A federal judge and the general counsel for Baptist Hospital join the dean of admissions at Wake Forest University in expressing regret for appearing with the Confederate flag as members of the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Wake in the 1980s.
A fraternity at Wake Forest University that claims Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder” and conspicuously displayed trappings of the Confederacy produced two federal judges, the general counsel for Baptist Hospital, a prominent local investor and an admissions officer at the university.
Frank Whitney, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and now serves as chief district court judge for the Western District of North Carolina, posed in a group photograph with a large Confederate flag as a member of the Kappa Alpha Order for the 1982 edition of the yearbook The Howler. Martha Blevins Allman, who is now the director of admissions, can be seen in the same photo.
David M. Warren, a US bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina who was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama, was inducted into the Kappa Alpha Order in 1978 and now serves as a trustee for the national organization.
McLain Wallace, who serves as general counsel for Baptist Hospital, and Kevin Pittard, now an associate dean of admissions at Wake Forest University, posed as members of Kappa Alpha with the Confederate flag for the 1983 edition of The Howler.
Ben Sutton, founder of Teall Capital and formerly the CEO of the sports marketing company IMG College, is listed in the Kappa Alpha roster in the 1980 edition of The Howler.
After being contacted by City Beat earlier this week, Judge Whitney said he too regrets being photographed with the Confederate flag.
“Do I know today that it’s insensitive? Yes,” he said. “I totally regret it.”
Members of the Kappa Alpha Order, founded in 1865, prominently displayed Confederate flags and portraits of Lee through at least the mid 1980s. At Wake Forest University and other campuses across the country, they held an annual “Old South Ball,” which celebrated the trappings and values of the antebellum era.
Whitney, who worked as a federal prosecutor for a decade before receiving appointment as US attorney for the Eastern District and then as a judge in the Western District by President Bush, said that members knew the Confederate flag was offensive when they displayed it in the 1980s because black students at Wake told them so, but insisted that for them it was never about race and never intended as a signal of support for the Confederacy.
Whitney recalled that the Afro American Society — which was renamed the Black Student Alliance around the same time — wrote a letter to the student newspaper the Old Gold & Black complaining that the Confederate flag was insensitive to them. As a member of Student Government, Whitney said he helped put together an Ad Hoc Committee on Race Relations to come to a resolution.
“We apologized to them as to our misunderstanding as to how flying the Confederate flag was insensitive,” Whitney recalled. “We worked out with them that we would only fly the flag for our photo and at the beginning of the weekend when we held the Old South Ball, and we’d only wear the Confederate uniform to deliver invitations to the Old South Ball. It was never on campus. We left Winston-Salem for the weekend.
“The photo, ironically, was a step forward,” Whitney added. “Several years later the KAs eliminated the Old South Ball. It should have happened before.”
Indeed, the compromise Whitney helped broker led to a run of compromising group photos with the Confederate flag from 1982 to 1985, with a hiatus in 1986, and then a final display in 1987 before the elite fraternity retired it.
The group photo that lists David M. Warren for The Howler in 1981 displays the KA fraternity banner instead of the Confederate flag, but references to the Confederacy aren’t hard to find. The fraternity page includes of photo of brothers dressed in Confederate uniforms. And, more telling, an introduction to the Greek section of the yearbook quips: “If the Confederate flags leave you confused, strains of ‘3, 2, 1, South should have won,’ tell you you’re passing the Order of Kappa Alpha.”
Like other fraternities, Kappa Alpha Order emphasizes its members maintain a lifelong bond. The fraternity’s membership manual notes that the membership certificate issued to initiates includes the Latin phrase for “brothers faithful until death.” Warren’s continued involvement in the fraternity is evidenced by his listing on the webpage for the Wake Forest chapter as “distinguished alumni,” where he is identified as “36th Knight Commander of Kappa Alpha Order from 2001 to 2003.”
Warren, who graduated cum laude from Wake Forest, could not be reached for comment for this story, but Claire Sauls Glover, his law clerk in Raleigh, referred questions to the fraternity’s national administrative office in Lexington, Va.
Ben C. Sutton Jr., whose name appears on the Kappa Alpha roster in the yearbooks, graduated with a BA in 1980 and completed his law degree at Wake Forest in 1983. He now serves on the university’s board of trustees.
Sutton’s bio on the Teall Capital website describes him as “one of the top or most powerful sports executives in America,” while noting that he is a member of the North Carolina Sports and National Football Foundation halls of fame. Sutton was the chairman and CEO of IMG College, described as “the largest college sports sponsorship and media company in America.” The company was sold as part of IMG Worldwide for $2.4 billion to Silver Lake Capital Partners and WME in 2014. Teall Capital, the company Sutton founded and chairs, holds ownership interests in the Winston-Salem Dash and the Sunshine beverage company, along with a bevy of other companies in the hospitality, sports marketing, wine, agribusiness, tech, real estate and restaurant sectors.
Sutton could not be reached for comment.
J. McLain Wallace, who now serves as general counsel for Baptist Hospital, is listed in the caption for the Kappa Alpha’s group photo with the Confederate flag in the 1985 edition of The Howler. The entry on Kappa Alpha’s page notes that brothers were known as “those good ’ole Southern boys” while explaining that the chapter “has remained relatively small in comparison to that of other fraternities, in an attempt to uphold these feeling [sic] of togetherness.” The entry shows a photo of two brothers posing next to a keg with a Confederate flag and portrait of Robert E. Lee in the background, while noting the annual celebration “to honor the traditions of the Old South” and the brothers’ practice of dressing in Confederate uniforms, in which they “upheld the ideas and lifestyle of the period.”
“I should have known in college that the Confederate battle flag is a hurtful and painful symbol, and I regret that I did not fully understand then what I do today,” Wallace told City Beat. “I apologize for perpetuating racism and the hurt that has caused others.”
Kappa Alpha chapters at institutions of higher learning outside of the state have also produced prominent political and business leaders. Among them, Jerry Richardson was inducted into Kappa Alpha Order at Wofford College in South Carolina in 1957. A former NFL player, Richardson established the Carolina Panthers franchise in Charlotte. Richardson sold the franchise in May 2018 following a report by Sports Illustrated that he made significant monetary settlements to employees complaining of sexual harassment and on at least one occasion directed a racial slur at an African-American Panthers talent scout.
Richardson could not be reached for comment.
Robert Pittenger, a former congressman from North Carolina, was initiated into the Kappa Alpha Order at the University of Texas in Austin in 1967. Pittenger lost to Mark Harris in the 2018 Republican primary. The state Board of Elections recently threw out the results of the general election and ordered a new election after evidence of fraud surfaced. Pittenger has said he does not plan to run for the seat.
In 1970, Pittenger served as the recording secretary for the Kappa Alpha chapter at the University of Texas, according to the Cactus yearbook. Pittenger’s photo also appears in the Kappa Alpha section of the 1968 yearbook. There are no Confederate flag photos in the section, but the entry describes a set of rituals and trappings that are nearly identical to those seen in the Wake Forest University yearbook in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Cactus entry notes that Kappa Alpha Order was organized at Washington College in 1865 “under the guidance of Robert E. Lee” and mentions that “an Old South Week, including the traditional ball, was held in the spring.”
An enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump, Pittenger made headlines for racialized comments on at least two occasions during his three terms in Congress. In August 2017, the congressman defended Trump’s “both sides” comments about the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Speaking on WFNC radio’s “Good Morning Fayetteville, Pittenger reportedly said, “It’s a bit disingenuous to me that so much pressure and criticism has been put on President Trump for what he didn’t say, and yet when these things happen on the other side, silence…. You look at the actions of Black Lives Matter and people like Al Sharpton who have not condemned it — we never heard President Obama condemn the violence of Black Lives Matter.”
To McClatchy News, Pittenger clarified: “While I have condemned the white supremacists, I have made no direct connection between Black Lives Matter and KKK. However, there is the reality of hate and violence with Black Lives Matter and antifa, and why should they get a pass?”
And in 2016 Pittenger apologized for a comment he made about protesters in Charlotte demonstrating against the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Pittenger had said, “The grievance in their minds — the animus, the anger — they hate white people, because white people are successful and they’re not.” He added, “It is a welfare state. We have spent trillions of dollars on welfare, and we’ve put people in bondage, so they can’t be all that they’re capable of being.”
Pittenger could not be reached for comment for this story.
Outside of North Carolina, The Tennessean recently published a photograph of Gov. Bill Lee dressed in a Confederate uniform at an Old South Ball as a member of the Kappa Alpha Order at Auburn University in 1980. Lee told the newspaper: “I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it.” The Jackson Free Press has reported that Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves participated in the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Millsaps College.
On Feb. 20, the Greenville News reported that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump, was listed as the No. 1 officer for the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity at the University of South Carolina in the 1969 Garnet and Black yearbook.
Richard Watts, who served as president of the Black Student Alliance at Wake Forest University in 1982, recalled that the Kappa Alpha Order frequently displayed the Confederate flag outside their residence hall. Watts served on the Student Relations Committee with Frank Whitney, the future federal judge, although he says he doesn’t remember Whitney.
“We were concerned about the outward symbol of the Confederate flag and Old South Weekend,” Watts recalled. “We never saw blackface, but we heard about it. Our goal was: Let’s talk about it.”
Watts recalled the dialogue with Kappa Alpha as amicable.
“When you talked to individuals who are members of the fraternity, they tried to understand where we were,” said Watts, who now works with the Crosby Scholars Community Partnership, a nonprofit that helps Forsyth County students prepare for college. “I’m not sure they understood all the history and why it’s so upsetting to us.”
By the time Watts attended college, black students at Wake Forest University had risen through desegregated public schools, something that set them apart from previous generations, and a 1982 article in the Winston-Salem Chronicle noted that participation in the Black Student Alliance was lower than in previous years. But black students still spoke out.
“Because of the racially discriminatory policies at Wake Forest, we’ve not gained anything,” Watts told the Chronicle at the time. “Things have not changed. We still have fraternities that are flying the Confederate flag or having blackface shows.”
Kappa Alpha Order finally prohibited its members from displaying the Confederate flag in 2001, according to the national organization. A ban on Confederate uniforms, parades and trappings followed in 2010, and in 2016 the national organization also prohibited social event nomenclature associated with the Civil War period, driving a stake in the Old South Ball.
Jesse S. Lyons, Kappa Alpha Order’s assistant executive director for advancement, said the national fraternity enforces the prohibitions.
The fraternity’s website and current publications celebrate the order’s ties to Robert E. Lee, while sidestepping any discussion of the Confederacy, slavery or white supremacy. The website’s treatment of Lee emphasizes the Confederate general’s family ties to George Washington and holds him up as an agent of reconciliation. “After the Civil War, [Lee] emerged as one of the most important and nationally appreciated figures in healing the divisions of that conflict,” the website says.
Lyons described Kappa Alpha Order as “a moral compass for the modern gentleman [that] promotes respect for others.”
The fraternity’s material on Robert E. Lee focuses almost exclusively on his definition of “gentleman.” The website quotes Lee extensively on the subject.
“The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman,” Lee said. “The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.”
Notwithstanding its careful protection of its reputation, Kappa Alpha Order includes Thomas Dixon Jr., who attended Wake Forest, among its distinguished alumni. Dixon is the author of the 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which was adapted into the groundbreaking and racist film Birth of a Nation.
“We are a diverse organization with representation from all ethnic groups,” Lyons said, while adding that the national organization does not maintain records of its members’ ethnicity.
Judge Frank Whitney said during his time at Wake Forest University he never considered his participation in the fraternity to be an expression of support for the Confederacy.
“The Civil War was fought, in part, to preserve slavery; that was reprehensible,” Whitney said. “The Confederate leadership committed treason. I would never condone and defend the Confederacy.”
Whitney said as a high school student in Charlotte he participated in Revolutionary War and Civil War reenactments, but he said that as a 16- and 17-year-old he portrayed a Union soldier.
Born into an elite family, Whitney attended a Sunday School class at Myers Park Presbyterian taught by future Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, according to a profile in the Charlotte Observer. Years later, as a federal judge, Whitney would sentence another Charlotte mayor, Patrick Cannon, to prison time for accepting bribes. The Observer reported that colleagues used terms like “Boy Scout and “patriot” to describe Whitney.
After graduating from Wake Forest University in 1982, Whitney attended law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, leading to a clerkship under David Sentelle, a federal appellate judge for the District of Columbia Circuit. Another former clerk for Sentelle, Neil Gorsuch, went on to serve on the US Supreme Court.
During his post as US attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in the 2000s, Whitney made a name for himself by prosecuting elected officials for corruption, including North Carolina state House Speaker Jim Black, US Rep. Frank Balance, state Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps and state Transportation Secretary Garland Garrett Jr.
But the most significant case he was involved in, Whitney said in a Constitution Day speech at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016, was the recovery of North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, which was stolen by a Union soldier during General William Tecumseh Sherman’s occupation of Raleigh in 1865.
“That’s the most incredible case I’ve worked on in my life, and nothing will ever top that,” Whitney said.
During the hourlong speech, Judge Whitney never says anything complimentary about the Confederacy, while crediting President Lincoln for “instructing Sherman to make sure that the property of the people of North Carolina was not destroyed.”
Whitney told City Beat that during his years in college he understood that the Civil War was fought over “state’s rights,” adding, “State’s rights meant slavery. I knew the Confederacy backed slavery.” But he said that during his years in college he did not realize that the Confederate flag had been adopted by Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“That flag has different meaning for different people,” Whitney said. “It was part of a social ritual; it was a tribute to Robert E. Lee [for Kappa Alpha]. I did not know at that time that Nathan Bedford Forrest had adopted the flag as a symbol of the KKK.”
Whitney said his affinity with the Confederate flag as a student at Wake Forest University hasn’t infected his conduct as a prosecutor and a judge.
“I’d never supported slavery; it’s not anything other than abhorrent and despicable,” Whitney said. “I do my very best in my job to provide a fair and just courtroom and to be colorblind in everything I do.”
Richard Watts said he is inclined to accept apologies from people who once associated with the Confederate flag, as long as they show that they can grow from their experiences. Prior to joining the Crosby Scholars, Watts served as principal of Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, where he developed a working relationship with Martha Blevins Allman, the dean of admissions at Wake Forest University.
“Her and I have a great relationship,” Watts said. “When I had a minority student, I would call her and she would help me get that student to Wake. She has grown. To me, that says a lot about where she has been and where she is now.”
But Ted Thornhill, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, said people like Allman, Whitney and Wallace who profess to have grown since the time they posed with the Confederate flag should be judged in the context of their status as white students at an elite institution.
“I think a lot of folks say, ‘That was a long time ago,’” Thornhill said, “but it was clearly only two decades past — or a decade and a half — past the modern civil rights movement. These folks would have known these symbols were hateful and that they caused hurt and emotional harm to African Americans. They clearly understood at the time that they were not benign symbols. Wake Forest University was an elite school. These would have been sharp students. They had the intellectual resources to appreciate the significance of them standing before this symbol of hate and violence.”
Disclosure: The author of this article led a class at Wake Forest University in the fall of 2017 as an adjunct faculty member.