Porter Butts Gallery

"Porter Butts" could be removed as the name of an art gallery at the UW-Madison Memorial Union as campus groups consider how to best deal with a legacy of racism on campus.

It will be a while before there’s a decision on whether to remove the names of University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni from the Memorial Union facilities Porter Butts Gallery and Frederic March Play Circle.

The Wisconsin Union Council, which administers Memorial and Union South on the UW-Madison campus, announced last week that the names of Porter Butts and Frederic March on the art gallery and small theater will be covered at the start of the fall semester. The council's members will take the unusual step of continuing to meet over the summer while they deliberate on whether to recommend removal of the names altogether. A proposal is expected before the end of the fall semester.

What’s the controversy over Butts and March?

Butts, the union’s first director, and Oscar-winning actor Fredric March (then Bickel), belonged to a campus intrafraternity group called the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.

They belonged to the KKK? On campus?

Well, not exactly. There is no evidence of a direct link between the KKK at UW and the national KKK then emerging in U.S. society, according to a 1993 scholarly article written by then UW-Madison graduate student Timothy Messer-Kruse. But Messer-Kruse concluded that members of the UW organization shared “many of the racist and nativist attitudes” of the growing white-hooded national group and should have realized what adopting that name insinuated.

The presence of the UW campus Klan, with its elite white male membership was a “barometer of the cultural and ideological climate” of the campus at the time, he wrote. A different short-lived fraternity at UW-Madison founded slightly later by the national KKK drew from a somewhat lower socio-economic class among students.

Who wants the names to be removed from Union facilities?

A lot of people. One hundred students signed on to a report, submitted to campus officials on April 29 by senior Adan Abu-Hakmeh, declaring that the presence of the names at the Memorial Union was an act of bias. Two dozen alumni, staff and citizens also signed on and Abu-Hakmeh claims more than 200 additional supporters. Those harmed are predominantly marginalized students who have experienced racial, anti-Semitic or anti-LGBTQ discrimination or oppression, she argued.

So why not just take the names down now?

Not so fast. A study committee appointed by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank called last month on the campus community not to focus on a few individuals and the facilities named for them, but rather to confront the campus history of “a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry.” The group urged that any focus on renaming campus facilities follow rather than precede “substantial institutional change to acknowledge and address the legacies of that era.”

So members of that study group don’t want the names to come down?

That’s not it. Christy Clark-Pujara, an associate professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies, said in an interview that allocating resources to address current inequalities on campus was the most important thing. “I do not oppose renaming. But let’s not let that be the focal point. We need to recover the stories of people who lived through this and the students who lived after them and how they experienced life on campus.” Stephen Kantrowitz, a history professor and co-chair of the study group, also does not object to taking down the names.

“Let students demand the campus they deserve,” Kantrowitz said in an interview. The group touched on the issue of renaming many times, and came back again and again to the belief that the focus should be on confronting structural racism at the university, he said.

What about resources?

The university has committed up to $1 million to research and install a public history project to document the work of those who “endured, fought and overcame prejudice” throughout the history of the university. In addition, an estimated $360,000 will be spent to hire four new faculty members, as requested by the departments of Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies, Chican@/Latin@ studies and Asian-American studies. Blank also promised new resources for the recruitment of top scholars from underrepresented groups.

So no one objects to taking the names down?

Not so. The family of Porter Butts is raising a lot of concerns. His daughter, Sherrill Randall, said removing the name of her father, who funded an endowment to help the Union buy art, from the gallery because of the name of a group he belonged to is “guilt by association.” Appointed to represent his fraternity on the KKK, Butts worked to change its name soon afterward, she said. As editor of the Daily Cardinal, he used editorials to help raise money to build the union, a place he saw as a hub for debate of social issues, Randall said. The art purchases endowment, which currently has some $33,000 in funds, does not require the gallery be named for him, Randall said.

This KKK stuff at UW-Madison was almost 100 years ago. Why the controversy now?

Blank impaneled the study group last August as the Capital Times prepared to publish a story on the KKK’s history on the UW-Madison campus, just a week after a gathering of white supremacy groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, left three dead and led to the quick removal of Confederate memorials across the country.

No one recalled until then that groups linked to KKK had been on the UW-Madison campus?

There had been several articles written about it over time: a 1953 Capital Times article that called the campus KKK “all in fun;” a 1970 piece by the Daily Cardinal; a 1992 Isthmus article that focused on the involvement of a student who became a Madison schools superintendent; Messer-Kruse’s journal article in 1993; and a 2006 history of Madison by local historian Stuart Levitan.

No one complained about the Memorial Union facility names until now?

Well, Abu-Hakmeh insisted that students using the play circle have complained for years. And the lack of response from campus officials motivated her to organize students into a crowd bias complaint. But Shauna Breneman, communications director of the Wisconsin Union, indicated she has no records of complaints before the study group on student involvement in the KKK was announced in August, 2017.

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