- By Brad Schrade The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Like other first year students corralled in Wesleyan College’s auditorium in Macon, Dana Amihere didn’t know what to make of the spectacle unfolding on stage.
It was fall 2006 and the freshman had been awakened in the dead of night. A group of sophomores stood on stage yelling, screaming and cheering as part of a hazing ritual that seemed part pep rally, part seance, she said. But one feature struck Amihere, an African American, about the young women on stage tormenting the first year students: They wore purple, hooded robes.
“They looked just like Klan robes,” she said. “It was kind of like bells and whistles going off.”
Amihere had no idea at the time how close she was to the truth.
For more than a century, the nation’s oldest college chartered for women has had historical links to the Ku Klux Klan that have never been formally acknowledged. Its class names in 1909, 1913 and 1917 were the Ku Klux Klan. The 1913 yearbook is named the “Ku Klux.”
A sketch of a masked night rider on horseback galloping under crescent moon graces the title page. The 1910 yearbook contains a prominent sketch of a female figure in white hood and robe holding a burning cross.
The striking images signal the dawn of decades of overt racism at Wesleyan that belies the school’s identity today as one of the most diverse small colleges in the country. The school for years identified with the Klan through class names and fomented extreme hazing rituals and traditions that carried forward into the late 20th century, often involving racist symbolism such as nooses, hooded costumes, blackface and figures hung in effigy.
For decades, successive generations of school leaders seemed to downplay the troubling history, but now they are preparing to formally acknowledge Wesleyan’s Klan history, as well as ties to slavery.
The acknowledgement follows an incident in January where classes were canceled for a day after racist graffiti appeared on dorm walls. Someone wrote the N-word in black marker and targeted an international student with offensive language.
“We probably should have done it 20 years ago but we didn’t,” said Vivia Fowler, who formally takes the helm as Wesleyan president on July 1 after serving as vice president of academic affairs the past decade. “So we’re doing it now….We can’t ignore what happened in the past.”
The institutional atonement will include a public statement (read the statement) and a revision of the school’s history on its website and other materials — a project launched in February 2016 by President Ruth Knox, who steps down June 30. The school will also recognize the role African Americans played on campus dating back to its founding in 1836.
Over the past decade or so, a handful of colleges and universities, including Emory University, have also attempted to reconcile their connections to slavery or historical racism and apologize for it.
For Amihere and others, Wesleyan’s acknowledgment should have come years ago.
“This is something that’s been known for decades,” she said. “The administration has scratched at the surface of acknowledging racism before. I commend the efforts being made now, but I think that they’re long overdue.”
Knox, who has been Wesleyan’s president for 15 years, said it’s a fair criticism of the school for not acting sooner.
“It’s not that we’ve been hiding anything,” Knox said. “We haven’t known exactly what that history involves and it became crystal clear that we needed to do that and so that’s what we did.”
Knox has commissioned a Wesleyan professor to write a history of race on campus and the school is digitizing its yearbooks and other archival materials for the web. Fowler and Wesleyan’s leaders will decide whether to issue a formal apology once the commissioned history is complete.
Professor Karen Huber is conducting the study and provided a partial timeline of her findings to the AJC.
In addition to outlining the Klan ties, the research will identify the school’s founding president as a slaveholder and defender of the pro-slavery Methodist movement in the South. It also outlines the school’s use of low-paid, African-American domestic laborers on campus well into the 20th century.
“I think that it’s important for us to acknowledge that this history exists,” said Huber.
Rocky transition to diversity
In many ways, Wesleyan is just as it appears — a safe, cloistered women’s college of 700 students that sits on a 200-acre campus in the northern suburbs of Macon. The school moved to the current campus — which includes a 104-acre arboretum and a 24-stall horse barn to house the school’s nationally recognized equestrian team — in 1928 after being housed in downtown Macon for its first 90 years.
The school’s distinguished alumnae include Georgia’s only two Miss America winners as well as two of the Soong sisters who attended the school in the early 1900s and later went on to become prominent political figures in 20th century China. The first five black students to graduate from the school were in the 1971 class.
Today, roughly 31 percent of Wesleyan students come from foreign countries, many of them from China. About 34 percent of American students are white and 35 percent are minorities. African Americans comprise the largest minority group, about 24 percent of the student body.
“Wesleyan today is a minority serving institution,” Huber said. “We serve a very different group of students than what Wesleyan at the turn of the 20th century served.”
By Amihere’s account, that transition has not always been easy.
In her sophomore year, Amihere and other African-American students awoke one morning to find someone had written the N-word on notes and stuck them to the apartment doors of some black students.
“It’s pretty unnerving to have that thing happen where you live,” she said.
By the time Amihere became editor of the school paper during her junior year, she had researched the school’s past. She wrote an article linking the hazing rituals she experienced her freshman year to past racism on campus. The article included photos from the 1950s that showed figures hung in effigy as part of the hazing tradition from that era.
The use of nooses, hoods and scare tactics evoked the Klan, she wrote. She called for Wesleyan to acknowledge the “school’s sinister past.” Even though nooses had been removed from the hazing ritual, Amihere believed the current hazing had too many echoes of the past.
“I wanted students and faculty to realize it’s a little more than a harmless tradition,” she said. “It’s exclusionary and makes some people on campus uncomfortable because of what it evokes.”
Amihere, now a journalist in Texas, said some people on campus, including top administrators, didn’t seem to appreciate the critique of school traditions.
“It was unwelcome,” she said. “People would come up to me on campus and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Knox said she can’t recall reading Amihere’s article at the time it was published. Knox, a 1975 graduate of the school, said the remnants of the initiation traditions experienced by Amihere ended several years ago. Knox said her record shows she cares about diversity.
“It hurts my heart that people don’t agree with that,” she said. “I talked about diversity as our greatest strength when I was inaugurated in 2004. I’ve been talking about it ever since.”
Students push for reexamination
For years, some alumnae and longtime supporters tried to deny the current class naming system had origins in the Klan. Some perpetuated a story that the Tri-K Pirates were a literary reference, not rooted in the racist history.
“There has been a narrative that evolved to dispel that connection between the Tri-K Pirates and the Ku Klux Klan,” said Fowler. “And that has been one of them — that Tri-K stands for circle of friends and not Ku Klux Klan.”
The willingness of students to look the other way has changed. The August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., ushered in a new wave of social justice activism on campuses across the country.
The Black Student Alliance at Wesleyan held a forum with faculty and staff that fall calling for the school to root out racism on campus. Students expressed concerns about the low number of black faculty members and the limited availability of African American education courses, according to the school newspaper’s account of the Oct. 20, 2014, meeting.
The article carried the headline, “Black Students Alliance: We Want Action!”, and outlined how students linked modern grievances to the school’s past.
“Racial discrimination on campus is not a new issue, especially given Wesleyan’s history,” the article said. “As a byproduct the Southern 19th century, racial violence and belief can still be seen today.”
Fowler said questions come up every four years when a new class comes to campus and takes the Pirate name.
This time, however, leaders seem to be taking more action to address them.
“Students of all races appropriately ask us about the past and we have to be able to tell them, acknowledge the past, and also acknowledge that that’s not who we are now,” Fowler said.
Klan origins date to 1900s
The first signs of students identifying with the Klan on the Wesleyan campus appeared in October 1908.
A story in the Macon Daily Telegraph described a procession of students wearing hoods and masks walking to campus as they initiated two new students into the Klan.
The account describes a hazing ritual of “these two unfortunates, blindly groping their way to campus.” One of the women, an Ohio native, went through the ordeal of singing Dixie as part of her initiation into the Ku Klux Klan of the 1909 class.
“This was, perhaps, the most unique feature in the history of Wesleyan, no former class having had such an organization,” the article said.
The 1913 class was the next to get the Ku Klux Klan name as did the class of 1917. It was the beginning of a tradition of recycling the name every four years to give each class its own identity. The other class names that resurface even today are the Green Knights, the Purple Knights and the Golden Hearts.
The Klan name in the early 1920s was replaced with the Tri-Ks, which later morphed into the Tri-K Pirates — a name that carried forward every four years through the early 1990s when the class name was changed to the Red Pirates.
The Klan had become mostly dormant at the turn of 20th century, but it was still a presence in the popular culture, said Elaine Parsons, a history professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who has written a book about the white supremacist group.
She said the Klan imagery intermixed with the yearbook photos of young women of Wesleyan in white dresses may seem disturbing today, but it speaks to how mainstream the group was at the time.
“It’s super racist,” she said. “The Klan at this time starts largely to switch to white gowns. It’s this idea that whiteness had this fundamental purity to it.”
D’Andrea Dixon, who went to high school in Jonesboro and graduated from Wesleyan in May as part of this year’s Red Pirate class, had researched some of this history when she presented it to school administrators and faculty a few years ago.
Her presentation included slides from the Ku Klux yearbook of 1913 and images of students carrying and wearing nooses on campus during hazing rituals that lasted into the late 20th century.
“I was shocked,” said Dixon, who is an African American. “I did not expect to see students walking around with nooses on their neck from the class of 1982. But there it was.”
During her presentation, Dixon pressed school leaders to acknowledge this past and to drop the class names because of their racist origins. She said she felt her concerns and presentation irritated school leaders.
“All of these things are trickles of that history that has carried over into the 1990s,” said Dixon, who was voted woman of the year by her classmates. “When you don’t talk about something, when you don’t let a wound heal it festers.”
In 2015, Professor Huber’s students began a deeper examination of Wesleyan’s history. The group presented its findings in a forum at the library.
Christina Micola von Furstenrecht, who is white, recalls how the research impacted the students.
“I was shocked to find a lot of the stuff, and I know the girls that were in the class with me the were shocked to find the extent of material that we found,” said Micola von Furstenrecht. “It was almost overwhelming when it came time to decide what we were going to display.”
Fowler said she and President Ruth Knox commissioned Huber to push the research further and conduct a more in-depth study about the school’s past.
“Originally we thought about putting a statement on our website that acknowledges some things in the past that we wish had not happened and pledging to move forward in a different way,” she said. “We decided that really was not going to be enough and we really needed to do the research properly.”
Huber’s study was already underway when the racist graffiti scrawled on the wall in January led to more calls for change. Kennedy Jones, a student from Jonesboro High School, was one of the students whose door was the target of racist language.
After the incident, she said, black students and other minorities called for a more active voice on campus. Campus leaders created a diversity and inclusion board for students that received school funding to foster education and conversations on campus.
Jones said the school needs to do more to acknowledge the past. She wants photos from the yearbooks blown up and displayed for all to see because so few people on campus have a clear understanding of the Wesleyan of 100 years ago.
“Having that on display and facing a harsh truth I think will not only help Wesleyan but current students, prospective students who are coming, alumnae so they can see this is what Wesleyan came from but this is where we are now,” Jones said. “Look how we’ve evolved and facing those truths.”
Tonya Parker, a 2001 Wesleyan graduate, who joined the school in 2016 as its first assistant dean of students for diversity and inclusion, said tensions were high when she stepped on campus.
She said she spent months trying to build trust and ease suspicions. The issues raised at Wesleyan speak to a broader American problem, she said.
“I think nationally we have to say, ‘Yeah we have a horrific past of slavery, racism and things and there are effects of that,” Parker said. “And we’re still dealing with things like that.”