Campus News

Confronting the Klan on campus: UW project hopes to unearth dark past

Beginning in the fall, the names of former Klu Klux Klan fraternity members will be covered on campus, as historians and community members search for meaningful ways to confront the school's history

A student arriving on campus for the first time in the early 1920s would have found themselves at a university where parading down State Street in blackface, conducting mock peace pipe ceremonies on Library Mall and ridiculing Jewish and Asian-American students in student publications were normal behaviors, and where a campus fraternity called the Klu Klux Klan enforced white supremacy vigilantly and with limited opposition.

Today, the researchers behind an upcoming public history project that will aim to confront legacies of exclusion and injustice at UW-Madison say addressing campus’s present inequalities must be the priority of that work, and that doing so is a shared responsibility.

“Making sure that UW-Madison is an inclusive space is not the work of non-majority students alone,” said Christy Clark-Pujara, one of the public history project’s co-chairs. “Students inherit the campus’s legacy. The way the campus looks now is a result of what it was.”

Clark-Pujara and Co-chair Stephen Kantrowitz say they hope the public history project will retrieve the voices and stories of those who endured a pervasive climate of violence and hostility on campus, and of those who struggled to change it.

“I think this project could really change how people think about the history of the campus, the history of the community and what they mean when they say ‘I’m proud to be a badger,’” Kantrowitz said. “I believe in the power of history, and I believe that a fuller awareness and engagement with the complicated parts of a history makes you able to see the world in a richer, better way.”

The project’s committee is in its early stages of planning. So far, it has met twice to discuss the project’s framework. Ultimately, Clark-Pujara said she expects their work will produce a physical exhibit, an interactive online platform and maybe a publication of some kind, although she said it is too early to know for sure.

One thing Clark-Pujara and Kantrowitz do know is that they want students to be involved with the process.

“We will want students to be as close to the center of the research process as possible,” Kantrowitz said. “Part of our vision includes courses in which students do some of the research that produces this history.”

Kantrowitz said he envisions the project intersecting with coursework, or even spurring the development of new courses that will help bring these stories to life. Additionally, Clark-Pujara recommends students stay aware as the discussions continue.

“Actively seek out the places where this work is going on,” Clark-Pujara said. “Be more aware and pay attention.”

The public history project is a response to a study published this spring that investigated the school’s association with the Ku Klux Klan. Chancellor Rebecca Blank mandated the report last August, in the wake of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, South Carolina.

The authors of the report found that Porter Butts and Fredric March, two prominent alumni whose names had been memorialized with the Porter Butts Gallery and Fredric March Play Circle at Memorial Union, had also been involved with the campus Klan.

Following the report’s release, the Union Council debated whether or not it should remove March and Butts’s names from the Union. Ultimately, it decided that, beginning fall semester, the names will be covered as the public history project proceeds.

The authors of the report did not advocate for a name change, nor did they oppose one. Instead, they argued that any question of names should follow, rather than precede, systemic institutional change on campus.

“If we can point to the actions of a ‘few bad people,’ we do not have to do the hard work of questioning and dismantling the “economic, political, social and institutional actions that perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power’ within our own institution,” the report said.

As part of a commitment to making those systemic changes, the report also called on the university to renew its support to ethnic studies departments, to provide resources for underrepresented students on campus and to foster more inclusive graduate programs.

Its authors pointed to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey as proof that these problems still persist on campus. According to that study, drawn from the 8,652 “representative” responses — while 81 percent of UW-Madison’s overall student population often feels welcome on campus, just 69 percent of LGBTQ+ students, 67 percent of students with a disability, 65 percent of black students and 50 percent of trans or nonbinary students felt similarly.

That information corresponds to a cascade of hate and bias incidents on campus within the last few semesters, as well as enrollment data that shows students of color make up a disproportionately small part of the student body.

In fact, 19 percent of students of color and 21 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported experiencing incidents of hostile, harassing or intimidating behavior directed at them personally. Nearly one in three trans and nonbinary students and students with disabilities reported experiencing similar behaviors, according to the report.

Clark-Pujara said those disparities really do affect the way students interact with campus.

“Students of color and LGBTQ students do not feel the same sense of belonging that white students feel,” Clark-Pujara said. “The fact that UW has a history of racism on campus, marginalizing groups of people is reflected in who comes here and what our campus looks like.”

Some students feel the report’s recommendations did not go far enough, arguing that until the university chooses to remove the names of the Klan members, it continues to celebrate their legacy and creates a threatening environment for students.

“No one is saying that we need to forget that this happened,” said Adan Abu-Hakmeh, who filed a hate and bias report against the university for failing to take action sooner. “The university is commemorating people who are racist, who are anti-human rights, who believe in white supremacy and who believe in privilege.”

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