Ellen Byron

Party Like It’s 1865

One great thing about being a writer is that you can allow a character to make up for your own personal failings. My case in point…

I attended Tulane University in New Orleans, and loved it. But there was a fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which celebrated an event called “Old South.” The guys in the chapter rented Confederate soldier uniforms, and their dates rented southern belle ball gowns. The day began with frat members corralling their gals from around the campus.

Old South 2 (2)

The group then sashayed down St. Charles Avenue until they reached the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle, where they toasted the Confederate general with champagne. The festivities ended with an evening formal.Old South (2)

I didn’t go to school in the 19th century, dated as this event sounds. In fact, you’d be shocked at how recently this occurred. But I didn’t question “Old South” at the time. It seemed like Halloween or Mardi Gras – just another opportunity to play dress-up. Frankly, I was jealous.

Old South 3 (2)

No one ever invited me, so I never got the chance to put on one of those big, poofy hoop skirts. In retrospect, thank God there are no pictures of me parading down St. Charles with a frat boy dressed in a Confederate uniform. Much like the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol, it implies racism. The fact that I took these pictures shows how clueless I was about the ugly underbelly of “Old South.”

Spoiler alert: when writing my debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, I decided to create a subplot based on “Old South.” I’d let my protagonist say things that I’m ashamed I never did. Before I wrote the book, I did a little research to see when the event was discontinued. Because surely it’s been discontinued by now, right? Well, not completely. While KA’s national organization has banned wearing Confederate uniforms in “Old South” parades and some chapters have stopped hosting the event, others have simply moved the celebration off-campus.

When I searched the internet, I did find Kappa Alpha alumni who decry “Old South.” In an essay entitled “Party like it’s 1865” on the national organization’s own website, Joel Buck writes, “Think about it from an outsider’s perspective. If non-members see a large group of young men (and women) walking the streets in 1860s period costumes with alcoholic beverages in hand, what kind of message does that send?”

Our personal history is a confluence of decisions that make us proud and others we may regret. I regret that nineteen-year-old me missed the racial insensitivity of wanting to flounce around campus in a southern belle costume. But I take comfort in the fact that I’ll-never-reveal-my-age me found a way for my protagonist, Maggie Crozat, to articulate outrage over a “tradition” that is deeply offensive. The New South – and Kappa Alpha – can do better than “Old South.”

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11 thoughts on “Party Like It’s 1865

  1. This post resonates with me. When we first moved to SC from IL in the late 60s, I felt like I had emigrated. Either that, or slipped back 100 years. I, too, witnessed things I wish I had protested. Actually, my coworker and I watched a male department store worker throw a black woman to the ground and start kicking her because she had picked up a shoe in a sale bin to look at the bottom of it. I actually was ready to intervene, but my coworker pulled me outside and warned me not to say anything. That still bothers me today, along with other lesser things I witnessed there.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m reading a non-fiction book called *Last Chance for Justice* by T, K, Thorne, a retired Birmingham ALA policewoman. It’s about bringing the Baptist Church bombers to justice 30 years after the 1963 bombing that killed 4 little girls. She relates that, at the time of the bombing 1/3 of the B’ham police force belonged to the KKK, who was responsible for the bombing. Even in the 90s, people were reluctant to testify and seem to fear them, or some of their members, though the group is a shadow of what it was then. It’s eye-opening in that it shows not only some horrible racial attitudes, but also that there have always been good people trying to do the right thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Ellen! I wasn’t a sorority sister and didn’t do many frat parties. The ones I did were about drinking which wasn’t me even back then. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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