Connecting events at the University of Oklahoma and the hallowed grounds of Linwood Cemetery seems farfetched, but the racist taunts of Noble Leslie DeVotie’s fraternity brothers bring to mind a Confederate chaplain who is regarded as the first casualty of the Civil War.
DeVotie lived a busy 23 years. He found salvation in his father’s church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he was 11. He attended Howard College, which his father helped start, and at the University of Alabama he helped found Sigma Alpha Epsilon, serving as the first president of the national fraternity. When Alabama seceded from the Union in January 1861, he was a Baptist preacher in Selma and chaplain of the Governor’s Guard. He was assigned to Fort Morgan, and on Feb. 12 he was boarding the steamer Dick Keys when he splashed into the waters of Mobile Bay. Rescue efforts were fruitless.
A newspaper in Columbus, where his father, Dr. James Harvey DeVotie, was serving the First Baptist Church, referred to him as, “The first martyr to the Southern cause.”
After hearing the news, the minister and his son, Jewett, were on their way to Mobile by morning. They got as far as Montgomery, where Dr. DeVotie had once served as pastor, and he was so overcome with grief that he stayed behind.
By the time Jewett arrived, Noble’s remains had washed ashore. A Confederate honor guard accompanied his body to Columbus and it lay in state in the sanctuary of a church Dr. DeVotie helped build.
Jewett recalled the memorial at Linwood where Noble’s casket was the first to be draped with a Confederate flag: “Then with muffled drums and marital tread we buried our loved one from sight forever. Father in broken accents and breaking heart addressed the vast crowd impressing the lesson of obedience upon the young, and resigning his son without a murmur to the God who gave him. Three volleys of muskets were fired over the grave.”
For 159 years, SAE fraternity brothers preserved Noble Leslie DeVotie’s memory. Pledges spent nights at his grave and while honoring the principles of their founder they guzzled midnight beers.
Remembering the initiation rituals Noble composed in 1856, members talk about the concept of “The True Gentleman” and of respect for each other.
Members at the Oklahoma fraternity ignored those principles. They chanted racist views while cameras rolled. Their actions led to SAE being kicked off campus and their charter revoked.
The fraternity was founded on the eve of the Civil War. Noble DeVotie died in the uniform of the confederacy and J.H. DeVotie stood in the First Baptist pulpit throughout the war. But nothing about these denominational stalwarts indicates this kind of hatred.
Maybe time has come for a Greek system that shuns people who don’t fit in to ask itself if fraternities and sororities still have a place on today’s campuses.