Monday, March 09, 2015

The specter of Jim Crow still haunts the South's fraternity row

In the wake of today's scandal surrounding the video which surfaced of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant (even invoking lynching), the post I made back in January of 2010 about the DKE fraternity that was exiled from Tulane University has been getting a lot of play off Google searches:

American Zombie: The Folly of Youth?

I originally wrote the post during the 2010 New Orleans mayoral election after candidate and now owner of the The Advocate, John Georges, had the chutzpah to declare himself "the black candidate" in the race while simultaneously touting his role as a former Tulane DKE president on his political resume.  My hope in making the post was that Georges would exorcise the demons of his past by denouncing the fraternity's actions and history of racism.  Instead, he simply ignored the entire issue. When opposing mayoral candidate Rob Couhig pressed him about the matter on a WWL-TV candidate forum, Georges wrote it off as simple fodder from blogs that can't be trusted.

I thought it prescient to repost this story today to remind folks that institutionalized racism is still alive and thriving behind the closed doors of collegiate fraternities throughout the South.  Also to point out that the universities themselves should not be blamed.  As evident in my story, Tulane struggled for years to separate the DKE's from the school's namesake going so far as to kick them off campus and not recognize them as an official fraternity.  They existed as an independent entity living off-campus until the cancer finally died out around the late 90's, or at least it went into remission. I would hope it's dead but judging by the impenitent attitudes of the former DKE's in the comment section of my post I would assume an entire new generation of kids are now carrying their fathers' prejudices with them under alternate letters of the Greek alphabet.

My favorite dodge in that comment section was the DKE alum who tried to convince me that the noose in the 1975 yearbook picture was actually a tire swing sans tire:


A "tire swing sans tire" hanging twenty-something feet in the air would lead me to believe all these guys were on the Tulane pole vaulting team.  And how, exactly, did the tire disappear from the noose?  The tire split before the rope did? No one thought to ask, "Hey...you know...we have a noose hanging in our yearbook picture...should we take that down?"  What a load of shit.

University of Oklahoma president David Boren voiced his distaste with the actions of the SAE's but he may have a hard time eradicating the fraternity from the campus if he so chooses.  Once again, I don't want to blame the educational institution itself, the actions of these fraternities do not represent the morals of the body whole.  Anyway, here's the story, reposted:

During this election, my mailbox has been flooded with all sorts of wild claims surrounding our current crop of municipal candidates. While I realize most of those claims are probably coming from opposing political camps, I still felt the need to examine some of the most egregious accusations. The majority of them have turned out either not to be true, or I have found no real way of validating the allegation.

However, some have proven fruitful such as Henry's claim of being President of United Water and Tom Arnold brandishing a gun in the Algiers' Courthouse.

A couple of weeks ago I received an allegation against John Georges which really disturbed me. I searched the internet for more information about the rumor and found that it had already been circulated for months... here and here.

The allegation involved Georges being the member of a Tulane fraternity notorious for its debauchery from hazing incidents to vandalism. Much of the stories were typical fraternity fare, but what distinguishes this frat from the norm is an annual party they threw called "The Debutramp Ball" which involved members of the fraternity dressing in blackface and conducting astonishingly racist acts.

I had heard about these incidents taking place at Tulane before, but I always thought they were isolated items which were most likely blown out of proportion.

I was wrong....very wrong.

I went down to the Tulane library to see what I could find out about this fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon (aka. Dekes). What I found still has my head spinning....a history of unapologetic, cavalier, racist acts which ran for decades up until the late 90's.

The history of the Deke's Debutramp Ball supposedly began in the early 50's when there was a garbage strike in the city. The Dekes, who lived in a house on the 1400 block of Henry Clay, decided to help clean up their street in the wake of the strike. I suppose the fraternity mentality got the best of them and they decided to turn their community service into a party. The idea was that they would lampoon the debutante culture of New Orleans and Mardi Gras balls by throwing the trashiest party they could muster. They dressed themselves in clothes from Goodwill, ate sloppy food like spare ribs, and the king and queen of the ball even arrived at the party in a trash truck at one time.

Sounds like good ole' college fun at first glance.

Somewhere down the line (maybe from the beginning) the party started taking on racist undertones, from dressing in blackface to carrying nooses.

Some of the stories I have heard are horrifying. While they certainly dressed in blackface (pictures to follow), there were also reports of members dressing as KKK members and rednecks with guns. The event eventually spawned a parade down McCallister Street where the frat hired flambeaus and mule drawn wagons driven by African Americans.



One of the more egregious stories claims that the Dekes would spread cotton balls around their house and yard, then hire destitute black men to roam the house and pick up the cotton.

That particular story is conjecture and I couldn't find it documented in the library, but I did find a lot which was documented....even by the Deke's themselves.

In 1987 the parade drew the fire of not just Tulane officials, but the entire community. The City Council and Mayor Sidney Barthelemy were approached to " take whatever steps are necessary and possible" to shut the fraternity down permanently.

Tulane President, Eamon Kelly, had already revoked the Deke's charter in 1984 after finding them guilty of 4 violations of the IFC charter involving hazing, initiation abuse and communtiy complaints.

Kelly's letter calling for the eradication of the Deke fraternity was submitted on the cusp of a particularly rowdy Debutramp Ball.....here is the beginning of Kelly's 1987 letter to the Tulane community:

(Note: I aplogize for the blurred photographs, but the library would not allow me to use a flash when taking these pictures. Click on the image to enlarge.)

Here are some pictures I found of the Debutramp parade rolling down McCallister:



This one is the Debutramp group in front of the Deke House on Henry Clay:


I'm not sure what the poles are but they seem to be a staple prop for the party.

I went through the entire file folder of the complaints against the Deke's from 1930 up to 1996. One of the stranger complaints came in 1978 when Patricia Cade of the Jefferson Parish SPCA wrote a letter to then President of Tulane, Sheldon Hackney, complaining about "the use of a goat" in the frat's initiation practices:

Here is Hackney's response:

I certainly hope it wasn't true either, Sheldon.

I also found a letter to Hackney about the incident penned by a Catholic nun from a nearby church that was about 5 pages long. She was lecturing him about how bestiality would lead to the spiritual downfall of the entire city...it was a fun read.

The Dekes later denied that any sexual activity with the goat actually took place...I could find no comment from the goat.

I went back through the Tulane Jambalaya (their year book) from 1975 through 1987 to see if I could find pictures of the fraternity and the Debutramp Ball. The very first picture I found dropped my jaw:

NOTE: THIS PICTURE CAME FROM THE 1975 YEARBOOK

Yes it is...

This was the fraternity's group picture which they submitted to the yearbook....and the Jambalaya editors published it. Wow.

Apparently the goat ritual continued even after they were exposed in 1978, as this 1979 group picture proudly displays the goat in the middle of the frame:

So back to the allegations at hand.

Georges was certainly a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon when he attended Tulane circa 1979, 1980, 1981. In this group picture he is the guy sitting down in the upper left:

This picture is from the 1981 yearbook, when Georges was actually the president of Delta Kappa Epislon:

Here is a tighter shot:

Looks like they were trying to do some kind of Last Supper theme.

Then I found this photo from 1980 which appears to be the Debutramp event. Georges was either a sophomore or junior when this photo was taken:


I'm not sure what the poles represent, they kind of look like shotguns. It seems like some of the members are dressed like rednecks and the other members are in blackface.

Ok, so the burning question is whether or not Georges is in this photo and if he ever attended this racist party while he was a Deke. I have shown this photo to a couple of people who have seen Georges in person (I never have) and they claim the face in the far left side of the picture is suspect:


I don't know if that is Georges or not, but here's what I do know:

- I know that he was in the fraternity when this picture was taken.

- I know this party occurred every year through his tenure at the frat.

- I know the Deke's were constantly being charged with racist actions all the way up to 1997:

In the End, Where Will Power Lie?
Players might take a lesson from an event that unfolded here largely buried by the Super Bowl hype. Last Friday, members of a fraternity distributed flyers under the doors of white male students at Loyola and Tulane Universities here, inviting them to a rush for Delta Kappa Epsilon. The fraternity's event for Jan. 20, Martin Luther King's birthday, was ''DKE National Holiday.'' The flyer invited recipients to ''Come celebrate the King's birthday with fried chicken from Popeye's, watermelon and a 'forty' '' -- a 40-ounce bottle of beer.
A white student at Loyola showed the flyer to two black friends, Nathan Woods and Ryan C. Holmes. On Monday, Holmes, Woods, their white friend and eight others visited the frat house. Asked their business when they arrived, Holmes said: ''We're here to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday with you. Where's the chicken?''
There was no violence but Holmes said that he made his point. You can argue that college students reacting to slights and indignities are far less at risk than high-profile athletes who would protest hiring practices. But if 19-year-old students are courageous enough to confront a racial situation, why should millionaire athletes who collectively form a vast power base, tremble in fear?

Riding on the recent endorsement from the New Olreans Tribune ( let me know if you were as bewildered as I was after you read that endorsement, Oyster has commentary), Georges has touted himself as the only person in the mayoral election who can bridge the racial divide. Well...before he performs miracles I think he needs to give us a pragmatic explanation of his affiliation with this organization.

I'm actually sympathetic to the notion of the folly of youth....I did some incredibly stupid things when I was in college (but nothing like this, mind you). I believe in redemption but in order to get there he needs to come forward and condemn the actions of that fraternity....no, he needs to condemn that fraternity entirely....right now he is proudly listing himself as its former president.

I'm still having trouble understanding how Tulane allowed that stuff to go on for decades....all the way up to 1997. That's incomprehensible to me.

I contacted Georges' campaign and asked if he wanted to reply to the story, I received no response. Any repsonse he would like to give, I will post.

UPDATE: a commenter noted that Mayor Barthelemy was not in office until 1986 and he is correct. Here is the bottom half of the letter:

I got the date wrong and have subsequently corrected it.

As for the political hit accusation....you can think what you want, it doesn't change the facts. I wrote this story of my own volition and time, but if you would like to donate to my work there is a PayPal button on the right side of the blog....maybe I can hire an editor to help me with fact checking.

UPDATE 2: I got the name of the party incorrect. The correct name was Debutramp Ball, I called it the Debutrash Ball. I have corrected that mistake in the post.

UPDATE 3:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The Folly of Youth?":

Just a point of clarification in your timeline of DKE activities --

On Feb. 15, 1984, Tulane President Eamon Kelly revoked the charter of DKE.

Any DKE actions after 1984 were conducted without any tie to Tulane University, and were independent actions undertaken by a group which had no affiliation with Tulane.

The 1987 parade through Tulane's campus was held without the permission of Tulane (although the group had filed for a New Orleans parade permit). This action was deplored by Tulane officials, and in the letter of April 11, 1987, of which you show only a portion, President Kelly goes on to state that participants in the parade would be prosecuted to the fullest extent, that he was writing to the DKE national organization urging it to revoke the charter of the New Orleans affiliate {the Tulane chapter had already been closed}, and asking the Mayor and City Council to take whatever steps they could to close the DKE house on Henry Clay Avenue.

Hence, it is incorrect to say: "... Tulane allowed that stuff to go on for decades....all the way up to 1997."

Tulane initially banned DKE in 1984, and permanently washed its hands of the fraternity in 1987. Any references to DKE activity post-1984 were not Tulane-related.

What is incorrect is the end of the sentence, "all the way up to 1997." Mea Culpa. However the party originated in the 50's and ran up to 1984, that certainly constitutes decades.

Thank you for pointing that out.

UPDATE 4: I didn't make it explicitly clear in the original post that the yearbook picture with the noose was from the 1975 yearbook...I have corrected that.

UPDATE 5: Eamon Kelly was the President of Tulane, not the IFC.

6 comments:

Dambala - Jason Brad Berry said...

An admission....when I originally wrote that story I made the comment:

"I'm still having trouble understanding how Tulane allowed that stuff to go on for decades....all the way up to 1997. That's incomprehensible to me."

In hindsight, I think that was stupid thing to say. Having talked to some folks since that story was published about the matter, I now understand that Tulane was directly addressing the matter at the time. That's one of the reasons I wanted to repost this.

Anonymous said...

"Riding on the recent endorsement from the New Olreans Tribune ( let me know if you were as bewildered as I was after you read that endorsement, Oyster has commentary), Georges has touted himself as the only person in the mayoral election who can bridge the racial divide. - See more at: http://www.theamericanzombie.com/#sthash.TyDRwXW8.dpuf

Georges wife's (Dathel Coleman)brother married Dwight McKenna's daughter. McKenna is the owner of the New Orleans Tribune. Now you know the connection.

Dambala - Jason Brad Berry said...

Actually, I knew it then. I also heard he gave them a shit-ton of cash to get that endorsement but I don't know if that's true dat or not.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see Bryan Batt also listed in the 1981 yearbook.

Dambala - Jason Brad Berry said...

Right, and ironically....his brother, Jay, was an SAE.

Anonymous said...

I attended Tulane from 1980 to 1984 and was present at some Deke parties. I was also in a fraternity on suspension, but the Dekes took the cake. The goat was used in a hazing ritual whereby a pledge was placed in a room with the goat and told to "mate" with it if he wanted to be initiated into the frat. If he did, he was summarily thrown out (black-balled) and subjected to intense ridicule. If he refused, then he was permitted to join. As for the final straw that got them kicked out of Tulane for good, some pledges were standing naked on a garage roof with a line tied around their testicles and the other end attached to a concrete block. The pledges were told to throw the blocks from the roof, with the lines just long enough so that the blocks would hit the ground before the lines castrated the men. An exercise in trust if you will. A neighbor witnessed the hazing and snapped some photos, which were then taken to the Tulane administration. The rest is history. Dekes kicked out for good.