It now boasts more than 150,000 members and alumni. Davidson is home to one of the oldest chapters, Sigma, established in 1880.
The fraternity’s members have perpetrated numerous incidents of overt racism over the years. In 1905, a KA wrote The Clansman, a novel that glorified the KKK and inspired DW Griffith’s infamous film, The Birth of a Nation. In 1923, John Temple Graves, an advocate of lynching, gave a speech cementing Robert E. Lee as the fraternity’s “spiritual founder.” Graves’ words were printed in the new member handbook as recently as 2015.
These racist acts continue more than a century later. In 2019, KAs from the University of Mississippi were suspended after posting photos of themselves holding rifles in front of a memorial for Emmett Till. The memorial had been defaced. It was riddled with bullet holes.
KA promotes racism through its deeply unsettling values and traditions. This is perhaps most evident in the fraternity’s annual formal, “Old South,” where for decades the most die-hard chapters would dress up in Confederate uniforms to celebrate the occasion. The tradition was finally banned in 2010 after members from the University of Alabama paraded by a historically Black sorority house.
I joined KA as a first-year at Davidson after forming a connection with some of the older members. Like most of my new “brothers,” I wasn’t interested in the fraternity’s history, traditions, or values. I wanted to make friends and socialize. And while I was aware of KA’s problematic reputation and past, that past felt distant. I didn’t consider the implications of my tacit endorsement of the organization. I was negligent, naive, and selfish.
Since graduating, my involvement with KA has become a deep source of shame. When George Floyd’s murder last May sparked a national awakening about racial justice, it also sparked conversations about racism among former Davidson KAs. From these conversations, I learned I am not alone in my guilt nor in my desire to address my mistakes. As it turns out, hundreds of others feel the same way.
This group of Sigma chapter alumni continued to meet for the rest of 2020. We listened to the experiences of PoC in our community; grappled with our privilege and our participation in a racist organization; and engaged with students and administrators about KA’s presence on Davidson’s campus.
In October, we sent a letter to Larry Stanton Weise, Executive Director of KA, formally and permanently disaffiliating from the fraternity. The letter received signatures from 226 Davidson alumni, including at least one from every class since 1987. KA has yet to respond.
We understand that signing a letter does not absolve our membership in KA. We know there is more work ahead, especially in light of the rampant white nationalism on display at the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
The Kappa Alpha Order is a racist organization that doesn’t belong at any college. We call on current members of the Sigma chapter and Davidson administrators to remove KA from our beloved campus. Doing so would make Davidson a more welcoming place for all. If we hope to one day achieve racial justice, we must stop giving quarter to monuments of racism at our institutions of higher learning.
Sherwood Callaway ’16 (he/him) is a software engineer at Brex, a tech startup. He studied History at Davidson and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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