Johns Hopkins University administrators suspended the Sigma Chi fraternity yesterday after a weekend "Halloween in the Hood" party that included a skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose.
Black Student Union members protested the fraternity's actions, saying the appearance of a mock lynching highlighted the atmosphere of racial insensitivity and tension at one of the country's most prestigious universities.
Waving signs such as "Lynching is not a joke" and "Ban Sigma Chi," dozens of students stood on Charles Street holding up photos from the party and distributing copies of the invitation. Black-and-white photocopies of a historical lynching were posted on the protest signs beside a picture of the fraternity's skeleton.
"We need to educate the student body because apparently some people weren't given much of a proper lesson in the history of our country," said Yasmene Mumby, 20, a junior and BSU member.
The invitation to the Saturday night party, posted on the Web site Facebook, described Baltimore as "the hiv pit" and encouraged attendees to wear "regional clothing from our locale" such as "bling bling ice ice, grills," and "hoochie hoops."
The invitation, students said, was indicative of the pervasive attitude of condescension to Baltimore residents and another example of the university's strained relationship with the surrounding community.
University officials immediately decried the fraternity's actions, suspending all of its activities pending a full investigation.
In a statement, President William R. Brody said he was "personally offended" and called the incident "deeply disturbing."
"The invitation to this party represented a serious and unacceptable misjudgment on the part of the fraternity chapter that organized it," said Brody. "We will move quickly to address that appropriately with the chapter."
More than 100 students attended a lengthy campus forum last night before a panel of the university's top administrators.
A wide range of topics surfaced during the meeting - which at times became heated - ranging from discrimination against gay and lesbian students to the scarcity of tenured minority professors.
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended the meeting and said in an interview that he intends to explore legal action against both the fraternity and the university:
"We've got to address the problem of racism on this campus. If the school is not willing to clear up this problem, then we will."
Three self-identified members of the fraternity stood up and apologized during the meeting for the actions of the author of the invitation, calling it shameful.
"I honestly believe that the vast majority of our brothers are apologetic," said one member, who attended the party without reading the invitation and refused to identify himself to reporters. He said that without knowing the theme, it appeared to be a normal Halloween party.
The fraternity has also canceled its annual Halloween haunted house for community children, the members said.
Before last night's meeting, local members of the fraternity, whose Web site says it was founded in 2002, declined to comment.
The national headquarters of the fraternity also placed the local chapter on suspension and will conduct its own investigation, said Mark Anderson, executive secretary at the Illinois-based headquarters.
On campus yesterday, students said they were aware of the offensive nature of the party starting last week when the Facebook invitation began circulating.
"For the record, we would like to thank our founding fathers for incorporating the first amendment into the venerable Bill of Rights, and Johnnie L. Cochran for being a true homie and getting Orenthal Simpson, commonly known as OJ, acquitted," reads a copy distributed by BSU yesterday.
A picture of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accompanied the posted invitation, BSU members said.
"ps we STILL don' discriminate against hoodrats, skig skags, or scallywhops," it read.
Rob Turning, the university's coordinator of Greek Life, told the chapter president, Richard Boyer, that the advertisement was "racist and offensive" and asked him to withdraw it, according to a statement from Johns Hopkins officials.
The ad later reappeared in an "altered but still offensive form" without the coordinator's knowledge, said the statement.
The BSU students, who met Saturday night, agreed to send a contingent to the party, said Christina Chapman, 20, a senior and BSU president.
Ten students went to the party, at the fraternity's house at 235 E. 33rd St. Ashlea Bean was one. Bean said she expected to be upset but when she and the others saw the skeleton-cum-pirate dangling from the roof of the fraternity's house in a rope noose and heard fake gunshots, she was outraged.
"When I saw that, I was hurt and I started crying," said the 18-year-old freshman. "Why would they put that up there? This is a disgrace to black people."
Two students entered the fraternity's house and took pictures. They then called campus security to report the incident.
Caroline Bennett, the university's community liaison officer, responded and shut the party down about 1:45 a.m. Sunday, said Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman.
O'Shea said the suspension of the fraternity was "unusual" but not "rare."
A similar scandal hit the University of Chicago last year when a small group of students held a "Straight-Thuggin Ghetto Party," offending several minority students, according to the student newspaper.
Yesterday many Hopkins students said it was indefensible to try to describe the party as just a joke or Halloween prank.
"It's Halloween, but given the context of the party and the theme, it's inexcusable," said Mumby, the JHU junior. "What kind of idea are we condoning here? Are we that bored that we've run out of ideas to celebrate Halloween?"
The BSU students said they want university officials to punish the fraternity members, as well as take a broader look at race relations on campus. They are seeking mandatory diversity training for faculty members, among other things.
"This is serious," said Chapman. "I printed out these lynching pictures to show it's not a joke in this country. This party was clearly meant to make fun of black people."
As protests continued for more than three hours yesterday, various university officials, including Brody and University Provost Steven Knapp, approached the students and said the fraternity's antics were offensive and unacceptable.
Knapp told Chapman the fraternity was told "not to have that party."
"We just feel that it's a larger issue here on campus," Chapman told Knapp. ""It's just not something we're going to accept."
"I'm very sorry this happened," he told her. "This is not something we're going to tolerate. Maybe we should be meeting with members of the BSU here more often."
Many students approached by the protesters yesterday quickly walked by or grabbed a copy of the invitation and glanced on their way to class.
A few questioned why it was such a big deal. But many agreed that the party and incident were out of line.
"You can't have parties like that," said Ben Raymond, 21, a senior, wearing a sweat shirt bearing the Greek letters of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. "This is blatant racism."