After almost a year of discussion and deliberation, the Union Council voted to remove the names of two men who belonged to a University of Wisconsin-Madison campus group known as the Ku Klux Klan from union facilities.
The Fredric March Play Circle theater will become Play Circle, and Porter Butts Gallery will be renamed the Main Gallery. Butts will still be honored with an interactive kiosk, but it’s not yet clear whether March will be recognized elsewhere in the Union.
The decision came after a Monday night vote from the Union Council, the governing body of the Wisconsin Union.
Focus on the names increased in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist gathering, when Chancellor Rebecca Blank said it was “time to take a fresh look at our history,” and called for a committee to examine the history of student groups affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Cap Times reporter Pat Schneider was writing an extensive article on the subject at the time.
The committee didn’t take a position on whether to rename the spaces, but emphasized the need for “substantial institutional change to acknowledge and address the legacies of that era.” The university committed funds for a public history project on prejudice and about $360,000 to hire faculty members in the Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies, Chican@/Latin@ studies and Asian-American studies departments.
The Union Council studied the committee's report, as well as archival and biographical materials on Butts and March. This spring, the council announced that the names would be covered at the beginning of the coming school year, and continued to meet to determine whether to completely remove the names.
Students, alumni, staff and citizens signed a report in protest of the names on university facilities, and the public weighed in on the issue at forums.
“To not remove these names is to condone an ongoing historical wrong and to not properly reckon with the symbolic and tangible impacts of white supremacy on the university today,” student Rena Yehuda Newman said at one such forum.
March was an Oscar-winning actor and Butts was the first director of the Union. Both belonged to the all-white, all-male honorary interfraternity Ku Klux Klan group in the 1920s.
There’s no evidence that the UW-Madison group was directly linked with the national KKK, but it shared “many of the racist and nativist attitudes,” a scholarly article from 1993 found. The statement from the Wisconsin Union maintains that “no information has been found that connects the organization to any ideology.” Separately, there was a Kappa Beta Lambda (Klansmen Be Loyal) group on campus that was affiliated with the national Klan.
“There is no information about racism in the group in 1922-1923 when Porter first belonged. We searched the archives to determine if this was so. What we found was total silence about the group, no research and a strong desire for members to disassociate from the national KKK during this period,” Sherrill Butts Randall, Butts' daughter said.
Butts helped change the name, which he called “curious, irrelevant, and very unfortunate,” and published an editorial in the Daily Cardinal denouncing the national Klan. But even so, the Council referenced the “impact on students and other community members of affiliation with any organization called the KKK,” in their decision to remove Butts’ name from the art gallery.
Butts’ daughter Randall had previously raised concerns about removing her father’s name from the space, calling it an instance of “guilt by association.” But on Tuesday, the Union Council statement expressed gratitude to Butts’ family “for coming forward and suggesting an approach that responds to community members’ concerns while still acknowledging Porter’s professional legacy.”
“It would break his heart to know that even one student feels uncomfortable there. It is in that spirit that we asked that his name be relocated and that his professional achievements be recognized in a different space,” Randall said in the statement.
A permanent kiosk on Butts’ will be developed over the school year, and a short-term temporary biographical exhibit on Butts will be installed in the second floor of the Memorial Union.
Regarding March, the statement said that “more research into Fredric March’s legacy is needed before a possible solution for recognition elsewhere in Memorial Union can be decided.”
Names will be removed before the academic year begins, and there will be temporary signs explaining the renaming.