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The Centennial Anniversary of Sigma Gamma Rho: A Historical Look at the Sorority and Butler University

Indiana of the 1920s

D. C. Stephenson

D. C. Stephenson (1891–1966) served as the Grand Dragon of the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan from 1923 to 1925. During his Klan involvement, Stephenson held considerable power in Indiana politics—over half of the Indiana General Assembly, including the State’s Governor, were Klan affiliated—and held influence throughout the Midwest. In 1925 he raped and murdered a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer. The resulting trial led to Stephenson’s conviction and imprisonment as well as the demise of the second wave of the Klan in the United States, which lasted from approximately 1915 to the late 1920s. The first Klan existed during the Civil War through the beginning of the Reconstruction period (circa 1861–1871), and the third Klan came about during the 1950s and still exists today.

The founders of Sigma Gamma Rho confronted many sources of racial prejudice in Indianapolis during the 1920s. In response to the growth of the Black community, white neighborhood “protective” associations formed to restrict movement of Black people into their neighborhoods. It was during this time of increasing segregation that the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Indianapolis. The Klan of the 1920s, known as the Second Klan, supported Prohibition and primarily targeted Catholics as the major threat to its definition of “100 percent American.” Intimidation and threats of violence were also directed toward Black people, Jews, and ethnic groups from Eastern Europe. While the Klan supported the segregation campaign in Indianapolis, it was not responsible for its success. Legally sanctioned discrimination existed for decades before the Klan came to power and continued after its collapse.

In 1923—a year after the founding of Sigma Gamma Rho—D. C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan, bought a house in Irvington. The house was less than half a block from Butler University’s Bona Thompson Library. Stephenson used this house for entertaining and parties but did not use it as his primary residence.

Madge Oberholtzer

Madge Oberholtzer (1897–1925) as seen in the 1917 issue of The Drift, the Butler University student yearbook. After graduating from Manual High School—located then on the near south side of downtown Indianapolis—Oberholtzer attended Butler University on its Irvington campus from the fall of 1914 until 1917. As a student she was a member of the Pi Beta Phi Sorority. Oberholtzer worked as the manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, a special section of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction.

In 1925 Stephenson was convicted of murdering Madge Oberholtzer, a former Butler student. The trial and surrounding publicity exposed many Klansmen, including over half of the Indiana General Assembly, and destroyed much of the Klan’s power in the state.

The D. C. Stephenson House

In 1923 D. C. Stephenson bought a house in the town of Irvington on the east side of Indianapolis. Built in 1889 the house sat within walking distance to the Butler University campus and had previously served as the home of a Civil War colonel’s family and later the house for Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority. Stephenson remodeled the home, primarily adding a front portico with four two-story columns, to resemble the Ku Klux Klan’s national headquarters located in Atlanta, Georgia. The house is now on the National Register of Historic Places as the William H. H. Graham House and is privately owned.

Did Stephenson’s presence in Irvington have an impact on the University? There are no surviving documents with evidence of the Klan having any ties to or influence over University administration. During this time, Butler continued to admit students of color and allowed Black adult education classes to meet in its buildings. In addition, there is no evidence of Stephenson targeting Sigma Gamma Rho members. None of the Founders lived in Irvington and the Sorority did not regularly meet on the University campus, which would have reduced interactions. However, Stephenson was widely known in the community and his presence could have been intimidating and unsettling.