Skull & Bones: It's Not Just for White Dudes Anymore

The Yale secret society that helped launch the careers of John Kerry and George W. Bush may finally be shedding its elitist image.

skull-bones-top2.jpgSkull & Bones members during the college days of George H. W. Bush (standing to the left of the clock) and in 2010 (Photos adapted from Anthropology.net IvyGateBlog.com)

Yesterday, John Kerry embarked on his first trip abroad as secretary of state. The foreign dignitaries he meets will be aware of many of his accomplishments -- from his service in the Vietnam War to his ascent to chairman of the Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee -- but they may not know of a peculiar honor that was bestowed upon him during his junior year at Yale: membership in one of America's oldest secret societies, Skull and Bones.

Whatever else is secret about Yale's famed -- or notorious -- society, the reach of its network is not. Presidents William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush were all members. So were Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Time magazine founder Henry Luce, and an assortment of CIA officials, Fortune 500 CEOs, and politicians who, like Kerry, have had the president's proverbial ear.

For generations, the organization's alumni corps has granted a coterie of white, privileged, predominately heterosexual men easier entry into the upper echelons of American society.

But that was then. More recently, the organization has become the antithesis of what it was when Kerry joined in 1966: Racist, sexist and elitist practices have been jettisoned in a rush towards more egalitarian standards. Yale's famous old boys' club has become a mélange of minorities, genders, and sexual identities that's less dynastic and more dynamic than ever.

Fifteen Yale seniors are tapped annually to join the ranks of Skull and Bones, their names published in the Yale tabloid Rumpus at the end of every school year. The class of 2010 included more ethnic minorities than Caucasians; 2011's delegation included two gay students, plus one bisexual and one transgender. Last year, women and men were equally split, according to Yalies familiar with the members.

"We try to come up with a group that is representative of the diverse social elements Yale offers," says a Bonesman from recent years.

Because members take an oath of secrecy, persuading one to speak to the press is as difficult as getting a lawyer to break attorney-client privilege. About five percent of the 200 members contacted for this article agreed to interviews, but only on the condition that their names and graduation dates would not be disclosed.

The organization's seismic shift also affects the way new members are selected. Bonesmen now actively seek out diverse candidates, in some cases to atone for their predecessors' role in shunning them.

"Some of us wanted to undo certain attitudes of the past," says E., a woman selected in the 2000s. "We wanted to actively negate them."

The organization's omertà-like code dates back to 1832, when Yale student William H. Russell created the Order of Skull and Bones after visiting an occult society in Germany. Returning to campus, he used that organization, in which secrecy was paramount, as a blueprint for his own.

That mystery has led to allegations of malice. Chief among critics was Antony Sutton, a historian who wrote a Skull and Bones exposé in 1986 called America's Secret Establishment that's become cyber catnip for conspiracy theorists. The book argued that old-line families in the Order were trying to transform America into a Bonesmen-run dystopia.

However, everyone interviewed for this article disagreed with his thesis. "We weren't inducted into an Illuminati-like society that guarantees our success," says E. "None of us plan to establish a 'New World Order.'"

What they have done, since the Order's inception, is meet two evenings a week. They spend one of the nights socializing and the other debating cultural and political affairs. Since 1856, they've assembled in a brown sandstone mausoleum known as the Tomb -- a crypt-like, windowless structure that non-members are forbidden to enter. Skeletons, skulls, and other ghoulish objets d'art adorn the interior walls, along with portraits of distinguished members.

For more than a century, these Bonesmen were all white men. Even in 1964, the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act, Skull and Bones failed to induct an African American. The discrimination didn't go unnoticed: Future Senator Joe Lieberman declined a tap that year because of it. "The changes this year were not sufficiently significant," he wrote in his letter of rejection. Instead, he joined a society called Elihu, which was known for its progressive practices.

"Worries of a lack of diversity died in realizing that the group will range from a Catholic Socialist to a fat cat, St. Paul's, Fence Club type," Lieberman wrote.

The following year, the Order inducted Orde Coombs, a black student and herald of racial equity. "Skull and Bones wanted to tap campus leaders," says Barrington Daniels Parker Jr., a federal judge who was Coombs' classmate, "and Orde was a big man on campus."

Though the group's policy banned women, it didn't include racial restrictions, Bonesmen say. "Orde was chosen because he was a smart, interesting guy who happened to be a minority," says a Bonesman from his class. "He became my first real African American friend." Most of the delegations that followed upheld the precedent, but African Americans were tapped only in token numbers.

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Buster Brown is an associate editor at the Huffington Post.

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