Old South Spring Formal Expose

And in local news, the Greek formal season is finally here.

Yes, that magical time when for the price of initiation and the tolerance of an Irishman, you too can enjoy dancing, road trips, and more “experience” than your children will ever care to know about. Oh, and did I mention horses? Lots and lots of horses.

And swords and flatbeds and gray slouch hats…

The Attraction 

Chances are you’ve heard of Old South – Spring Formal of the Kappa Alpha Order. Chances are it wasn’t very loud. More likely, it found you in a series of muffled shrieks (the kind successful actors practice), or perhaps a too-truthful exaltation passed around the bonfire. And why shouldn’t they squeal? If each institution has its secrets, each enchanted manor its basilisk, then Florida State’s hallway whisper receives a police escort.

Police close off Jefferson Street for the men of Kappa Alpha and their dates

Police close off Jefferson Street for the men of Kappa Alpha and their dates

Officially, Kappa Alpha wouldn’t reach Washington College until 1866. Original founders of the order – students at the Lexington, Virginia campus under former Confederate General, then school president Robert E. Lee – James Wood, William Walsh, and the brothers William and Stanhope Scott founded Phi Kappa Chi in December of 1865. Protests from a neighboring Virginia Phi Kappa Psi chapter would evoke the later renaming. Ever-developing as an organization, KA would anoint General Lee as their “Spiritual Founder” at a 1923 convention. Sure. Murkier now is the passage from “Gone with the Wind,” through the Civil Rights movement, to an antebellum south recreation dominating the Greek social calendar.

“Girls die to go.”

Who doesn’t love a parade?

Jefferson Street is crammed with Ford F-150’s, a seemingly endless row squeezed in front of Kappa Delta, Alpha Delta Pi, and Pi Beta Phi. At the front rests a truck with sofas in tow. As the cavalry reach position, the head extends the invite, of what I hear: “Dear lady, regardless of your place of birth or where you were reared, your innate gentility, refinement, and elegance entitle you to the respectful treatment afforded to a sweet southern lady by a true southern gentlemen.” What follows are two lines of brothers, forming a path, and a nearby ovation as dates wearing 19th century hoop dresses are led below the raised swords, onto the waiting couches.

Then what happens?

The Fort  

 Here’s what we do know: after the public ceremony, Old South participants are bused to an off campus location for the weekend; the first event is often “Sharecroppers Night,” a rural hootenanny dedicated to the reconstruction profession; the participants at some point walk through the nearest host town dressed in their southern attire; and the trip closes with the Old South Ball, a tuxedo kind of night where members deliver superlatives and a female guest is crowned Kappa Alpha “Rose.”

Annual alteration to the Kappa Alpha Order house at Florida StateUniversity

Annual alteration to the Kappa Alpha Order house at Florida StateUniversity

That’s where the agreement ends.

From an active, African-American sorority member, whose house was visited by KA and who has chosen to remain anonymous: “The justification many people use for continuing the Old South event is that it’s “celebrating southern tradition and the southern soldiers who fought in the Civil War.” But…the Confederacy is known for wanting to keep intact the tradition of slavery and segregation in the south.”

When asked if she had ever seen a person of color invited to Old South, she posed a decisive “no.” She’d later add, “personally, the event makes me feel less than human.”

A current Kappa Delta – and recent participant –  maintains that hidden behind those two-by-fours are “intelligent, hard working members of society who have respect for themselves and others despite having differing cultural backgrounds.” She described Old South as “a purely ceremonious event” and found “race, as it applies to the Confederacy and historical nature of this event, was not mentioned…” Continuing, “they still wear Confederate hats, but it is a representation of historical culture and tradition, not a vindictive act to promote the condemnation of African Americans.”

Florida State Interfraternity Council President Adrian Romero sustained the ceremony’s unoffensive nature, citing the men of KA as students disinterested in making racial statements. “They do it for the girls,” Romero said.

The Disconnect

In 2009, members of a historically black sorority at the University of Alabama were enraged to see men dressed in Confederate uniforms and hoisting Confederate battle flags parade past their house – Auburn had ended their parades in 1992, as had the University of Georgia in 2006. At the time still home to a segregated sorority system, 71 ‘Bama alumnae filed a petition with the university president expressing their disappointment in the use of regalia. The university and National Kappa Alpha chapter reacted immediately, banning the use of further “trappings and symbols, including but not limited to Confederate uniforms.”

In speaking with KA National Director of Communications and Editor of the “Kappa Alpha Journal,” Jesse Lyons, he insisted, “The national organization does not encourage these events…”

And yet it appears a great many do still participate in the reenactments. Although in contacting specific chapters I was often redirected to the above statement, I did find that the University of Maryland as well as UC Berkeley both don’t engage. There’s good logic suggesting a trend of fewer antebellum productions above the Mason-Dixon line. Below, I found LSU, the University of Florida, UNC-Chapel Hill, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Auburn, and as mentioned, Florida State had all conducted recent Old South formals. That list is surely longer, and could include a fair majority of the 120 active chapters listed on their site.

If in fact university support is an attempt to preserve heritage, to promote civic freedoms and not to hide an insensitive elephant with a dishcloth, then I commend you. But I wonder if a government-funded institution is the best place for such an issue. Even, as the previously mentioned KD puts it, “if any citizen in the United States still truly feels that the south will rise again, it is not the…men of Kappa Alpha Order,” is there any place on today’s college campus for a reconstructionist facsimile? Let alone from 18-22-year-old boys. Too much can go wrong, secessionist or not.

It’s hurt. Not hate.

by CHRIS MELVILLE / SAM LEVINE / CASSI MIHOKOVICH 

photos by JEANETTE HOROWITZ / RACHEL COHEN

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