Washington College’s oldest fraternity disbanded from the national organization

By Victoria Gill-Gomez

News Editor

The brothers of the Kappa Alpha Order Beta Omega Chapter voted to disband their chapter at Washington College and end their affiliation with the national organization.

In an Aug. 7 email from the President’s Office, former President Kurt Landgraf said, “the members felt strongly that the existence of the Beta Omega chapter could not be constructive in building a diverse and ethical Washington College community.”

The College and Chestertown communities have begun to recognize the racially tenuous history of the Eastern Shore. Included with this is acknowledging the ties that the Kappa Alpha Order Fraternity has with Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Established in 1936, this chapter was the oldest Greek Life organization on campus.

Originally founded as Phi Kappa Chi in 1865 on what is now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., they follow the motto “dieu et les dames,” meaning God and the Ladies with the tagline: “a moral compass for the modern gentleman.” 

Their colors of crimson and old gold, represent the blood sacrificed and money spent in relation to Civil War history.

“The core value of KA is chivalry. To me that means, honor, courage, and standing up for justice,” John Davis ’14 said. “The young men formerly of Beta Omega have shown through their recent actions that they truly embody the values that we all swore to uphold. Their move to disaffiliate was not an easy decision to reach but ultimately the right one. As a good friend put it, the continued existence of KA on Washington College’s campus made the school a less welcoming and inclusive place.”

Davis said he recognizes that the campus is facing a more intense climate than it was when he was a student in 2014, circling the murder of George Floyd.

He said Floyd’s death “rocked the nation and caused many people, myself included, to re-investigate the role they had in inadvertently contributing to systemic racism.” 

Presently, Davis said there is a close group of younger alumni who came together over the summer to discuss and explore their own privilege and biases from being a member of KA.

Ultimately, over 30 alumni cosigned a letter collectively breaking their affiliation with the organization. It was during these discussions that the issue of the active chapter came up and prompted Davis and many other alumni to get in touch. 

“Our role in the chapter’s dissolution was minimal. When we reached out to the active brothers we found a group of young men who were already on the right path and just needed to know that there were alumni who supported them. We had a number of open and honest discussions around KA’s role in the issues our nation is facing,” Davis said.

The group of alumni that engaged with the active chapter provided a forum to communicate openly about the issues they were facing. 

According to senior Camerin Caraballo, former chapter president, the chapter members always had a stronger relationship for the chapter instead of the organization as a whole. The former brothers often said, “you are a Beta Omega first.”

“[The Kappa Alpha Order] tried to separate Robert E. Lee from his general status in the Confederacy and only try to look at his role as the president of Washington & Lee University,” Caraballo said. Lee was viewed as a man who inspired young white and privileged college men during the reconstruction era.

Previous chapter members decided to take the picture of Lee down from their Talbot House common area around 2014 and have continued to keep it unhung. Regardless of the dissonance of Lee’s role in American history, according to Caraballo, the Beta Omega brothers could not ignore who he was in the role of American slavery.

According to the Aug. 7 campus email, the former members “felt strongly about their genuine motivation from accumulated experiences with other brothers and their inability to prevent the glorified depiction of Robert E. Lee.”

Every two years, a national conference for the Kappa Alpha Order, asking for two representatives from each institutional chapter, was held to go over the revisions of their organization’s constitution. Back in 2019, the same issue of glorifying Lee as the spiritual founder came up to a vote of whether to abolish this symbol.

A majority voted to keep Lee as the spiritual founder.

“We do not agree with the hypocrisy of the national organization,” Caraballo said when referring to the current racial climate of the nation and the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion within many college campuses.

This has been an ongoing situation since Caraballo was a freshman. A correlating observation is that potential new members of the Beta Omega chapter, according to Caraballo, are unaware of the ties with the Confederate general.

“This is indicative of most [pledge] classes,” Caraballo said. The brothers of Beta Omega thought the affiliation of Lee was an unimportant aspect.

The ties with Lee are apparent on the organization’s website, where there is an entire page glorifying his history.

Caraballo said the chapter members contacted similarly sized chapters around the country for their advice as well.

This distaste for their affiliation with a problematic past is not a new feeling. In June, Inside Higher ED — a news source which reports on the entire higher education community — covered the suspension of a Kappa Alpha chapter at Southwestern University for releasing a statement on social media denouncing the national organization’s historical ties to the confederacy.

“There were a lot of figures at play. Over the past couple of months [in quarantine, the chapter] had a lot of time to reflect,” Caraballo said.

As a chapter they all came together and acknowledged, what Caraballo called, the “accusations and slander” targeted to Kappa Alpha Order that were brought up on campus and on social media.

Caraballo said that many stereotypes and misconceptions, not only of Kappa Alpha Order but college fraternities in general are tarnished. He hoped that the past year of volunteer work and community engagement aided in combating those sentiments.

“We did not want to make it a rash decision…For a couple of months we debated — we argued — and inevitably it came down to a vote, and that was overwhelmingly a majority to disband the chapter. And that was a vote only of the active members,” Caraballo said.

The national organization, in response to this letter from the former members, suspended the chapter “for the time being,” the Aug. 7 campus email said.

However, the Executive Director of the national organization Larry Stant Wiese said, this “was the procedure, not the sentiment.” Jesse Lyons, assistant executive director for the national organization, said the same.

“There is no provision in our laws for a chapter to take that action. Therefore, the chapter was suspended through May 2021. The chapter remains closed with a hope to reorganize in the future with support from, and agreement with, the College,” Lyons said.

Technically the chapter is not expelled, which the brother appealed for and were denied.

“I personally do not believe that there is a place for the organization on WC’s campus,” Davis said.

Caraballo said that for the chapter to return this will be based on the future intentions of the national organization. Ultimately, the final decision is for the campus community to make.

To be expelled would mean ending an 84-year-old legacy of membership for current students and alumni.

“We are finally rid of this burden, of the KA namesake, which we have not really felt attached to before I was even there,” Caraballo said.

The current members hope to set up another organization that both serves the needs of the community in an inclusive way as they, as well as alumni, are appreciative of the brotherhood they have had the opportunity to be a part of throughout their college careers, according to Davis.

“We underscore the leadership, courage and boldness of the actions of these students and emphasize that they are consistent with the ‘enduring values of Washington College — critical thinking, effective communications, and moral courage — move the world.’ Values that are instilled in each of our students and graduates,” Landgraf wrote in the campus email.

Featured Photo caption: The Kappa Alpha Order letters on Talbot House were removed by Buildings and Grounds over the summer. The letters, along with other regalia of the fraternity, have been placed into storage. There has been no mention as to whether the house will become co-ed during the next academic year. Photo by Mark Cooley.

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