There has always been talk about the Sigma Alpha Epsilon plantation balls on our campus, but I had never seen any proof of it. I thought it had been put to rest, especially after recent events.
While waiting for food at Café 88 last Thursday, I noticed a group of OSU students standing in front of my table. Among them was a female student wearing a light green T-shirt I could read clearly from across the room. It read “2014 Sigma Alpha Epsilon Plantation Ball” in bold letters with a picture of a cotton plant. Underneath it were the words “Oklahoma State University.”
I was shocked anyone would even think to wear such a shirt after the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter received national attention for reciting a racist chant.
My heart dropped. I was disappointed. I was even more ashamed to see our university’s name on it. It was as if OSU supported it. I am a part of OSU. I thought to myself, “Is this what OSU stands for? Is this what we stand for?” I couldn’t believe it. I approached her and asked what the shirt meant.
“SAE always has Plantation,” she said. “It’s always been a thing. That’s what the shirt is for. It’s like any other date party.”
Her friend interrupted our conversation and said the date parties are now “jungle-” or “safari-” themed. As if that’s better.
The local chapter referred me to James Conrady, house corporation president. In a phone interview he said the local chapter’s Plantation Ball did exist. Conrady said that every year, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity holds the three-day date party called “the Plantation Ball” during the last week of April.
According to an article from The Oklahoman, dozens of black OSU students marched to protest similar activities leading up to the Plantation Ball in April 1987. SAE members at the time issued a formal apology to the black students and said they would take whatever action necessary to avoid a repeat of the "regrettable" incident, but not enough changed, according to a Daily Mail article.
The Daily Mail wrote an article that said Confederate flags are displayed on the front of the fraternity house leading up to the ball, to reflect southern pride. The article quoted a former OSU SAE member who described past instances of pledges having to dress in black face and pick cotton on the front lawn on the same day of the ball.
In an email interview, OSU Communications Director Gary Shutt said the local SAE chapter recently dropped the name “Plantation Ball” and renamed it “The Phoenix Ball.” He also said there are no new Plantation Ball shirts in production.
“The local SAE leadership should be commended for taking this positive step,” Shutt said.
Conrady said he could not comment on the shirt because he knew nothing about it. However, he said he did not think the name on the shirt created a hostile environment for students, which is the reason OU president David Boren gave for expelling two students captured leading the racist chant.
But Conrady added: “I would be the village idiot if we didn’t realize that we’re under a lot of scrutiny because of the unfortunate acts that have happened at the University of Oklahoma. So it’s like, ‘Let’s just avoid any appearance of any impropriety, and let’s just change the name.’”
The local chapter was not required to change the name, but they changed it on their own, Conrady said.
“We could call it the Ajax Ball, for that matter. I mean, it really doesn’t matter what we call it, but you know we’re sensitive to the fact that somebody might be offended by the connotation of plantation, so why not just not have that possibility occur?” Conrady said.
This April is the first time the event will be held with a new name, but it’s still not enough.
When people openly embrace symbols of oppression, it sends a message to black students that they support what those symbols stand for, and it belittles our hardships.
Editor's note: An excerpt from this article posted on Facebook read, "I approached her not as a journalist, but as a student ...". This line was removed from the print and online versions before publication. Although this article is intended to be a column reflecting on a personal experience, the fact that it is published indicates the columnist did in fact approach her as a journalist.