The investigation was launched in response to an inquiry by The Star, which had been working on a story on how the Jacksonville State University chapter was responding to Kappa Alpha’s new rules on the display of Confederate imagery.
“If there is indeed a Confederate flag on display in the house, that would be a violation of bylaws that have been in place for some time,” said Larry Wiese, executive director of the national Kappa Alpha Order. “We initiated an investigation as soon as we heard that there might be a violation of our bylaws, and I hope that underscores our seriousness about this matter.”
Kappa Alpha has around 130 chapters on college campuses across the nation — but on campuses in the Southeast, the fraternity is often synonymous with Confederate imagery. For decades, Southern chapters have held “Old South” parties and parades in which fraternity brothers and their dates wear Confederate army uniforms and antebellum dresses.
JSU’s chapter of KA historically has joined in that celebration, holding Old South-themed events and, in past decades, displaying Rebel flags prominently in its yearbook photos.
But times are changing. The organization’s national leaders agreed in January to ban all members from wearing Confederate uniforms at KA events. That decision followed a flap last year at the University of Alabama, where a truckload of uniformed Kappa Alphas parked in front of the chapter house of Alpha Kappa Alpha — one of the nation’s oldest black sororities — during the sorority’s anniversary celebration.
Wiese said the Confederate uniform ban is what the fraternity’s “spiritual founder,” Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, would have done.
“Lee was the consummate gentleman, and as a gentleman, he would have gone to great lengths to avoid giving offense to anyone,” Wiese said.
‘Change is for the best’
Last week, The Star sent a reporter out to Jacksonville to find out how JSU’s Kappa Alphas were taking the decision. With the regular semester over, only a few brothers still lingered in the KA house. Careful to always say “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” the KAs were equally careful not to let on how they felt about the change.
“Times are changing,” said freshman Jordan Collins. “Sometimes change is for the best, sometimes it’s not.”
A visit inside the house revealed a few displays of Confederate imagery. A portrait of various Civil War generals hung above a doorway. On one wall hung a stylized map of key Civil War sites, with pictures of officers from both sides of the conflict. In a common room just off the foyer, beer cans and red plastic cups were lined up along the edge of a tabletop depicting what appeared to be a large Confederate battle flag with a KA symbol in its center.
Wiese, KA’s national director, said displays of the battle flag have been banned by KA for some time — both inside and outside KA buildings.
“Our bylaws prohibit display of the Confederate flag at Kappa Alpha houses and Kappa Alpha events,” he said. He noted that the flag ban was not a top-down rule. It was voted on by undergraduates.
Wiese says Kappa Alpha’s connection to the Confederacy is misunderstood not only by the public, but by its own members.
The group, he said, was founded at Washington University — now Washington and Lee — while Robert E. Lee was president of the college. Only one of the three founders was a Civil War veteran, Wiese said, and that veteran was a procurement officer who accidentally shot himself in the foot.
In the 1920s, Wiese said, the group agreed to name Lee its “spiritual leader,” holding the former general up as a model for its pledges.
“[Robert E. Lee] is an American hero, as those who study American history will tell you,” Wiese said. “He served his country before the Civil War, and regardless of how you feel about his service in the war, he did the country a great service after the war by encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and embrace the idea of a unified country.”
Only in the 1940s and 1950s did Southern KAs begin connecting the fraternity to the Confederacy, deciding on their own to bring out the battle flag and host Old South events. Wiese is not at all sure Lee would approve of that behavior.
“I’m not a Lee expert, but to my knowledge Lee was never seen in a Confederate uniform after the war,” he said. “He cut the buttons off his uniform and wore his grey coat until he could afford another suit, and he was never photographed in uniform again. That was an important statement on his part.”
A bare wall
After learning of the Confederate flag table at the JSU Kappa Alpha house, The Star contacted chapter president Bryant Whaley, 21-year-old senior, for a comment.
Whaley said the flag on the table was in fact a KA banner that contained “elements of other flags” and did not qualify as a Confederate flag.
“There were a lot of cans and bottles on the table, so you may not have seen the whole thing,” he said.
The Star requested access to the house for another look at the table. Bryant stated media should never have been allowed in the house in the first place, and could not be allowed back without permission from the national organization.
The Star called Wiese to ask for access to the house. Wiese called back within minutes to say the fraternity had begun an investigation into the matter.
Several hours later, the local KA chapter granted access to the house. By then, the flag-topped table had been replaced with a felt-topped billiard table. The Civil War map had been replaced with a framed KA logo. And the Civil War generals’ portrait was gone. A bare nail stood where the picture had hung.
“I just see a bare wall,” said Sam Stewart III, a 2003 graduate and alumni advisor to the fraternity. Stewart said members of the local chapter told him there had never been anything but a pool table in the room.
Wiese said if the JSU chapter is indeed found to have displayed the Confederate flag, the group will be immediately ordered to desist, and will be “re-educated” on the history of the flag ban.
“This rule was passed years ago, so it is always possible that there are students today who just don’t know the bylaws,” he said. “But no matter the cause, this is a matter we take very seriously.”
Contact Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3460.