A new report out from University of Wisconsin-Madison dives deep into the history of the Ku Klux Klan on campus. Until recently, the violently racist organization’s presence on campus wasn’t well known.
After protests in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted over a Confederate statue last summer, officials across the country began looking into their own monuments. UW-Madison tasked a team to look into its own history of racism — and recommend the best ways to reckon with that legacy today.
Porter Butts and Fredric March are not only two of UW-Madison’s most significant alumni, but also members of a organizations on campus that bear the KKK name during their undergraduate years.
Madison historian Stu Levitan researched the campus KKK organizations in the 19-20s for his book about the city’s history. He says they were a far cry from the KKK as it existed later in the century, especially in the South.
The two KKK groups that existed on UW’s campus in the ‘20s were above-ground, inter-fraternal organizations made up of student leaders — rather than the hooded, blood-thirsty white nationalists usually associated with the Klan. Levitan says to call Porter and Butts Klansmen is actually somewhat of a misnomer, since they didn’t wear hoods or engage in terrorism.
“This was one of the elite fraternities on campus,” Levitan says.
There later was a KKK chapter on campus that did wear hoods and was associated with the Klan as we know it today.
As the report notes that even if there isn’t evidence of lynchings or masked Klan member at UW in the 1920s, the choice of name shows members identified — or at least were relatively comfortable with — the violent acts of the Klan when it started in the South after the civil war.
While UW officials haven’t ruled out removing the names of the Porter and Butts, both prominently displayed at Memorial Union, they aren’t planning on doing that right now. Instead, Chancellor Rebecca Blank is putting forward a million dollars for a campus history project to identify and recognize activists who fought against racism at UW, as well as recruit more minority faculty and staff.
Levitan says that solution gets more at the bigger issue — bigger than both Porter and Butts.
“The issue isn’t that Porter Butts and Fredric March did something stupid when they were 19 and 20. The issue is that there was a climate of racism and antisemitism on campus that allowed the KKK to flourish,” Levitan says.
Levitan also says while these men were in the KKK organization as young people, they’re not recognized for that time — but rather for what they did when they were older.
But Levitan and the university say there’s still a legacy of racism on campus to unpack. There were racist minstrel shows and other highly offensive traditions on campus far before even the 1920s KKK organizations, in the late 1800s. All of that, Levitan says, led to a culture that allowed clubs like Butts’ and March’s to exist in the first place.