“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten...” Dixie, the infamous southern anthem sung around the crackling heat of confederate campfires in the 1860's, now bellowed through the halls of ODU's dormitories as the white students of the Kappa Alpha Order toasted to their continued success and the end to another fall semester. The year was 1969, and African American's around the country shouldered the wearisome burden of ensuring equal opportunity and rights for all citizens. Some students, however, clung to their own bigoted southern roots, content with memorializing a time that refused to be forgotten, regardless of how hard black students tried.
And try they did. You would have to close your eyes and cover your ears to miss the onslaught that was thrown from every direction.
In fact, if you were to walk past Kauffman Mall early enough to catch the flags being raised, you would not for a single moment believe that at one time it was an ODU tradition to raise the battle flag of the confederacy as part of a campus wide celebration of “southern heritage.” It would then come as a surprise to you that these very same students, both male and female alike, would gleefully dawn the uniforms of these traitorous southern soldiers and dance and sing as if the war had not been lost so long ago.
“That is just how it was at the time,” says James Majka, a graduate from the class of 1966. “It wasn't uncommon to see a confederate flag flying in a dorm room window. I had moved from the north, and while I wouldn't say there was a palpable tension, I was shocked to see that problems like segregation were even a issue.”
Of course, it was not merely the presence of the flags that young black students found disconcerting as they managed life aboard a mostly white, southern campus. As sororities and fraternities flourished within the fledgling university, so did the trouble they brought with them, and the aristocratic bigotry that ensured the university all but drug their feet to the beating drums of progression.
Finally it seemed the school would be ready for change, but deep racial undertones would still prevail well into the 1970's. A picture take from ODU's 1970 yearbook, the “Troubadour,” shows members of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brandishing both Nazi and confederate flags, all while placing their hands atop the heads of young African American children. The picture, taken at the beach, shows the darker side of fraternity culture that was so accepted by the university that it was published in its yearbook.
Ryan Fragas, President of ODU's Kappa Alpha chapter, said that when the fraternity was reestablished at ODU in the '90s that diversity was so common it never even crossed the minds of the new founding members. “We were just raised differently, more accepting. I never had to think about diversity in the chapter because it was already diverse. I just focused on surrounding myself with guys who shared my beliefs, regardless of color.”
When asked about the symbolism of KA's ancestors, Fragas said there was a disconnect between the older generations. “There is a significant difference in the way we do things and the way things used to be. Sometime in the last 20 years, Kappa Alpha banned an aged tradition called the 'Old South' ball, and we replaced it with something else.”
Kappa Alphas older alumni still embrace their southern heritage, with the groups facebook page proudly displaying both the confederate flag and the visage of General Robert E. Lee.
Old Dominion is not the school it once was. Todays ODU is a beautifully diverse and ethnic campus, promoting cultural interaction and friendship among all races and genders, regardless of creed or religion. It stands as a beacon of change to a country once torn apart by hate and bigotry.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King penned a letter from the Birmingham City Jail, lamenting that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So it is, then, that racism and inequality shown to students at anytime in our university's storied history are addressed. Failure to shine this light on the brave Monarchs that dared to stand firm in the face of adversity allows their stories to be forgotten. Only by understanding our past can we better forge a successful and equal future.