An Alabama sorority decided to print t-shirts that featured both a caricatured black man eating watermelon and field laborers picking cotton just behind him. They reportedly made these shirts for their spring formal, even after the school told them not to. Guess what happened.
If you guessed that lots of people would be blisteringly unhappy, you’re correct: the president of Samford University in Birmingham has issued a formal apology to the student body over the shirts, which were made by the Kappa chapter of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
It’s not clear exactly when or how the school found out about the shirts, but an image of the design started floating around Facebook and Twitter on Thursday:
That’s a map of Alabama, featuring a man eating an enormous watermelon slice and people laboring in a field. Alabama was a major destination for the slave trade before the Civil War, due to its booming cotton trade. Slaves were forced to pick cotton, millions of pounds of it, which is definitely a fun historical fact to choose to evoke on your shirt.
A letter from Samford president Andy Westmoreland reprinted by TV station WBRC called the shirts “an abhorrent, disrespectful expression that is completely inconsistent with our core principles.” He added, too, that the sorority had been denied permission by the school to make the shirts, before going ahead and making them anyway. Westmoreland hinted strongly that punishment awaited the sorority:
This morning we have communicated the full extent of our frustration to the leadership of the local chapter and to the international office of Alpha Delta Pi. Our values process will determine any possible actions taken regarding the chapter or any individuals involved in the design of the shirt.
My understanding is that the design of the shirt was rejected by members of our university staff during an approval process, but that the shirt was printed without our knowledge. We will, of course, conduct a thorough review of that process.
There is no doubt that this graphic illustration on a sorority t-shirt does not capture the thoughts of our entire campus, but there is also no doubt that each of us associated with Samford bears responsibility whenever disrespect appears. It is a poignant, gripping reminder that, regardless of progress made, additional progress awaits us.
Imagine needing to make a racist t-shirt so badly that literally nothing could stop you.
Several other fraternities and sororities in Alabama and throughout the South have had similarly embarrassing public displays of racism in the past several years that have gotten unwanted attention. In 2014, a University of Alabama student celebrated her inclusion in Chi Omega by noting in a Snapchat that the sorority “got no niggas!” In October of last year, reports from the University of Alabama indicated that Alpha Delta Gamma was declining to support one of their sisters in her run for homecoming queen because she is black. And a video of fraternity brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma drunkenly singing a racist chant prompted a pained discussion about continued discrimination and segregation in Greek life at many Southern schools.
Alpha Delta Pi writes on their website that their chapter is represented by a diamond: “Our common theme of symmetrical character, symbolized by the diamond, emphasizes emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth and development.”
They’re also represented by a group photo where—are you sitting down for this— damn near everyone appears to be white.
Samford University. Image via Flickr/Chuck Grimmett