Following the controversy surrounding the Memorial Union display of former students’ names who were allegedly affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, one thing is clear: organizations with ties to the KKK did exist, in some form, at UW-Madison in the early 1900s.
The first signs of a campus group bearing the Ku Klux Klan name appeared in 1919. An organization named the Ku Klux Klan Honorary Junior Society flourished as an “unmasked, above-ground interfraternity society composed of student leaders,” according to a UW-Madison study group report on the history of the Klan on campus.
This organization, which arose before the national emergence of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, consisted of two members from each fraternity on campus and appears to have been established in the model of a similar society at the University of Illinois named the “Ku Klux Klan,” which may have formed as early as 1906.
While there is no evidence that the honorary junior society was affiliated with the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan during its time on camps, university officials say the name of the organization presents an obvious similarity.
According to the UW-Madison study group’s report, the name choice of the honorary society “signals an identification — or at the very least, no meaningful discomfort — with the widely known violent actions of the Reconstruction-era Klan as it was remembered, celebrated, and given new cultural and institutional life in the early twentieth century.”
In fact, an article published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 1993 reveals that multiple members of the interfraternity society — who were also actively involved in numerous student organizations and athletic teams — participated in racist displays promoting racial and cultural stereotypes.
According to the magazine article by UW-Madison alumnus Timothy Messer-Kruse, “the honorary Klan played a central role” in producing the 1920 homecoming program, which included a minstrel show featuring men in black face.
“In all such minstrel performances, African-Americans were not just a medium for comedy, but were themselves the object of ridicule,” Messer-Kruse said. “But even by racist standards of minstrelsy, the university’s homecoming production of 1920 was unusually vicious.”
Acts like these — including the society’s promotion of the “Americanization” of immigrants — went unaddressed by the university.
According to Messer-Kruse, a “culture of intolerance” permeated the UW-Madison campus at the time, and prejudice was “routinely put on public display.” This prejudice culture, he said, allowed for the rise of such organizations.
“Approval of the group calling itself the Ku Klux Klan as an official campus organization raised not a ripple of concern among the student body,” he wrote.
The interfraternity society was not the only group on campus with the Ku Klux Klan name.
Members of the national Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan began recruiting in Madison in the fall of 1922, and while the recruiting effort was largely unsuccessful with members of the honorary society, Messer-Kruse noted several faculty members “did indeed become hooded Knights,” with one instructor of civil engineering becoming an accomplished Mason.
The second Klan organization on campus did have an explicit and official tie to the national Klan. As a result of the national Klan presence in Madison, a Ku Klux Klan-controlled fraternity, Kappa Beta Lambda, was eventually established on campus in 1924 with the intention of becoming a meeting place for all Klansmen on campus.
The university study group’s report called the fraternity — whose letters allegedly meant “Klansmen Be Loyal” — a “direct product of [William Joseph] Simmons’ Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“This Klan’s members proudly and publicly acknowledged their affiliation,” the report said.
While this secret Klan fraternity, like the honorary society, was officially recognized by UW-Madison without question, the differences between the two groups were known.
Unlike the interfraternity group members — which Messer-Kruse described as urban-born liberal arts majors who had been elected to serve in the organization and participated in a variety of athletic and social clubs — the official Klansmen tended to be engineering majors from rural areas.
Sherrill Randall, the daughter of Porter Butts — a former member of Ku Klux Klan Honorary Junior Society and first director of the Wisconsin Union, and whose name is one of those sparking controversy today — told Madison365 that the emergence of this openly-affiliated KKK group led members of the honorary society to try to distance themselves from the Klan.
Randall said the purpose of the honorary society was “solely social and to discuss fraternity problems.” She emphasized that this organization was not associated with the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, adding that it is unclear why either the Illinois or Wisconsin groups took on such a name.
“The national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were starting to recruit people on campus, and [the interfraternity honorary society] didn’t want to be confused with that organization,” Randall said. “They and the Illinois chapter… all changed their names in April 1923 to Tumas.”
While the meaning behind the name Tumas is unknown, the group’s constitution describes itself as “an honorary organization composed of seventeen members elected annually from various fraternities” at UW-Madison.
In the constitution, the group pledges to promote “good-fellowship” amongst the fraternities, “frustrate any friction that might arise, and to obtain harmonious existence on campus to the ultimate advantage of all concerned.”
A letter from Porter Butts to Executive Director of the Alumni Association Arlie Mucks in 1975 indicates interfraternity members began to develop negative feelings towards the Ku Klux Klan and attempted to distance themselves from the national organization around the same time Kappa Beta Lambda was established.
In the letter, Butts explained the honorary society was established for “social get togethers, plus discussion of fraternity problems.” He said members inducted into the society in the spring of 1923 — which included himself — thought the Ku Klux Klan name was “curious, irrelevant, and very unfortunate,” leading to the change to Tumas.
Just as the honorary society dropped the Ku Klux Klan name in 1923, the Kappa Beta Lambda fraternity eventually dissolved in 1926 as the popularity of the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan declined around the same time.
Recently, the Wisconsin Union announced plans to temporarily cover the names of two rooms in Memorial Union named after former honorary KKK society members — the Porter Butts Gallery and the Fredric March Play Circle — at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
This decision follows student outrage over what they call the university’s “inadequacy in renouncing the memorialization of the KKK on campus,” which culminated with a student filing a hate and bias report against the university.
While the university study group suggested UW-Madison address the struggles of current underrepresented students as a way of confronting its past ties to the Ku Klux Klan, it seems likely there will be a continued discussion about the fate of campus locations named after alumni seemingly affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.
“[Porter Butts] had many many contributions,” Randall said of her father, who was instrumental in the creation of Memorial Union and other school unions across the country. “He has really made a difference in this world, so it has been extremely disappointing to us that this association has developed with the KKK.”