Is that a swastika on Weston Hall? The Record investigates

In the summer of 1906, builders employed by Williamstown contractor Perry Smedley put the finishing touches on a striking mansion set about a hundred feet back from Route 2 on the Williams campus. That mansion, the new home for the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, was one of the oddest-looking buildings on the College’s campus at the time. In addition to an enormous wrap-around porch, Phi Delta Theta’s new home featured the fraternity’s crest repeated on ceramic tiles and a strange, ancient symbol formed by raised brick on the eastern wall.

The mansion stood peacefully in Williamstown while the world exploded around it. Two world wars claimed the lives of many members of its resident fraternity. During World War II, a crazed dictator and his cronies slaughtered millions in the name of fascist pride and racial purification. The swastika, the symbol these men chose to represent their cause, also happens to be the symbol on the eastern wall of the Phi Delta Theta house – only reversed.

With the dissolution of the fraternity system in the mid-1960s, the house came under the control of the College. It was renamed Weston Hall in honor of a former professor and converted into a center for the study of foreign languages. The building’s brick façade has undergone no major changes to this day. You can still walk west along Route 2, stare at the side of Weston, and wonder, as I did: “Is that really a swastika on the wall?”

I had heard rumors about Weston Hall. The fraternity that once owned the building, I had been told, was violently racist and anti-Semitic. In 1965, with the beloved Greek system’s demise imminent, the brothers had reluctantly agreed to turn the house over to the College. There was one stipulation, however: no non-Christian or non-white could ever be allowed to sleep there. The College circumvented this obligation by turning the building into its new center for, ironically enough, foreign languages. The contract still had to be honored, however, and no “non-Aryan” could ever spend the night in Weston Hall.

That, anyway, is a sampling of what I had heard. The swastika on the eastern wall seemed to fit right in with the picture of racism and anti-Semitism that had been painted for me. However, I decided I wanted to learn the truth. Was the swastika indeed a vote of support from the Phi Delts for Hitler and his vile dream, or were these brothers of almost four decades ago being cast unjustly as demons?

At the College Archives and Special Collections in Stetson Hall, they were prepared for me.

“It seems like every spring somebody comes in and asks about that swastika,” said Linda Hall, archives assistant, and within seconds she had pulled a fat file from a cabinet behind her desk and placed it in my hands. I had thought it would be harder.

After poring over the contents of the Weston Hall file, along with several other files and back issues of the Record, I think I can safely conclude that the swastika on the wall bears absolutely no relation to Hitler’s symbol of genocide. Additionally, the Williams Phi Delta Thetas were by no means the violent bigots I had believed them to be. In fact, they fought on the side of religious tolerance in an early 1950s battle against their own national headquarters.

The front page of the Oct. 4, 1906 Record displayed a sketch of the completed Phi Delta Theta house, to complement an article on the same subject. Although the swastika itself is very vague in the sketch, the surrounding design is clearly visible.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the swastika, an ancient symbol that recurs in the art of many ancient cultures, did not gain anti-Semitic connotations until 1910 and became the symbol for the German National Socialist Party in 1922. The swastika on the Weston wall was there long before the Nazis. As former president Harry Payne put it in an e-mail to a concerned student in 1997, “Please know that if such a design is there, it was placed in the innocence of subsequent history.”

The Nazi swastika is a mirror image of the traditional swastika as well as the design on Weston. This led Lynne Fontenau-McCann, who was an archives assistant in 1997, to speculate, “The Nazi (clockwise) symbol tends to be representative of the sun’s direction, plurality, abundance, prosperity, etc. The Weston variation moves in the opposite, i.e. counter-clockwise direction, and has been associated with darkness, misfortune and suffering, the (Hindu) goddess Kali, magical practices, etc. Symbolic perhaps of ‘secret’ rituals /ceremonies associated with the Greek system?”

The rumor that Phi Delta Theta was an anti-Semitic organization is also wrong, at least in reference to the fraternity’s final two decades. In the fall of 1952, the fraternity chose to pledge a Jewish freshman, in violation of the constitution of the national brotherhood of Phi Delta Theta. According to Section 26 of that document, “only male, white persons of full Aryan blood [who are] not less than 16 years of age shall be eligible.”

The decision was emblematic of an era. In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 11, 1952 issue of the Record, in which the paper reported the tension between the Williams chapter of Phi Delta Theta and the fraternity’s national headquarters at the University of Miami, the front page of almost every issue of the Record recounted a decision of a fraternity on another campus to defy its headquarters and pledge a Jewish or African-American student. Most of these pledges occurred on northeastern campuses, and the Williams Phi Delta Thetas certainly fit the pattern.

“We have seriously considered the moral implications of the clause (section 26), and feel strongly that the discriminatory clause is incompatible with the principles of friendship and ethics as espoused in the Bond of Phi Delta Theta,” wrote Peter F. Connolly ’53, president of the chapter, in a statement to the Record.

The national chapter didn’t agree. The Williams Phi Delta Thetas were suspended and chose to form, with the support of the College, a local fraternity. They remained that way until 1965, when the last brothers had graduated, and their property had been transferred to the College.

The swastika on the wall of Weston certainly bears no relation to any racist or anti-Semitic sentiments held by the brothers of Phi Delta Theta. The fraternity was, in fact, progressive for its era. It was by no means revolutionary, however. In an open letter to members of Phi Delta Theta nationwide, dated 1954, the Williams brothers called for just a slight change to Section 26 of their constitution: “. . ..and only male, white persons not less than sixteen years of age shall be eligible.”

Villains of their time? Certainly not. But perhaps not true heroes either.