Bwog always knew Columbia had more folklore than we get credit for. Erik Kogut spent his summer in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library in Butler, digging up Columbia history gems and discovering some long-forgotten traditions. Today, he tells the incredibly strange but true tale of Columbia’s Black Avengers.
Erik is keeping his own fascinating blog on Columbia history here. Check back for A Columbia Moment every few weeks, and if there’s some Columbia history or folklore you’d like us to investigate, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s never been easy to be a first-year. Columbia fresh-gentlemen between in the early 1900’s may have had it worst. For a few decades, freshmen were at the hands of the Black Avengers.
The Black Avengers were a group of nine to twelve Columbia sophomores who ruled from the shadows, donning hooded black robes to discipline first-years. Their leader was known as the “King” and presided over the court that judged the unwitting defendants. In order to protect themselves, members could only reveal their identity after they became a junior. The Black Avengers policed the campus with a particular relish for cruel and unusual punishment. First-year students who broke any of the class restrictions were liable to be locked for a few hours in the stacks or decorated with an irremovable “dog-collar” with a humiliating sign attached. Freshmen deemed particularly “fresh” were kidnapped by the black-robed sophomores, driven to New Jersey (where else?) and paddled.
According to Black Avenger law, freshmen couldn’t grow mustaches nor could they remove their beanie, symbol of freshmandom. Hipsters were also cruelly targeted with edicts against smoking in dormitory lounges and wearing bright flannel. Naturally, some freshmen tried to rebel against the draconian sophomores.
In 1904, Kingdon Gould (yes, that Gould) decided he wouldn’t wear a beanie after all. The Black Avengers swiftly struck! But Gould fought back and gathered a crowd. By the time President Butler came out of Low, 200 boys were fighting on campus with young Gould drawing a pistol and firing a shot over the heads of the sophomore assailants. After the dust settled, an investigation was announced only to fail when Kingdon pleaded on behalf of the sophomores.
Kingdon later took a proper beating like any other freshman.
As the Black Avengers grew in campus stature, their punishments became more and more public. A Spectator sub-heading from the mid-20s read “Great Crowd Perches on South Field Stand to Watch New Manner of Punishment”. The new punishment was a “Humility Box,” a sort of cage where students had to stand with signs around their neck.
The administration eventually co-opted the role of the Black Avengers (you know, like how 40s on 40 became Senior Playpen). The Dean kept a list of incompliant underclassmen and oversaw an “official” court. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, the Black Avengers had died away.