Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), the fraternity that was kicked off of the University of Oklahoma’s campus Sunday night after video emerged of some of its members singing a racist chant that celebrates lynching, proudly touts its history on its website. “Sigma Alpha Epsilon is the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South,” the fraternity’s national webpage explains, adding that the frat was “[f]ounded in a time of intense sectional feeling” and that it initially “confined its growth to the southern states.”
Though SAE had “fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began,” 369 fought in the Confederate army. Only seven fought for the union.
The video that thrust SAE’s University of Oklahoma chapter into the national spotlight certainly has echoes of the old South. It consists of a segregationist refrain repeated over and over again — “there will never be a ni**** in SAE” — interspersed with an allusion to the campaign of terrorism white supremacists once used to maintain Jim Crow rule in the South: “You can hang ’em from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.”
In the video, which has now been widely reported and shared on Youtube, white fraternity members dressed in formal attire jubilantly belt out this chant on a bus. An unknown cameraperson, most likely using a cell phone, captured the video while riding on the bus:
SAE’s national headquarters, to its credit, reacted swiftly after the video became national news. “Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national headquarters has closed its Oklahoma Kappa chapter at the University of Oklahoma following the discovery of an inappropriate video,” according to a statement on SAE’s website. “In addition, all of the members have been suspended, and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently.” The statement adds that “we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way.”
This is hardy the first time, however, that an SAE chapter found itself in hot water due to the racist actions of its members. To the contrary, a brief search for publicly available articles and in the news database Nexis uncovered several similar incidents:
- In 2013, the frat’s Washington University in St. Louis chapter was suspended after pledges reportedly sang racial slurs to African American students. According to one description of the incident,
One guy began to recite the lyrics to a rap song (Bitches Ain’t Shit by Dr. Dre) as if it were a slam poem. He was reading the lyrics from his phone. The majority of the group of guys he was with found it funny and some were laughing. One member of the group was videoing the event on his phone. The guys in the group asked the black people in the booth to “show some respect” for the performance. As [redacted] continued to recite the lyrics, he came across the word “nigga” and said it with no hesitation. One of the black students tossed an empty bottle at him in anger only to be told by the group that it was part of the song, so it was okay. The black student replied that it was still offensive and the group apologized half-heartedly.
The student later apologized and admitted that this stunt was “part of an initiation for Sigma Alpha Epsilon.” The president of the Wash. U. chapter also apologized on Facebook.
- In December of 2014, SAE’s Clemson University chapter hosted a “Cripmas” party, named after the California-based “Crips” street gang. Photos of the incident depicted attendees at this party flashing gang signs and dressed in costumes intended to make them look like gang members. Much of the chapter’s leadership resigned after this incident, and the chapter “suspended all activity indefinitely” shortly after the incident, according to a statement by SAE’s national office.
- In 2006, an SAE member at the University of Memphis quit the fraternity after two other frat members harassed him for dating a black woman. According to an editorial in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the former SAE member “said SAE members used the N-word to refer to his girlfriend” and that they “also suggested that he must have met Darden on the street one night and that he couldn’t possibly be interested in a real relationship with someone of another race.” The Associated Press later reported that two students were suspended by SAE’s national office after they determined that these students “made comments that were inappropriate and unbecoming.”
- In 2006, SAE’s Baylor University chapter hosted an “E-Dawg”-themed party that the university’s NAACP chapter labeled “insensitive.” According to the Baylor Lariat, pictures “captured students wearing bandanas and holding 40-ounce bottles in brown paper during the party. One of the pictures depicted a student who covered herself in bronzer in imitation of a black person.” The pictures were discovered after they were posted to Facebook.
- In 2000, SAE’s Oglethorpe University chapter was put on probation, along with chapters from three other fraternities, after an incident where African American students visiting from other schools faced racial harassment and assault. According to one news report uncovered on Nexis, officials at two predominantly black colleges that competed in a cross-county meet at Oglethorpe “complained that Oglethorpe students in fraternity houses threw bottles at athletes and screamed racial epithets.”
- In 2009, Valdosta State University in Georgia hosted a community forum on “Heritage, Hate or Fear?” that was inspired by the university’s SAE chapter’s practice of flying a Confederate Flag on its front lawn. A lawyer for the fraternity’s national headquarters warned that the chapter could lose its charter if it continued to fly the flag.