Remembering the Days: Frat House Blues — the 30-year ban on fraternities
Remembering the Days — episode 33
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
In one of the quirky chapters of university history, fraternities were banned from campus for a 30-year period — 1897 to 1927. How that came about and how it ended is the topic of this week's episode.
A sonorous voice intones a line from a speech given in the 1820s during a gathering of the Clariosophic Society.
If you had been a student at the University of South Carolina in the first half of the 19th century, chances are very good that you would have been a member of either the Euphradian Society or the Clariosophic Society. Those were the only two student clubs on campus back then.
And what did the members do?
More droning from the 1820s speech
The Euphradians and the Clariosophics made speeches and held debates — week after week.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at a curious chapter in the history of the university. It took place late in the late 1890s when students from those two societies convinced the state Legislature to kick the fraternities off campus.
Now, there are a few moving parts to this story, so bear with me for a moment while I give you the background on how and why this happened.
First, joining either the Euphradian or the Clariosophic Societies was something that almost every student did from 1805, when South Carolina College opened, until the Civil War when it closed its doors temporarily.
They were called literary societies, but the Euphradians and Clariosophics were focused mainly on the fine art of debating, a skill that propelled many a South Carolina College graduate into politics and at least a modicum of prosperity. Developing one’s gift of gab was highly valued back then because many working South Carolinians were illiterate in the 1800s. The man who could hold forth with fine-sounding words often commanded attention and respect.
In the early years, the societies were not just a big deal — they were the only deal on campus. There weren’t any other student organizations to join. You were either a Clariosophic or a Euphradian.
But as the decades progressed, you can probably imagine the inevitable. Some students got tired of attending those wearisome debates every week. By the 1850s, the first Greek letter organizations had arrived on campus and by the 1880s there were several more — Kappa Alpha, Alpha Tau Omega and Sigma Nu, for example. Some students joined the fraternities and the literary debate societies, but, all in all, the Clariosophics and the Euphradians were losing more members than they were gaining. And they laid the blame squarely on the fraternities.
Therefore, be it resolved, that the aforementioned fraternities should be abolished from our fair campus. Fraternity men think they are culturally superior, yet they do not uphold the honor code and they undermine school spirit.
The truthfulness of those allegations was debatable. And there was no small amount of hyporcrisy behind the insinuations that the fraternities drank too much. Student drinking and rowdy behavior had been around since the college opened in 1805 and were not the exclusive province of any particular group on campus.
Nevertheless, the literary society men found a sympathetic audience with the state legislators to whom they complained. No surprise there — many of those silver-tongued politicians had themselves been Clariosophics or Euphradians back when they were students at South Carolina.
So, in 1897, the legislators decreed that fraternities had to close their doors at every state-supported college. The fraternities complied with the letter of the law but not the spirit.
The fraternity men formed underground fraternities that posed as student clubs. And you’ve got to love the names of those clubs:
Sons of Schlitz, the Denizens of Monte Carlo and, my personal favorite, I Tappa Kegga. Those sub-rosa or unofficial fraternity clubs were eventually rooted out and banned from campus as well.
To their credit, the Clariosophics and Euphradians didn’t just twiddle their thumbs once they got rid of the fraternities. They launched the Carolinian magazine and The Gamecock newspaper in the early 1900s. And it should be noted that female students — who were first admitted in the 1890s — formed their own literary societies, the Hypatians and the Euphrosyneans. Some of the women also started a clandestine sorority club called the Scarabeans. More on that in a minute.
By the 1920s, the political winds began to shift. Student enrollment was growing, sports like football and baseball were commanding more attention and interest continued to decline in the quaint activities of the literary societies. Davison Douglas became president of the university in 1927, and that year the former fraternity man lent his voice to a successful lobbying effort to repeal the ban on Greek letter organizations.
Fraternities and sororities almost immediately reappeared on campus, led by Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The Scarabeans received a charter from Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
And the literary societies? Well, they continued to lose members and as the years went by they sort of got lost in the proliferation of student organizations. By the 1980s, both societies had gone the way of the dinosaur.
So, I started out by describing this as a quirky chapter in the university’s history, and if you think about it, it almost sounds like a Greek tragedy. The literary societies — which once upon a time were THE big dogs on campus — manage to get rid of their rivals, the fraternities. But, in the end, the societies themselves faded away into oblivion.
These days, Greek life is comfortably entrenched at South Carolina — about one fourth of the current student body are members of the nearly 50 fraternities and sororities. And for the 75 percent of students who don’t participate in those organizations, there are now more than 500 other student clubs on campus that offer something for nearly everyone — from skydiving and bass fishing to ballroom dancing and the business book club.
There’s even one called … the Carolina Debate Society.
That’s all for this episode. Next time on Remembering the Days we’re going back to the 1960s when the university was expanding its campus south by southwest. It was a huge land grab that changed the face of Columbia and had lasting repercussions.
This show is produced by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina. I’m Chris Horn, thank you for listening, and forever to thee.
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