Jonathan Mattise and Scott Stroud, AP, February 22, 2019
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was 17 when he joined the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Auburn University, which every spring held an “Old South” party where he and other members dressed in Confederate uniforms.
The fraternity has since ended the tradition, and Lee, four decades removed from his undergraduate days at the Alabama university, says he regrets attending and wearing the uniform, and has come to see his participation in the event differently.
A spokeswoman for Lee confirmed on Thursday that Auburn’s 1980 yearbook includes a photo of the governor and another man in Confederate uniforms.
“While I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, with 40 years of hindsight, I have come to realize that was insensitive and have come to regret that,” the Republican governor said.
Lee, who was sworn in as governor in January, spoke to the AP briefly about how he has come to view his actions. He later said through a spokeswoman that he has never worn blackface or attended parties where others were doing so, nor has he taken part in other activities or organizations since college that would be considered racially insensitive or offensive.
Kappa Alpha’s annual “Old South” parade at Auburn ended in 1992, said university spokesman Preston Sparks. The fraternity’s national organization, meanwhile, prohibited the use of Confederate flags at any chapter in 2001 and the wearing of uniforms and parades in 2010, a spokesman told the AP.
In the 1980 yearbook photo, Lee is wearing a Confederate soldier uniform and is standing with a woman in an antebellum dress. Lee’s office said it did not immediately know the identity of the woman.
The page also explains that Kappa Alpha was based on ideals that “constituted the frame and fabric of Southern Culture” and that its founding fathers saw in Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “chivalry, valor, loyalty and reverence for womankind.”
Auburn’s yearbook from 1978, Lee’s freshman year, called the party sponsored by Lee’s Kappa Alpha fraternity “one of the biggest social events on campus.”
The yearbook noted that Kappa Alpha also sponsored an event called Convivium, a celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday. The yearbook said he was “exemplary of the Southern gentleman” and represented attributes “that KA strives to uphold — to mold leaders not simply followers.”