Two spaces in UW-Madison’s student union — named after prominent alumni who, while students in the 1920s, belonged to a campus group called “Ku Klux Klan” — will be renamed before the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
The Wisconsin Union Council, the governing body of the university’s Memorial Union, voted on the removal of the names Monday, overriding an earlier decision this spring to cover up the controversial names before the start of the school year.
An art gallery named for art historian Porter Butts, the first director of the Memorial Union, will be renamed the Main Gallery and a play circle named for Academy Award-winning actor Fredric March will be renamed the Play Circle.
The council found no evidence that the 1920s social group known as the Ku Klux Klan had any ties to the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Its review also found that the student organization elected its members from each of the university’s 18 fraternities.
Stripping the names from the student union comes after a series of recent racially charged campus incidents and also at a time when other colleges across the country are reckoning with their own racist histories.
A hate and bias report was filed with UW-Madison relating to the names of the two spaces in Memorial Union, Wisconsin Union spokeswoman Shauna Breneman previously said.
Temporary signs will explain the renaming, a process that began about a year ago amid a national conversation about the potential renaming of Confederate monuments.
In August 2017 — one week after white supremacist groups gathered in Charlottesville last summer for protests that turned deadly — Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced the formation of a committee to study the history of student groups affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.
A report examined two groups on the UW campus in the 1910s and 1920s that called themselves the Ku Klux Klan. The first group, to which March and Butts belonged, emerged in 1919 and appears not to have been affiliated with any larger Klan groups. The second group was tied to the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
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The report found no evidence either group engaged in acts of terrorism, violent intimidation or other acts commonly associated with the Klan.
The council, made up of student, alumni, faculty and staff representatives, decided this spring to at least temporarily cover up Butts’ and March’s names at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, but Butts’ family pushed back against the plan.
They describe Butts, who died in 1991, as someone who worked to include people of all backgrounds at Memorial Union.
Butts helped change the college organization’s name from the Ku Klux Klan to Tumas in 1923. And under Butts’ tenure as managing editor of The Daily Cardinal, two published editorials condemned the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Wisconsin Union.
During a public forum last month, the Butts family again came to his defense, pointing to a career that showed he championed “social inclusion.”
“He did not have racist views, and we are sure of that,” said Sherill Butts Randall, Butts’ daughter. “He was very strong on inclusivity. And I say to the people who feel so threatened by this, that he’s on your side.”
The council’s Tuesday announcement noted the renaming decision was made in consultation with the Butts family. Butts’ professional accomplishments will be acknowledged through an interactive kiosk in a permanent non-programming location.
“If my father were alive today, he’d be leading the diversity and inclusivity efforts on campus,” Butts Randall said in the council’s announcement. “He devoted his career to making sure Memorial Union is a place where everyone feels welcome. 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.”
More research is needed on March’s legacy before the council decides if he will receive recognition somewhere else in the Memorial Union.
State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.