They are not registered with the Office of Student Activities. If you ever heard the name of one mentioned, it might not even register in any familiar part of your memory. They are the secret or semi-secret societies of the College, and just like so many other facets of the College’s culture, they have quite a history.
Included in the long legacy of William and Mary firsts that range from Phi Beta Kappa to the oldest academic building in continual use is the Flat Hat Club, or the F.H.C. As the oldest college fraternity in British America, the F.H.C. was established in 1750 and reached the height of its activity in the 1770’s. It consisted of six members at any given time and served as a precursor to the secret societies that exist today.
Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most famed F.H.C. member would later recall his days in the organization writing, “When I was a student of Wm. & Mary college of this state, there existed a society called the F.H.C. society, confined to the number of six students only, of which I was a member, but it had no useful object, nor do I know whether it now exists.”
The F.H.C., unlike Phi Beta Kappa, which was adopted at other college campuses, faltered during the Revolutionary War and was not revived. The actual words that the acronym F.H.C. stood for were masked by the humorous or perhaps contemptuous appellation “the Flat Hat Club,” and have since been shrouded by the passage of time.
Today, at least six to eight secret societies exist on campus including the Society of Sevens, the 13’s, the Alphas, the Phi Society and the Bishop James Madison Society.
According to Director of the Historic Campus Louise Kale, several of the College’s current secret societies date back to the early twentieth century. Kale, whose father was a member of the 13’s at the College in the late 1920’s, was unaware of his membership until finding his medal after his death.
Similarly, the Alphas, a current all-female secret society at the College, was named after the Alpha Club, a female literary, music and dramatic society that developed early in the twentieth century in response to female exclusion from male literary societies. The original Alpha Club was a precursor to Mortar Board and eventually evolved into more specific, smaller clubs until being reinstated as a secret society in recent history.
According to Director of Student Activities Mark Constantine, secret societies such as the Alphas and the Seven Society appear to do nothing but positive things. The College’s secret societies are not registered with Student Activities and therefore receive no school funding and cannot reserve rooms to hold meetings in, although nothing stops them from posting flyers on campus since it is a public space. Several of the societies take advantage of this and are anything but shy about letting their presence be known.
Last year, Admission Office Lobby Counselor and Customer Service Coordinator Sandra Wesser showed up to work one morning to find a metal container full of two dozen green golf umbrellas on the front porch of Blow Memorial Hall. On both the metal container and each umbrella was the symbol of the Sevens. Although Wesser had often mentioned how helpful it would be for tour groups to have umbrellas in the event of rain, she has yet to figure out which individual instigated the actual purchase.
“The students I try to question won’t break for anything,” said Wesser. She also reports that the Alphas have left flowers on the admission counter for staff members and that once during a busy time of year, the admission office received 13 mysterious bagels that are assumed to have come from the 13’s.
Among other activities, the Seven Society has recently sponsored poetry readings and an “I am the College” Photo Contest. Students were able to submit photos to a box outside of room 101 in the Wren Building. The winning submission is to be framed and hung in Lodge 1.
“Most, if not all, do some good for the College,” said Kale. “They’re not just a group who hangs out and says â€˜we know who we are and you don’t.’ I respect the choice they’ve made to be a secret society and I respect the fact that they make anonymous contributions to William and Mary. I think that almost anyone in the administration would say the same thing.”
According to Kale, because secret societies are of a covert nature, one of the biggest difficulties for them is to keep the momentum going. She also states that in her experience at the College, secret societies are not of a monolithic nature, but instead encompass a great variety of students.
In an election year in which both candidates were members of the illustrious Skull and Bones secret society at Yale, interest in the role that secret societies play has extended beyond campus curiosity to a national level of focus.