After its University of Oklahoma chapter got kicked off campus for singing a racist song, Sigma Alpha Epsilon would very much like you to believe that there is no racism engrained in the organization itself. That probably explains why SAE would no longer like to happily inform you that nearly all of its original members fought to defend slavery in the Civil War.
Prior to this week, SAE's official website was open and proud about its deep connection to America's confederate states. Here is how the site's "History" page opened prior to this week:
Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded on March 9, 1856, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Its founders were Noble Leslie DeVotie, Nathan Elams Cockrell, John Barratt Rudulph, John Webb Kerr, Samuel Marion Dennis, Wade Hampton Foster, Abner Edwin Patton, and Thomas Chappell Cook. Their leader was DeVotie, who wrote the ritual, created the grip, and chose the name. Rudulph designed the badge. Of all existing national social fraternities today, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South.
That is pulled from the Wayback Machine, which last archived the page on Feb. 3 of this year. If you visit it now, you'll notice that the final sentence—which touts SAE as the only one of America's fraternities formed in the antebellum South—has been lopped off completely.
After that graph, the original history page continued on:
Founded in a time of intense sectional feeling, Sigma Alpha Epsilon confined its growth to the southern states. By the end of 1857, the fraternity numbered seven chapters. Its first national convention met in the summer of 1858 at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with four of its eight chapters in attendance. By the time of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, fifteen chapters had been established.
If you look at it now, you'll notice that the entire first sentence—which essentially describes the period of American slavery as "intense sectional feeling"—has been deleted.
The next paragraph—about DeVotie, one of its founders, who died after he... fell off a boat—remains, but after that three whole paragraphs detailing SAE's involvement in the Civil War have been completely removed. Here is what they said:
The fraternity had fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army. Seventy-four members of the fraternity lost their lives in the war.
While many Sigma Alpha Epsilon Chapters today claim that Noble Leslie DeVotie was the first person to die in the Civil War, DeVotie is not recognized by reputable sources as the first death. DeVotie lost his footing while boarding a Steamer on February 12, 1861, purportedly becoming the first casualty of the war.
After the Civil War, only one chapter survived – at tiny Columbian College (which is now George Washington University) in Washington, D.C..
You can understand, of course, how SAE might think this paragraph explaining that 369 of its original members fought for the Confederacy would complicate its assertion that the fraternity is not racist. Especially when you consider that SAE's chapter at Oklahoma State currently has a confederate flag hanging on one of its walls.
Unfortunately for SAE, it can't completely erase the history of its connections to the Confederacy.
Websites like Think Progress, for instance, had pulled out some of the pertinent paragraphs before someone got around to deleting them. Word also has yet to trickle out to individual chapters that they're supposed to be keeping all this shit under the radar now. You can pretty easily find SAE's original accounting of its history on some websites of its individual chapters—Marshall and Evansville are ones I found in Googling for half a second—and its Miami of Ohio chapter even provides detailed historical bios of its founders, several of whom fought and died for the Confederacy or went on to own plantations.
Still, anything can be deleted from the internet. What's harder to remove is, say, someone's gravestone.
Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is a burial ground in St. Louis that was established after the Civil War as part of a network of graveyards meant for the remains of the war's veterans. Though Jefferson National eventually began to accommodate upstanding but dead citizens of all stripes, it contains a large number of graves of Civil War soldiers and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
If you were to take a stroll among the cemetery's Civil War graves, you might stumble upon the headstone of Samuel Marion Dennis, one of SAE's eight founders, who died of pneumonia after being captured by the Union.
You'll notice that Dennis' gravestone boasts that he helped found SAE, and also carries the SAE badge. You'll also notice that it's pointed, because when Civil War veterans were buried, Union soldiers were given rounded gravestones and Confederate soldiers were given pointed ones. (The VA's website notes that the old rumor is that the point came about "to prevent 'Yankees' from sitting on Confederate headstones.")
In any event, one thing SAE has chosen not to excise from the internet is when and where it was started. The first sentence of its current website notes that the fraternity was "founded on March 9, 1856, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama," and, well, there's only a certain number of conclusions you can draw from that permanent piece of history.
[top photo of brothers moving out of SAE via AP, photo of grave via a tipster]