I’ve been studying the University of Oklahoma for about a year now. I’ve immersed myself in the culture of the university and the state. Sadly, the latest news about the actions of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity isn’t shocking. Oklahoma has a strange history. Part of the state is still known as Little Dixie. It’s main cash crop was cotton and sought to maintain many of its connections to Southern culture. Progressive Republicans, who wrote the constitution and were in power at statehood, tried to break a few of those ties. Intense partisanship, however, ended those efforts. In an attempt to seek power, Democrats enacted literacy tests that would eliminate the black vote and sway the balance of power in their favor.
On campus, it wasn’t much better. One of the first four professors at OU, Edwin DeBarr, was a Grand Wizard in the KKK. He was released from his contract in 1923 because of these ties, but remained in Norman. The Chemistry Building was named after him for several years. He was murdered in 1950 (by his grandson-in-law). It wasn’t until 1988 that they removed the plaque and his name from the building.
There are, of course, more examples I could cite. You can find KKK symbols in fraternity and club photos in old yearbooks. A major cross burning too place on the lawn of the Hillel House in 1950. But the two main examples I cite above illustrate the long history of racism in Oklahoma and at OU. Once something become institutionalized, it is very difficult to eradicate. I hope OU does more than just ban the fraternity from campus. There needs to be bigger actions that get to the core of the problem.
It’s good to see OU football coach Bob Stoops, arguably the most important person on campus to most Sooners, come out and take a stand. “It’s sad the ignorance that can still be there with some people,” Stoops told the Tulsa World. “It’s just appalling. I was here to be with my guys. We all work with beautiful young men and women of all races. It’s just — very little gets me choked up. But that hurt.”
The swift action so far is also a credit to University President David Boren. Boren is no stranger to Oklahoma politics. His father was a Congressman from Oklahoma in the 1930s (he made his name deploring John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). President Boren also held political office, serving as both a Governor and Senator. He knows Oklahomans very well and is well-respected in and outside of Norman. During my visit last summer, people had nothing but the highest praise for him.
This support and cultural understanding affords Boren the opportunity to come down hard and send a message. In his statement, Boren admonished the fraternity’s action. “These people have acted in a way that’s absolutely reprehensible and disgraceful,” Boren said. “Real Sooners are not bigots, racists.” At least not any more. As the history above shows, in the past Sooners have been bigots and racists. They’ve worked hard to progress, but if Boren wants his statement to ring true, he needs to put force behind it.