Report probes history of KKK at UW-Madison; $1M history exhibit planned

April 20, 2018 GMT

UW-Madison will spend $1 million to build a history exhibit recognizing those who battled prejudice on campus, following a new report probing the history of Ku Klux Klan groups at the university in the early 20th century.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank also said two campus public spaces could be stripped of the names of two alumni who, as UW-Madison students, belonged to a group that bore the “Klan” label.

They are Academy Award-winning actor Fredric March and Porter Butts, a prominent artist and the first director of the group that operated the university’s Memorial Union.

While the report examines two UW-Madison campus groups that bore the name “Ku Klux Klan,” primarily in the 1920s, university officials say the groups’ existence or their handful of members are not its most disturbing finding.

Perhaps most troubling, Blank told reporters Thursday, is the manner in which the groups appear to have gone mostly unchallenged on campus.

“No one even blinked when various groups used these names,” Blank said.

Blank commissioned the report last year after events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests turned deadly in response to the proposed removal of a local park’s statue of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee. That and other racially charged events in recent years led many universities and public institutions to re-examine their racial histories.

UW-Madison officials framed the new report as a fresh reckoning with chapters of a past that may be uncomfortable for some, but necessary to revisit.

“The history the UW needs to confront was not the aberrant work of a few individuals but a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and un-examined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders,” the report found.

In addition to the history exhibit, UW-Madison plans to spend about $360,000 a year on new faculty in its ethnic studies programs and bolster efforts to diversify the campus in the wake of the report, Blank and other officials announced Thursday.

The nine-member study group at UW-Madison that crafted the report was led by Floyd Rose, a local entrepreneur and president of the nonprofit group 100 Black Men of Madison, and Stephen Kantrowitz, a UW-Madison history professor.

Their report examines two groups on the UW campus in the 1910s and 1920s that called themselves the Ku Klux Klan. The first group, to which March and Butts belonged, emerged in 1919 and appears not to have been affiliated with any larger Klan groups.

Another UW-Madison alum who belonged to that group but was not named in the report was Philip Falk, superintendent of the Madison School District from 1939 to 1962.

The second group examined in the document -- a Klan-controlled housing fraternity, Kappa Beta Lambda, or KBL, for “Klansmen Be Loyal” -- surfaced in 1924 and was tied to the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the report found.

The first group appears at some point to have tried to distance itself from the national Klan, as it changed its name from the KKK to what the report describes as “the cryptic ‘Tumas’” immediately after the emergence of the second Klan group.

The first group included many students who were prominent on campus at the time and hailed from out of state, according to the report. The second group appears to have consisted of less-prominent students who were largely Wisconsin natives.

‘Broad complicity’

The report found no evidence either group engaged in acts of terrorism, violent intimidation or other acts commonly associated with the Klan.

However, there is evidence some members of the first group participated in what the report describes as an “extra-legal ... campaign against liquor sellers in (Madison’s) Greenbush neighborhood” in 1921, when Prohibition was in effect. The members, circumventing local police, staked out the neighborhood and summoned federal liquor control officers there, resulting in the arrest of eight Italian-American liquor merchants.

At Memorial Union today, a performing arts circle is named for March -- whose given name was Ernest Frederick Bickel -- and an art gallery is named for Butts. The report acknowledges the possibility of renaming the spaces but ultimately does not recommend it, though it doesn’t rule it out either.

Blank told reporters that renaming the spaces is “something we could come back to,” but it wasn’t the first priority of the study group.

The report and a related blog post by Blank note both March and Butts took actions later in life to suggest they opposed discrimination. Butts, the first director of the Wisconsin Union, which operated Memorial Union, refused to allow segregated groups to use the union, Blank wrote.

March, a two-time winner of both the Academy Award and the Tony Award, “fought the persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Blank wrote.

The report also contends that “to focus only on those … who identified themselves as Klansmen would be to sidestep the broad complicity of many of the era’s students, faculty, and administrators in sustaining a hostile and demeaning campus environment,” particularly toward people of color, Jews and Native Americans.

A history of bigotry

The report unearthed various displays of overt racism and bigotry gleaned from yearbooks and other documents of the time. A few examples:

Public performances by whites in blackface were “routine” on the UW-Madison campus and elsewhere at the time, Kantrowitz said. For example, in 1924, a group calling itself the “Southern club” threw a spring “revue” including “several banjo numbers by negro impersonators,” the report found. The Capital Times reported that the event’s patrons included Dean of Men S. H. Goodnight as well as several members of the faculty.Above the entry for the one Jewish student organization in one of the yearbooks from the period, the yearbook’s editors appended a drawing of hook-nosed men gesturing at bags of money.Native Americans in the early 20th century “were fully excluded from the student body, but they were omnipresent on campus in the form of demeaning stereotypes and ersatz ceremonies,” the report found. In one recurring ceremony at Library Mall that the report describes as “well-attended ... students gathered in huge numbers to pass the ‘Pipe of Peace’ ... replete with mock-Indian dialect, regalia, and ritual.” Native Americans were not formally barred from enrolling at that time, but only a very few did so, and none actually graduated from UW-Madison until 1946.

The report notes that displays of racism on campus are not relegated to the distant past. In one widely publicized incident in 2016, a person attending a Badgers football game at Camp Randall Stadium wore a costume caricaturing then-President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck.