Continued from "Behind the hood"

“I’ve had people looking at old Chanticleers ask me why we had pictures of the KKK,” says University Archivist Timothy Pyatt, Trinity ’81.

Both groups were well aware of how their appearance unfortunately conjured images of the Klan. In the notes for the May 4, 1967, initiation ceremonies, one member’s instructions to his peers for the Red Friars’ tapping includes, “Get most worshipful blindfolds (in KKK terms, hoods) cleaned for wearing Thursday evening.” [Emphasis in the original.]

For White Duchy members their physical appearance, which seemingly linked the group to the KKK, only contributed to a growing campus perception that the group, with its secrecy, was elitist. That perception of elitism, however, was not a function of the group’s racial composition but rather of the 1960s’ social attitude against the society’s seeming aristocracy. The White Duchy had already acknowledged the merits of diversity—its members crossed political, ethnic and racial lines—and actively pursued diversity at the school as a whole.

“A lot of it really was the nature of the times,” says White Duchy and current Board of Trustees member Dr. Paula Phillips Burger, Woman’s College ’67. “Students were being skeptical about anything that could be a secret society.”

Nonetheless the perception that the group was elitist proved to be so strong that the 1968 class of women refused to tap a new class because its limited size made the selection process inequitable. As a result, the secret society was abolished for good.

For White Duchy member and loyal Duke supporter Margaret Taylor Smith, Woman’s College ’47, who created the Margaret Taylor Smith Endowed Directorship of Duke’s Women’s Studies Program, 1968 was the right time for the robes to go—it would have been impossible to ever make the selection process fully equitable.

“I think that the seven women at Duke at that time were so into this business of equality,” Smith said. “If you stop and think about it, that’s a wonderful ideal, but it just cannot be achieved. If you’re a leader, of course you have qualities that other people don’t have.”

 

“This is the greatest recognition of merit which can be bestowed upon a Duke undergrad! It embodies the most sacred of all Duke traditions.” — the instructions given to new Red Friars, according to the Order’s archived papers

 

Although students at the end of the White Duchy’s reign may have been skeptical of the group for its secrecy, I have come to realize that these societies were in fact not about secrets. They were about egos. I keep hearing this over and over from the society alumni, and by the end of a night of interviews, it is ringing in my head: Being in a secret society at Duke was not about mysteries and scandals but about the self-aggrandizement of the University’s best and brightest, administrators and students alike.

“It had no purpose other than to stroke our own egos,” says Jim Coil, a member of the Old Trinity Club class of 1967. “You felt like you were part of a select group of people who had worked hard and achieved or excelled at various things. Everybody in life has to have a pat on the back every now and then.”

The Friars, the Duchy, the Old Trinity—these groups weren’t about protecting secrets, about elaborate rituals hiding some greater knowledge, or ties back to some earlier time. They were about reward, about self-esteem and about cultivating student leadership and talent. By bathing student leaders in a literal cloak of secrecy, societies gave their members something to be proud of, an inner-satisfaction.

The secret societies conspired with administrators to plot the future trajectory of the University and would mingle with alumni who had since graduated to acquire top positions among America’s business and social elite.

“We had great parties, and it was a wonderful drinking society,” Frenzel said. “We’d pat each other on the back and say how wonderful we were.”

Society alumni have gone on to represent the very créme de la créme of Duke graduates—an indication that the networking worked. They serve as public officials and business leaders, philanthropists and authors. But were they selected for membership because of their skills, or did membership itself cultivate their talents?

“It is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: Either a student is already successful enough to merit a tap, or he has such a strong legacy that he’s destined to ride coattails to success,” Alexandra Robbins wrote in an e-mail. Robbins, a 1998 Yale graduate, has written extensively about secret societies, including a novel about her alma mater, Secrets of the Tomb. “But secret society membership, with the elite alumni network that membership offers, can provide an extra edge.”

This question may never be answered.

In the case of Duke’s secret societies, leadership was a heightened membership criterion, though social considerations certainly played a role.

“People who were tapped were people who were recognized as having some leadership ability,” Burger says.

Such leadership development, logistically, could only add to the societies’ growing mass of successful graduated members and strengthen loyalty.

Networking aside, the Red Friars and White Duchy members took leadership roles in University affairs. Sifting through their meticulous notes and strategic plans, I realized that these secret societies played a prominent role in molding Duke. The White Duchy frequently met with the Dean, who was head of the Woman’s College, and faculty, openly assisting the administration as representatives of the student body. As a group, the Duchy enacted change; for example, they were instrumental in lifting a prohibition that forbade women from drinking on campus in the years surrounding World War II.

The Red Friars, however, often adopted a more forceful approach to achieve their goals.

The Order frequently dined with the school’s highest ranking administrators and reserved three honorary positions within the Order for the top administrators and faculty. But the Red Friars engaged less in conversation than in enacting change by submitting papers and reports. The Friars held frequent meetings, issued “anonymous” publications that ranked classes and professors and delivered reports to the administration on topics ranging from campus athletics to housing.

The Friars’ most longstanding influence lies within its members’ vision of the University’s housing and residential life system. Submitting reports in 1959 and 1967 to the administration, the Friars at one point called for the abolishment of fraternities, declaring them “disruptive and detrimental.” Their 1959 report urged Duke to consider a “house system like Harvard and Yale.”

The memo, like all those authored by the Friars, was signed by “SEVEN SENIORS.” Even when exerting their influence, secrecy and tradition mandated that the Red Friars be discreet. The administration was well aware of the authors’ affiliations—a fact the Order used to their advantage.

In the 1950s and ’60s, with fellow, though sometimes honorary, brothers such as Dean of the Chapel James T. Cleland and Dean of Student Affairs William T. Griffith in administrative positions, the young men were able to procure excuses for missing classes, access to the Chapel crypt for their initiation ceremonies and even secure the use of the University president’s house for their social events.

To me as an undergraduate now, it seems outlandish that a student group would demand use of the president’s house to socialize. But the Red Friars had big aspirations. For the first third of the century, members longingly spoke of constructing a friary on campus, much like the noted tombs of Yale’s secret societies, even going as far as getting clay models made of a potential design for Duke’s Main West Campus. World war and economic woe made fundraising difficult, and though they procured a bell—“Charley,” a 660 year old bell bought in Oxford, England, which sat in the Kilgo Belfry—they never built their friary.

As a result, today there is no building that proves the group ever existed, no current class of bright-eyed men to carry on the traditions. Save for the memories of men who graduated more than 30 years ago, the Red Friars could have easily been forgotten. The 1970 class of the Red Friars would prove to be the society’s last, social pressures, the campus cultural climate and the lack of a need for the group all contributing to its end. That May, those seven men simply did not tap. A meeting of alumni members voluntarily disbanded the Order in 1971.

There were other secret societies besides the Red Friars, the White Duchy and the Old Trinity, though they are generally less well-documented. In the 1960s, and perhaps at other points, the Order of the Chair mockingly dressed up and paraded around in spoof of the Red Friars and White Duchy; rumor has it that James B. Duke Professor of English Reynolds Price was a member, although he says he was never affiliated. Tombs was an early men’s society in the 1920s, focusing on athletics and humor. Former University President Douglas Knight reportedly founded the Order of Excalibur to cultivate potential among five senior men and invited them to his house for discussions under his presidency. The Society of 9019 was Trinity College’s first honor society, founded in February 1890 to promote intellectual and historical growth among students and to engender a “true college spirit.”

But these groups too met their demise—the fall-out of changing times, a lack of moment, mission, purpose.

 

“I serve the truth in honor with fail to doubt and courage to overcome in humbleness and peacefulness and charity of heart.”

—the Red Friar oath

 

After spending weeks searching for secrets, I realize that this may not be the end of the road. That there might be secret societies at Duke now, or ones in the past, that I do not know about. Societies so emboldened with a true mission that they are invisible, protecting a web of secrets, those tales of deceit and wrong-doing that I never found.

And perhaps, in some way, my quest to serve the truth about Duke’s secret societies has carried out much the same purpose for me in the ways that the societies like the Red Friars or White Duchy served its members. Talking to alumni and winnowing through ritual, I have felt a common bond with the past, with this institution’s history.

I may never become a member of a society, but on the first Thursday in May, I assure you I will be awake at seven, listening for the bells.