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A different take on Wesleyan’s early 1900s association with the Ku Klux Klan

Wesleyan College’s 1913 yearbook is named “Ku Klux.” The class that year named itself after the Ku Klux Klan.
Wesleyan College’s 1913 yearbook is named “Ku Klux.” The class that year named itself after the Ku Klux Klan. Telegraph file photo

The Telegraph editorial about Wesleyan College, stemming from an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the college’s response to it, stated that a century ago, “The school and its students . . . was (sic) aligned with the Ku Klux Klan.” The editorial went on to describe that era of the early 1900s as a period when “it was deemed not unnatural for college students — women no less — to pattern themselves after a group of marauding terrorists.”

Obviously, today, we wince when we see the name Ku Klux Klan associated with Wesleyan College. But context is vital here: what did that name mean to the classes who held that name? That was a period of much racial violence directed by whites against blacks, but that violence was carried out by rioters and lynch parties that were not robed or masked. The Ku Klux Klan that existed during Reconstruction ceased to exist decades earlier, and the modern Klan was established in Atlanta in 1915 — not growing into a major, national organization until after World War I.

The Wesleyan students of the classes of 1909, 1913 and 1917 who chose the Klan name would have been influenced by history books and popular historical novels like Thomas Nelson Page’s “Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction” that described the Klan as heroes who defended their families against threats of violence. In “Red Rock,” Page has the Klan not committing acts of violence, but merely disarming a black militia to prevent violence. In other words, the young women who chose the Klan name would have been acting, out of naiveté and lack of information, just as the Wesleyan students who chose the Round Table as their class name: selecting a name they associated with chivalry and a brotherhood that they translated into sisterhood, not purposely “pattern[ing] themselves after a group of marauding terrorists.”

The class of 1921, in that year’s annual, spoke both of becoming a “true Ku Klux Klan” and of the “Tri-K, the one thing above all else that stands for the highest, the noblest, and the most loyal things in womanhood.”

It is probably significant that when the modern Ku Klux Klan began to grow into a major, national organization in the 1920s, the Wesleyan students switched from the full name to “Tri-K,” and then later to the “Tri-K Pirates,” distancing themselves from the Klan, not maintaining ties to it, as the news articles have suggested. Your paper and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution could have written about Wesleyan alumnae, such as Tochie MacDonnell (Class of 1878), who were active in the movement against lynching, or how Wesleyan students, beginning in the 1920s, through YWCA retreats at the Blue Ridge Assembly, began to meet and know African-American college students.

Part of the reason that the symbols of class and initiation ritual seem so prominent in Wesleyan’s past is that the college in the early 1900s abolished social sororities as being undemocratic and divisive. Since the college, for most of its history was very small, it adopted the class system, where the freshman class was initiated into the class sisterhood, using the tradition of “Rat Week,” where the sophomores “rat” the freshmen. I think it is probable that many of the things that elsewhere were less public — initiations into fraternities or sororities — were public at Wesleyan.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution article connected the Wesleyan initiation rituals to Klan initiations, but initiations and hazing were built into America’s love of secret societies, from Masonic lodges or Odd Fellows or other non-collegiate organizations, to the fraternities, sororities, and other secret societies on campuses. The 1950s pictures of students in heavy makeup with nooses around their necks can be seen as evoking horror comic books and movies, or Halloween haunted houses. They were certainly not intended to evoke racial terror, since the student population was entirely white in that era.

Certainly, Wesleyan’s history includes “decades of overt racism,” indeed, over a century, from its founding in 1836 to the 1960s, when only white students (as well as a few Chinese students from Methodist missions there) were enrolled, and only white persons were employed as faculty — but that is true of all colleges and universities in Georgia, and similar charges could be leveled against even Ivy League universities that maintained strict racial quotas in the first half of the 20th century.

As to the charge that this history has been unacknowledged by the college, or unknown, the early yearbook named the “Ku Klux” and the development of the class system is discussed in Samuel Luttrell Akers’s history of the college, “The First Hundred Years of Wesleyan College”(1976). My sister graduated with the Tri-K Pirates class of 1989; she and her classmates in a stunt comedy sketch joked about the “Kappa Kappa Kappa” sorority. Clearly, the past use of the Ku Klux Klan name has been an embarrassment for decades, but not entirely a secret.

Stanford Brown is a resident of Macon.

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