A photo from an Auburn yearbook shows Gov. Bill Lee in a Confederate uniform at a fraternity party.
Ayrika L Whitney, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Days after Gov. Bill Lee’s staff members said they were unaware of any photos of the Tennessee governor wearing a Confederate uniform, his office confirmed he is pictured doing so in a 1980 Auburn University yearbook.
The photo, included on a page in the Kappa Alpha section of the yearbook, shows Lee and another man smiling while wearing a Confederate army style uniform and posing with two women in period costumes.
Lee attended the public university in Alabama from 1977 to 1981 and was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity that held annual “Old South” parties in which members dressed up in Confederate uniforms.
The fraternity, which displayed a large Confederate flag outside the Kappa Alpha house, also held an annual celebration of the birthday of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee.
In a statement previously given to USA TODAY Network, Lee said he regretted his participation in the parties nearly four decades ago.
“I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it,” Lee said.
His office declined to provide an additional comment on Thursday.
Kappa Alpha’s Old South parties also were held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and at the University of Memphis, formerly known as Memphis State University, among other schools.
According to 2018 Kappa Alpha national order guidelines posted online, chapters have been prohibited from displaying Confederate battle flags at fraternity functions since at least 2001.
In 2010, the organization prohibited members from wearing Confederate uniforms at events.
“Chapters shall not sponsor functions with the name Old South or functions with any similar name. All functions and activities must be conducted with restraint and dignity and without trappings and symbols that might be misinterpreted and objectionable to the general public,” according to the organization.
USA TODAY YEARBOOK PROJECT: Blackface, KKK hoods and mock lynchings: Review of 900 yearbooks finds blatant racism
USA TODAY Network Yearbook Project
After photos emerged of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring a person wearing blackface and another in a KKK hood, reporters from the USA TODAY Network undertook a comprehensive review of more than 900 publications at 120 schools around the nation.
The review offers perspective on an array of cases that have emerged since the Northam reports and showed that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a stunning number of colleges and university yearbooks published images of blatant racism on campus.
At Cornell University in New York, three fraternity members are listed in the 1980 yearbook as “Ku,” “Klux” and “Klan.” For their 1971 yearbook picture, a dozen University of Virginia fraternity members, some armed, wore dark cloaks and hoods while peering up at a lynched mannequin in blackface. In one of the most striking images – from the 1981 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign yearbook – a black man is smiling and holding a beer while posing with three people in full KKK regalia.
Reporters collected more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material at colleges in 25 states, from large public universities in the South, Ivy League schools in the Northeast, liberal arts boutiques and Division I powerhouses.
No other politicians were identified by USA TODAY Network’s review which focused on the same time period as Northam’s yearbook in the era after sweeping civil rights reform. Few images had captions to provide names or context and people’s faces were often hidden behind hoods or blackface.
In one yearbook, from Arizona State University, reporters discovered that USA TODAY Editor Nicole Carroll had designed a page that included a photo of two people, at a fraternity’s Halloween party, in black makeup as actress Robin Givens and boxer Mike Tyson. Carroll, who was editor of the yearbook in 1989 when the photo ran, expressed regret after learning of the photo.
Experts say that even if school officials don’t have direct oversight over the yearbooks, responsibility rests with the entire institution: A campus culture that fostered racist behavior; yearbook staffs that chose to memorialize it; and administrations that failed to condemn the images when they were published for the world to see.
Follow Natalie Allison on Twitter at @natalie_allison
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