Purple Shadows to commemorate Jefferson’s birthday

A brief history of the society

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Cozart said the “primary motivation of interest” is commemorating Jefferson’s birthday, although their day to day activities are unknown.

Courtesy Bailey Reed

This Founder’s Day, the Society of the Purple Shadows will take part in its annual procession on the Lawn and lay a wreath in front of Thomas Jefferson’s statue in honor of the University’s Honor code.

Wayne Cozart, executive director of the Jefferson Trust, said the Purple Shadows formed to support the Honor system.

“The Purple Shadows were formed probably in 1963 to really look at the honor system, for preserving the content of honor and preserving the University,” Cozart said.

The society is infamous for having broken into the office of Robert Canvari — the dean of students at the time — and leaving a dagger and a note written in their signature purple ink in protest of the dean cancelling the “Easters” festivities.

This offense led to a University Judiciary Committee investigation that failed due to the society’s unwillingness to reveal itself and an anonymous presence that prevented the committee from finding the society’s members.

The Purple Shadows also take part in leaving note cards for first-year students at convocation, as well as awarding the James Hay Jr. Award to a student or faculty member the society believes has embodied the principles of the Honor system.

Cozart said their “primary motivation of interest” is commemorating Jefferson’s birthday, although their day-to-day activities are unknown.

The inspiration for the society’s name presumably comes from James Hay Jr.’s 1903 poem “The Honor Men,” which describes “remembering purple shadows of the Lawn.”

The group’s cloaks are not only worn for show, however. All of the Purple Shadows’ activities are done anonymously, and Cozart said the cloaks protect this anonymity.

Students often gather on the Lawn to witness this yearly phenomenon, despite the event’s brevity.

Lucy Fitzgerald, a second-year Engineering student, stayed up all night before going to see the procession last year.

“They come from the direction of Rugby Road, they march up in their pointed purple hoods, put a wreath down in front of the Jefferson statue, stand there [and] then leave,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s sobering, with the wreath and the letter left in front of the Jefferson statue.”

Cozart said the emergence of the Purple Shadows saw the emergence of other secret societies as well. The University is known for having a large number of secret societies, including the Z Society, the Seven Society, the Thirteen Society and the IMP Society, among others.

“They come from the fraternal orders of the 19th century,” Cozart said. “And so you see several groups who were secret, but really [besides] the Z Society being the first society and the Seven Society in the early 20th century, there really [weren’t] any new secret societies until the Purple Shadows in the 1960s.”

Since then, Cozart said there are new secret societies being formed every year.

“I always say that for every single secret society, 10 years later another secret society is going to be formed, probably because there might be some envy of people being able to do something and wanting to fill that group,” Cozart said.

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