The Early Weeks at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Excerpts from Billy Lever’s “History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.”
It is difficult for the modern college student to realize how limited was the extent of higher education, especially in the South, during the period when ΣΑΕ was founded. Even the largest universities had an enrollment of only a few hundred students, and the curriculum was devoted to the liberal arts and the preparation in theology, law, and medicine. Emphasis was on classics in undergraduate education. As a consequence, the founders of ΣΑΕ were familiar with Greek and Latin language and literature. “Greek-letter” fraternities, with their rich symbolism and elaborate rituals, drew heavily from the tradition of Greek mythology, for this was well-known to their members. So it was with ΣΑΕ. DeVotie and his fellow founders were Greek scholars, and the name of the fraternity, its ritual, and its fundamental ideals were rooted in the great traditions of classical Greece.
Not only were colleges small, educating a privileged elite for the professions, but fraternity chapters were relatively small too. A chapter of more than twelve or fifteen men was regarded as exceptionally large in those days.
In 1856 the University of Alabama counted at most only a few hundred students in its student body. Only thirteen seniors graduated in the spring of 1856, and five of these were founders of ΣΑΕ.
By 1856 four fraternities had established chapters at Alabama, but one of these had already died before ΣΑΕ was organized. Old Kappa Alpha - not to be confused with either the Kappa Alpha Society or the Southern Kappa Alpha Order - had established a chapter at Alabama in 1848, but it dissolved in the spring of 1855 because of internal dissension. The majority faction of that group accepted a charter of Phi Gamma Delta in the fall of 1855. Delta Kappa Epsilon (1847) and Alpha Delta Phi (1850) had chapters at Alabama in 1856. None of the ΣΑΕ founders was a member of defunct Kappa Alpha or of any other fraternity prior to their organizing ΣΑΕ, although a number of them had been invited to join other groups, and DeVotie, the top scholar in his class had been invited to join all of the Alabama fraternities.
The badge of ΣΑΕ, diamond-shaped like the badges of Delta Kappa Epsilon and Phi Gamma Delta, was designed by John B. Rudulph; and it is said to have caused a sensation when it first arrived on the campus. “Everyone was talking about the lady making the lion behave,” recalled John B. Rudolph years later. Early fraternity badges were much larger than those of the present day, and ΣΑΕ’s first badge measured an inch and a half long and fifteen-sixteenths of an inch in width.
During the earliest meetings the founders hammered out a constitution for the fraternity. This was especially important because the term “constitution” included not only the laws to govern the fraternity but also its ritual. Although DeVotie had practically completed the laws and ritual during the months before the first formal meeting, the new organization amended and ratified the document he had prepared. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was made the patron of the fraternity.
In some ways 19th century college fraternities imitated the older literary societies which were so much a feature of campus life in those days. One such practice, provided for in ΣΑΕ’s first constitution, was the topos, or academic subject on which a member was to write a series of literary essays for oral presentation to the chapter. Each member selected his topos. Collectively these literary efforts were called topoi, and this system was one of the cardinal points in the constitution. For a number of years this literary work was carried on faithfully in the mother chapter and throughout the fraternity as it extended from college to college.
At their second meeting on March 15, 1856, the founders elected permanent officers, decided it was time to inform the President of the University, Dr. L. G. Garland, of the establishment of ΣΑΕ, and, most important, elected their first new member.
There was a boy of rare promise on the campus; a young man sought by all the fraternities. His name was Newton Nash Clements. The new fraternity was as anxious to have him as were its older rivals, but one or two of the ΣΑΕ’s doubted the expediency of inviting him. To them it seemed a risky venture to tempt fate so soon with their first “bid.” The rest of the members, however, led by DeVotie, Kerr, and Rudulph, insisted that Clements should be given the opportunity of refusing them. The invitation was given, and it was accepted. A week later Clements was initiated. It is a measure of the quality of their first pledge member that Clements in later years served as Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and as U.S. Congressman for his district.
From the beginning ΣΑΕ was planned as a national fraternity. The founders never once even mentioned the possibility or desirability of seeking a charter from an established national organization. Although a dozen northern fraternities had already organized chapters in the South, sectional feeling was running so high in the fifties that extension into that region began to slow. Only one other purely Southern fraternity existed, a local Society called W.W.W at the University of Mississippi, the existence of which was probably not known to ΣΑΕ founders. More important, however, was the conviction of DeVotie and his associates that their fraternity was somehow different, that it had a destiny that lay beyond the confines of Tuscaloosa or Alabama. At their third meeting - the one at which they initiated Clements - they urged “that those members of ΣΑΕ fraternity who may have trustworthy friends in other colleges, South, have written communication with them, if they choose, for the purpose of organizing Chapters of the ΣΑΕ fraternity in their respective institutions.” DeVotie was elected corresponding secretary, the officer in charge of communications with potential petitioners from other colleges.
While the early members were beginning to look to the extension of ΣΑΕ, they were thoroughly enjoying themselves on the campus at Tuscaloosa. Their formal meetings were almost always on Saturday evening in what they soon came to call the “ΣΑΕ Hall,” a schoolroom in the Mansion House. Frequently their meetings were followed by a “feed.” After the second meeting on March 15, 1856, “The society retired to the college, where it regaled itself with roast turkey and warm coffee.” And when the meeting of May 31 was over, the secretary recorded that the “members returned to the university where they festered their physical appetites on the fat thighs of a Shanghai goober.”
Often they would have the old servant who provided for them secure a fine roasted ‘possum. It was at a feast after one of the meetings of the first month that Kerr designed to deliver an oration over the remains of a ‘possum; and the word “remains” is used advisedly, for the boys had stripped it to the bones and were feeling exceedingly comfortable. Kerr’s professor in zoology had that week been holding forth on the anatomy of ‘possums and had explained how they, differing from many kindred animals, had imbricated jaws. “Fraters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” began Kerr, swelling with dignity, amid all sorts of meetings and salutations from his follows. “Fraters of ΣΑΕ, we have before us the last sad remains of a marsupial mammal. It differs from many of the familiar animals on account of its imbricated jaws,” and as he delivered his recently gained knowledge, Kerr grandly reached for the skull of the animal and displayed it in his most impressive manner. Suddenly his eyes snapped and he looked closer; His compatriots followed his stare. This ‘possum, at least, had no imbricated jaws.
Further investigation followed, to be ended by summoning the cook. At first he temporized, but to no avail, and so at last, driven to a corner, he confessed. No ‘possum had been obtainable that day, and believing the fraternity boys would never discover the difference, he had procured a fat tom cat and had served it
Too often we forget that these were young college undergraduates who organized SAE. At 22 years of age Cockrell was the “old man” of the group; Kerr and Dennis were 21; Patton was 20; Cook (already at Princeton) was 19; and DeVotie, Rudolph and Foster were only 18. Yet DeVotie and Rudolph were seniors. And DeVotie liked to have fun as much as did any college student of his day.
It was a good thing the founders were planning to extend ΣΑΕ to other colleges, for in mid-1856 the board of Trustees of the University of Alabama abolished fraternities. Eighteen months later the mother chapter was forced to disband, having initiated only twenty-two men including the founders.
In the immediate years which followed the abolition of fraternities at the University of Alabama, the institution almost collapsed under the lawlessness which existed. The public press of the State was full of reports of the lamentable conditions prevailing at Tuscaloosa. One student was stabbed to death in a college fight. Hundreds quit the institution and others were afraid to enter as students. By 1859, when the enrollment had dropped to 83, the board of Trustees adopted the astonishing standard of 25 percent passing grade in scholarship.
In this atmosphere the little band of ΣΑΕ s at Tuscaloosa could scarcely have been exited to develop a strong fraternity. Yet they managed to survive the 1856-1857 academic year. In fact they flourished.