In the 1924 Badger, a picture of the Ku Klux Klan student members is included among other pictures of social and professional groups. There are at least a couple of fellows who became prominent in the Madison area primarily because of their good works, and one of them was far from being racist. What was the club about in those days?
The Ku Klux Klan on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus included some of the university’s best and brightest male students, and does not appear to have been affiliated with the national Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The UW chapter of the honorary fraternity called the Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1919 under its parent fraternity Phi Gamma Delta. The Klan honorary society, along with other portentously named honorary societies of the time including Skull and Crescent, Iron Cross and Inner Gate, was formed by students to honor some of the most accomplished members of the junior class.
Few organizations on campus could boast about their members holding as many prestigious offices as could the honorary Klan. Honorary Klansmen were members of the student senate, student court, Badger yearbook board, and prom and homecoming committees, among others. They also served as directors on the YMCA cabinet, the Student Union board, the Memorial Union fund-drive committee, the athletic board and the Daily Cardinal board of control.
The appearance of the honorary Klan on campus did not seem to raise concern among the student body or the university administration. This may be due to the fact that the actual Klan was still a relatively small organization existing only regionally with less than 2,000 members. It would be another year before the secret society would be popularized, with millions of members nationwide.
In fact, when the Invisible Empire began to gain popularity nationally in 1923 and started recruiting members on campus, the honorary Klan decided to disassociate itself from that group. Gordon Wanzer, president of the honorary Klan, said his group had decided to change its name because “so many people confused it with the name of the noncollegiate secret organization of the same name.” The group became known as Tumas in 1923, as cited in the 1925 Badger.
Disdain and disenchantment among the fraternal leaders brought to a close the episode of the honorary Ku Klux Klan. Actual Klansmen were not welcome in either the fraternities or, especially, the honor societies of the fraternal elite. While the honorary Klan may have had no affiliation with the actual Ku Klux Klan, it existed during a time of widespread intolerance and bigotry at the UW, as well as throughout the Madison community and the United States. Unfortunately, prejudice was an accepted part of white American culture at the time, and official events and celebrations often included derogatory parodies of racial minorities including Italians, Asians, Jews, and African-Americans.
We may never know if the members of the Ku Klux Klan honor society held racist beliefs similar to those of the Invisible Empire. During this time, it is entirely possible that individual members did hold these beliefs, but as a university organization the Klan never expressed these beliefs collectively. The members were exemplary students, many of whom went on to become prominent businessmen and politicians who continued to serve their communities.
This unfortunate episode in our history leaves little to be proud of, but we can only learn from the past and hope to teach tolerance and understanding for the future.