Two of the University of Virginia's oldest fraternities have been suspended by their national organizations while under investigation for a Halloween party at which a few guests were photographed wearing blackface.
Photos from the party, hosted Oct. 31 by Zeta Psi and Kappa Alpha, circulated on the Internet for several weeks before they came to the attention of campus and fraternity officials Monday. University sources who saw the photos said they showed at least three costumed students with their faces painted black or brown. One man was dressed as Uncle Sam; two other men were dressed as tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams.
National fraternal leaders stepped in to investigate, and they joined Virginia students and university officials in denouncing the costumes.
"Obviously, I am disappointed in the choice of a few of our students to display imagery or portray individuals in a way that is very offensive and painful to other students," said Aaron Laushway, assistant dean of students for fraternity and sorority life.
The fraternity investigations, first reported yesterday in the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, are the latest in a recent series of blackface incidents at college fraternities across the country. In one of the most controversial, two fraternity houses at Auburn University in Alabama were suspended after members attended parties dressed in blackface and Afro wigs and Ku Klux Klan robes.
The U-Va. incident seemed likely to stoke an ongoing debate about how well black students have been integrated into extracurricular life on campus. About 400 African American students protested outside the Cavalier Daily offices last month after an opinion piece criticized the rhetoric of a predominantly black student organization.
Meanwhile, student leaders lately have debated whether their organizations -- including fraternities and sororities -- need to do more to recruit minority members.
Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi have long been among the most prominent fraternities at U-Va., and both draw many members from southern states. The national Kappa Alpha Order, whose U-Va. chapter dates to 1873, claims Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its "spiritual founder" and says Lee inspired its creed of "reverence to God, duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct."
The Zeta Psi chapter, founded in 1868, is known for having one of the most striking fraternity houses on Charlottesville's Rugby Road, a building that looks like a miniature version of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
According to university and fraternity officials, the two fraternities hosted the Halloween party at the Zeta Psi house. Photographers contracted for the event took snapshots, which were posted on a password-accessed Web site for viewers to order prints.
News of the photos began circulating on campus in recent days, and a fraternity member who was disturbed by the photos brought them to the attention of school administrators Monday. The blackface photos were quickly removed from the Web site at the request of the national organizations. But sources said some of the remaining photos on the site showed guests in costumes mocking other ethnicities.
U-Va. officials said investigations of fraternities and other groups are conducted by students as part of a policy of student self-government. Philip Trout, a senior from Bethesda who is the president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, said the council had suspended both houses pending an investigation.
The national fraternities were conducting their own investigations. Larry Wiese, executive director of the Kappa Alpha Order, based in Lexington, Va., called the incident "wrong and offensive." While under suspension, the chapter will not be allowed to hold social activities or meetings of any kind.
The Zeta Psi chapter is on social probation, which means it can perform community service but may not have any events with alcohol. "Whether or not the intent was racist -- and I do not believe it was -- this was still a grossly insensitive thing to do," said Richard Breeswine, executive director of the national headquarters in Pearl River, N.Y.
Black student leaders said they were trying to make sense of the allegations. "For the most part people are shocked that this is so close to home," said Michael Dunkley, president of U-Va.'s Black Fraternal Council.
"I would like to think this is an isolated incident," Dunkley said. "Most of the time when things like this happen it speaks to a larger problem."
Blake Campbell, president of the Zeta Psi, declined to comment. Tyler Brown, president of the Kappa Alpha chapter, could not be located by press time.