The family of a prominent UW-Madison alumnus, Porter Butts, is pushing back against plans to cover his name on a campus art gallery because he belonged to a 1920s-era student social group that, for a time, was called “Ku Klux Klan.”
Butts’ daughter, Sherrill Butts Randall, says she and her family are “incredulous” at recent events stemming from the release of a report probing the history of KKK groups on campus.
Randall says her father, who died in 1991, sought to include people of all backgrounds at Memorial Union, the UW-Madison campus space with which he is most closely identified.
Randall’s daughter and Butts’ granddaughter, Tanya Randall-Tanner, wrote in an email that “this continues to be a very difficult and painful time for my family.” Both women say their family was shut out of the discussion and surprised by media reports about it.
“I can say with 100 percent certainty that my grandfather was not racist,” Randall-Tanner wrote.
Randall also says her research indicates the inter-fraternity group to which Butts belonged as a UW-Madison student in the 1920s either had stopped using the “KKK” name by the time he joined it, or did so within months of him joining.
“He said it was because the name was curious, irrelevant and unfortunate,” Randall said, quoting her father’s writings about the group. “They did not want to be confused with the real Knights of the KKK.”
The name of Butts, the first director of the group that operates UW-Madison’s iconic Memorial Union, and another prominent UW-Madison alumnus, actor Fredric March, had been attached to public spaces within the union. A play circle was named for March and an art gallery for Butts, a professor and art historian.
But the Wisconsin Union, the governing body for the Memorial Union, announced last week that it will cover the two men’s names on the spaces, at least on a temporary basis. Its council is set to decide later this year whether to permanently rename them.
Wisconsin Union spokeswoman Shauna Breneman also said a hate and bias report was filed with the university relating to the names of the two spaces.
The debate grew out of the response to last year’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was linked to demonstrations on the removal of public monuments dedicated to people with white supremacist views.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank last year commissioned a study group to look at the legacy of racism on campus. Last month the group released a report probing the history of two groups that bore the “KKK” name on campus from 1919 to 1926.
Various groups have used the “Klan” name since the Reconstruction Era — many of which were committed to enforcing white Protestant supremacy, sometimes with violence.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the national Klan was experiencing its second major wave of membership and interest. It followed the release of the film “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Reconstruction Era Klan, and an increase in anti-immigrant and prohibitionist sentiments, which the 20th-century Klan embraced along with the anti-black and anti-Semitic views with which it is most closely associated.
The first of the UW-Madison Klan groups, to which Butts and March belonged, appears not to have been affiliated with the national Klan. The group to which Butts belonged, according to Randall, was a social group made up of leading members of fraternities on campus.
The second “KKK” group examined in the study group report — a housing fraternity, Kappa Beta Lambda, or KBL, for “Klansmen Be Loyal” — surfaced in 1924 and was linked to the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The first “KKK” group appears at some point to have tried to distance itself from the national Klan, as it changed its name from the KKK to “Tumas” — the meaning of which is not addressed in the report — after the emergence of the second campus Klan group.
Randall said she doesn’t fault the university for commissioning a report to examine the legacy of racism on campus.
“That time was a very bigoted time, and there were lots of terrible things going on,” Randall said. “What we want is to get to the truth of the situation.
“We also want to preserve my father’s professional reputation.”
Butts was considered a national leader in the push to build student unions on university campuses. Among the honors he received at UW-Madison was the Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
March is the only actor to have won two Academy Awards and two Tony Awards. Blank wrote that he “fought the persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
In a statement Thursday, Blank said it’s natural that the discussion about former campus groups named Ku Klux Klan “has raised questions about how to address certain-named spaces on our campus.”
“These are important discussions that need to occur on campus and I’ll be continuing to engage in them over summer,” Blank said. “At the same time, I want to ensure that we remain focused on successfully implementing the study group’s recommendations on how to confront the broader and deeper lessons of that era.”