Written by I. Padalecki and edited by M. Norman
In May 1981, the executive board of the Black Students Coalition (BSC) announced a formal statement of protest against the “Old South Ball,” a tradition established and celebrated by the fraternity Kappa Alpha (KA).1 A Statement of Protest. May 1981. RG 12.13.30. Black Student Coalition. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC. According to scholars of the college’s history and Davidson alumni HD Mellin and Tian Yi, the annual “Old South Ball involved dressing up in Confederate-era costumes, specifically military uniforms for men and hoop skirts for women, and posing for photographs before marching down Main Street.” Steeped in Confederate nostalgia, the performance was not intended to provide accurate information about military history or antebellum material culture but to convey the support of these students for the Lost Cause, the belief common among white Southerners that the Confederate war effort had been a valiant and noble one in defense of white rule.2HD Mellin and Tian Yi, “Visual and Thematic Narrative,” Disorienting and Reorienting: Recovering and Analyzing Legacies of Colonialism, Slavery, and White Supremacy at Davidson College, accessed October 4, 2020, https://spark.adobe.com/page/FLK7fLt6JaOvQ/. Photos from various iterations of this event can be seen below.
KA was founded as the Civil War came to an end, but its members did not celebrate this event for the first five decades of its existence. Rather, the “Old South and/or Dixie Ball has evolved since 1920 as a traditional social function of the Active Chapters of the Order with the purpose to celebrate and perpetuate the social attributes of courtesy, graciousness, and open hospitality, which are values of the Old South and were prominent in Virginia when (the) Order was founded in 1865.”3Kappa Alpha Law R16-113, Section B. The Davidson chapter chapter of KA was not established until 1880, and documentation of their organizing this event has not been identified prior to the 1950s. It is worth noting that the 1920s and the 1950s were peak periods of Confederate memorialization and white supremacist organizing throughout the South, including, in both, a resurgence of Klan activity. In the 1950s and 1960s, many white American in the South responded to calls for Black civil rights and school integration with efforts to name school buildings after Confederate leaders and erect monuments to the Confederate war effort.4 Karen L. Cox, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
Though members of KA claimed that this event was less about glorifying the Confederacy and more about a broad sense of “gentlemanly and chivalrous heritage,” BSC’s statement of protest rejected this event as Confederate nostalgia that romanticized and celebrated Davidson’s history of supporting the Confederate war effort and ongoing anti-Blackness originating before the Civil War in the institution of slavery.5Tim Whalen, “Black Student Coalition Protests KA Old South,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), May 1, 1981, 1. The BSC challenged their classmates to recognize the violence behind this event, and in 1981, asked them to wear red ribbons to stand in solidarity with their Black classmates and against “a tradition that embodies white racism…in negligence of Blacks and their feelings.”6A Statement of Protest. May 1981. RG 12.13.30. Black Student Coalition. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Though the statement of protest generated dialogue among students who held a range of opinions regarding the racial history of the college and the meaning of Confederate symbols in the 1980s, the demonstration of solidarity was successful: the Davidson chapter of KA quietly cancelled the event to be held in the spring of 1982, and while KA chapters on other campuses continued to hold explicitly Confederate-inspired events, students at Davidson College do not.7David McGee, “A History of Blacks at Davidson” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), February 10, 1984, 5. Despite this important work, there is little to no mention of the labor of Black student organizers in the BSC in official college histories, including the college’s tour guide manual. By explaining how Black Davidson students have pushed this predominantly white institution and its community members to interrogate the manifestations and histories of anti-Blackness in and around Davidson, this essay centers student leadership as a driving force for change.
KA, the KKK, and the Old South Ball
When challenged by Black classmates, members of the KA fraternity initially rejected the BSC’s statement of protest and publicized their opinions primarily through on-campus publications such as the Davidsonian. They claimed that, in celebrating the “Old South,” they were not necessarily participating in nostalgia for slavery, but rather celebrating what they considered to be positive aspects of the college’s Confederate and Southern heritage. One especially interesting example of this is the campus forum published in the May 8, 1981 edition of the Davidsonian. In this publication, several students advocate on behalf of KA and the Old South Ball.
For example, Sherman Allen, a member of the BSC and the only Black member of KA, who attended the Old South Ball in 1981, posited that an event aimed to remember and rehearse the Old South need not evoke the negative, anti-Black aspects of the Confederacy. Rather “Davidson KA’s were indeed able to separate the good from the bad in that period in history.”8 Sherman Allen, “Old South Yea,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), May 8, 1981, 8. Allen and others insisted that the intentions of KA’s celebration of Confederate history were not racist; instead, they aimed to celebrate the Confederacy as a historical emblem of Southern values that existed outside of the South’s historical dependence on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people. One student, Lief Johnston, goes as far as to state that “the only sin that can be held, universally, against the Old South is a deadly sin: Pride. The Confederate uniform is a…reminder that a people would risk their way of life for what they believe is right. The South in the Civil War did not unitedly fight for slavery. They fought against the denial of their states’ rights.”9 Lief Johnston, “Old South Yea,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), May 8, 1981, 8.
A deeper interrogation of Davidsonian history, however, calls into question the idea that the history of the Confederacy as it existed and was remembered in Davidson can be celebrated without also celebrating anti-Blackness. KKK imagery and violence was extraordinarily common in the Davidson area during the early-to-mid twentieth century, including on campus. According to Mellin and Yi, Confederate flags were common in fraternity houses, and images associated with fraternities in yearbooks often featured KKK-themed imagery. Further, though students who supported the event explained that they simply appreciated chivalry as a positive and proud element of Confederate heritage, historian Martha Hodes has argued that many notions of chivalry and the Confederacy have historically been linked to the portrayal of white Klansmen as the saviors of passive white women tasked to rid society of potentially sexually violent Black men. In short, these images were (and in some circles still are) understood to be calls to arms against racial equality.10 Martha Hodes, “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (1993): 402-417. Traditions of anti-Blackness and racially-motivated Confederate nostalgia embedded in fraternities at Davidson and in the broader community informed these performances and inspired their defense.11Mellin and Yi.
The BSC and Black Student Organizers
The labor that Black student organizers did in order to cancel the Old South Ball did not end with this statement of protest. Rather, Black students engaged in campus-wide conversations with white students who aimed to uphold the Lost Cause nostalgia associated with the event and performed the emotional labor of educating their peers. For example, in the May 1, 1981 edition of the Davidsonian, student writer Tim Whalen discusses a meeting that occurred between five members of the BSC and KA. This was scheduled at the request of KA president Eric Crum.13Whalen. At this meeting, representatives of the BSC were asked to make their case for protest and to listen to the defense of Lost Cause role play by KA. Despite the assertions of Crum and other KA members that an event like the Old South Ball could celebrate certain aspects of Confederate history without celebrating slavery, BSC members like president Andre Kennebrew pushed back against this assertion, stating the following in reference to this meeting: “by celebrating one side of history . . . one is implicitly celebrating a demoralized side of history that was and will always be appalling and degrading to Black Americans.”14Whalen, 10. The meeting ended with a few concessions. Specifically, KA agreed to hold the 1981 iteration of this event off campus. The BSC’s campaign to end the tradition continued.
The viewpoint expressed by Kennebrew was also echoed in this same edition of the Davidsonian by BSC member Alvin Atkinson, who stated the following: “we do object…to their annual celebration of a period which, for blacks, signifies the greatest degradation and oppression that our people have ever suffered. It is impossible to divorce the splendor of that period enjoyed by a few from the gross inequities suffered by many.”15Alvin Atkinson, “”Old South” Represents Many Years of Degradation for Blacks,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), May 1, 1981, 5. In making such a claim, these students also echoed larger theoretical conversations about historical memory and nostalgic aesthetics. For example, historian Elaine Frantz Parsons emphasizes that despite the decline in actual instances of violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the South over time, aesthetic and cultural representations of this violent white supremacist group, such as those evoked by KA’s Old South Ball, have historically served as a culturally and socially acceptable mechanism of celebrating, normalizing, and even participating in the perpetuation of the anti-Black racism and racial violence.16 Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan,” Journal of American History 92, no. 3 (2005): 811-836. Therefore, when Kennebrew and Atkinson, among others, protested the Old South Ball, they were protesting the larger structures of violence and anti-Blackness implied within Confederate reenactments described as removed from such racist violence or purely a matter of fond remembrance of an old South aesthetic. BSC members like Atkinson and Kennebrew consistently performed the labor of remembering, reminding, representing, and educating other students about this anti-Blackness that underlies all forms of Confederate nostalgia. This unpaid labor, commonly performed by students of color has significantly changed the college. While attending classes, taking exams, and writing papers, BSC members were also theorizing how to create a Davidson community free ot anti-Black bigotry and organizing to make it happen.
The entangled histories of KA, the Confederacy, and Davidson College as a broader community are deeply embedded in anti-Blackness. In celebrating the Old South Ball and Confederate heritage while failing to recognize and reckon with the associations between Confederate identity and slavery, groups like KA attempted to write histories that absolved themselves of responsibility for maintaining an anti-Black status quo established by their ancestors. That the Old South Ball, an event so clearly linked to Confederate nostalgia, was only interrogated and eventually cancelled due to the labor of Black students reflects that the burden consistently rests on marginalized students to unearth and force campus communities, including Davidson, to recognize histories of anti-Black violence and their cultural legacies.17 Chris Linder and Katrina L. Rodriguez, “Learning From the Experiences of Self-Identified Women of Color Activists” Journal of College Student Development 53, no. 3 (2012): 383-398.
Remembering Change-Making at Davidson
Despite the clear link between the institutional change resulting from KA cancelling one of the most public displays of Confederate nostalgia at Davidson College and the labor of Black students working within the BSC, the labor of Black students is rarely recognized in master narratives of Davidson’s history. Black students are not represented as historical agents of change on this campus. For example, in the 2018 tour guide manual, created to educate tour guides on how best to represent the college and its history to prospective students, the BSC is only mentioned in passing, and only in reference to the physical space it occupies on campus. The manual encourages tour guides to “speak learnedly about Davidson lore, history, and college traditions,” yet includes no mention of the continual work of students of color to create institutional change and make Davidson a more just and equitable space.18 “Tour Guide Manual Spring 2018.” Davidson College, Davidson, NC.
When we center the stories of Black student community building, we call into question the traditional master narratives of Davidson College that almost exclusively characterize change as the product of top-down presidential initiative. There is no question that the values of the older, white, Presbyterian — and until now, men — who have led the college have shaped it in important ways. The kind of campus-wide education and change-making represented by the BSC protest against and eventual cancellation of KA’s Old South Ball began to suggest that other stories of leadership are central to understanding institutional change at Davidson College. By acknowledging, unearthing, and interrogating the archival evidence of the work Black students carried out to create caring communities of resilience and combat anti-Blackness at Davidson, one can push back against historical master narratives that present Davidson College as a space formed and changed by and for white people.