You see their marks everywhere at the University of Virginia – “7s” and “Zs” and “IMPs” painted boldly on buildings and outside stairs. But the University’s secret (and not-so-secret) societies do far more than create graffiti.
There are currently 13 active and known secret societies on the Grounds, according to Wayne Cozart, a longtime observer of UVA’s traditions. But not all of them may have shelf life.
“They come and go,” said Cozart, vice president for development at the UVA Alumni Association, executive director of the Jefferson Trust and a Lawn resident. “Three new ones pop up every year. I saw one that lasted 12 years and then it disappeared.”
The University has been fertile ground for clandestine and less-secret organizations, groups and societies throughout its history, especially in the late 19th century.
“There was a proliferation of them, a society for every city in Virginia, or every high school,” said University historian Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam, also a chronicler of UVA’s secret societies. “They would last a year or two and they would be gone. Look through the back issues of Corks & Curls and you will see group pictures of organizations – and they will be there for two or three years and then they are gone.”
For the secret societies that last, Cozart believes the secret is consistency in who they tap as members. “They also have to have a specific reason to exist,” he said. “They have to have a quality of culture and be committed to an ideal.”
The secret societies on Grounds are altruistic, according to Cozart, and their anonymity is part of their allure.
“They want to do good without the individual recognition,” he said. “They want to make the University a better place, and they are selfless about it.”
Cozart stresses the difference between secret societies and ribbon societies. And there are those such as the Z Society that started as a ribbon society and then decided in 1984 to become more secret.
“They consider themselves to be a secret society,” Cozart said. “They stopped publishing their photographs and now only wear their rings after graduation.”
Then there are groups such as the IMPS, who are public in their work.
“They provide good works for the University, but their greatest interest is in having fun and poking fun at the Z Society,” Cozart said.
Two ribbon societies that focus more on frivolity than altruism are Eli Banana and TILKA, both created in the 1870s. Gilliam described them as rivals, staging marches around the Grounds, singing their respective songs. The Bananas would march with a big bass drum.
The Purple Shadows, started in 1963 and named after a line in the James Hay poem, “The Honor Men,” formed to support the honor system, according to Cozart. The members periodically appear in public garbed in purple robes.
As the University has become more inclusive, so have the societies, though some were ahead of their time.
“We know that the Seven Society had women as members at least as early as 1958,” Cozart said, referring to the most secret of UVA’s clandestine groups, whose members are only revealed upon their deaths. “We have an obituary of a woman who was listed as a society member.”
Some of the societies have been tightly focused, according to Cozart, who noted that the Lantern Society looked after women’s interests, and the Cloak and Dagger was for the McIntire School of Commerce students.
The University itself is the common denominator with the societies, Cozart said. Citing the “general spirit of the institution,” he said that surveys of alumni and students have returned a 93 percent satisfaction rate.
“There is a tremendous affection and loyalty among the students and the alumni,” he said. “Other universities ask us how this is possible. There is an appreciation and a respect, and the societies come out of that, and the students have a feeling about this place. There is a cultural dynamic that goes back to the 19th century.”