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Standing at the sorority house door

Posted: October 3, 2013 9:50 a.m.
Updated: October 4, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Students at the University of Alabama (UA) demonstrated recently for the end of segregated sororities at the school. Several hundred students rallying to integrate the Pan-Hellenic Council (PHC) at the school held a sign alluding to Gov. George Wallace’s “Stand at the Schoolhouse Door.” Fifty years ago, in 1963, Wallace led a protest for continued segregation, as UA had just let its first two black students enroll and attend classes.

On September 11, UA’s campus newspaper, The Crimson White, published an article about one woman who felt comfortable enough to ask why her historically-white sorority would not accept a black candidate with a high GPA and high scores from active members.

The sorority member, Melanie Gotz, of Gamma Alpha Delta, said alumnae of her sorority dropped the woman in question from the rush process simply because she was black; although an alumna who went on the record said there was an “issue” -- that they have yet to disclose -- with the student’s recommendation letter. Gotz said the issue surrounding “the black girl” was “the elephant in the room” when the sorority members were told that they wouldn’t be voting on new members -- that the chapter had “already agreed on which students would be invited back for the next round.”

It is obvious that the two students in 1963 had a right to an equal education at the University of Alabama -- a cause-worthy fight. However, I’d be less willing to fight over the integration of UA’s 16-all white sororities, or anyone’s sorority, for that matter.

When I first read the article about what was happening at UA on a mainstream news site, I thought the university didn’t have a National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), which are historically black sororities and fraternities, on the UA campus. Because that was the case, my thinking was, “Well, of course, they should integrate then.” But they do have NPHC organizations and, as far as I know, PHC allows students to create organizations when they want to. Why didn’t these black students that are now a part of UA’s PHC -- who I’m sure knew UA’s history ‑‑ just pledge a historically black sorority or create their own?

 That’s probably what some of the alumnae who allegedly kept these girls from joining their organizations thought too, to be honest. 

The Crimson White’s original article, “The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists,” uses anonymous sources from two other PHC sororities who said that they had come across the same girl Gotz was referring to and had the same issue. A member of Tri Delta and a member of Chi Omega both said their alumnae “interfered with proper voting.” The Chi Omega member said she knew that “the black girl” got high scores from members on the first day of bidding, but after the first round she mysteriously disappeared from the slideshow of potential candidates. Allegedly, another sorority that wanted to pledge the woman had alumnae who threatened to cut financial support if the pledged her. The source from Tri Delta said the woman in question had a high GPA, a great resume and a family rooted in the community -- all accolades most sororities want, except for the one not so minor detail. The Tri Delta member said she knew of other sororities that had an issue with the woman and is quoted saying: “she would have been in a dog fight between all of the sororities if she were white.”

The Crimson White article adds that Gamma Phi Beta is the only sorority on the UA’s campus to accept a black member through a formal process. That was in 2003. Reports from the university’s student paper at that time included a former Gamma Phi Beta chair alleging that the sorority “rigged the acceptance of a black woman” in an article published on September 25, 2003.

Another black woman, Melody Twilley, tried twice to pledge one of UA’s PHC sororities in 2000 and 2001, but was denied both times. She also received national media attention.  In “Sorority Row,” printed in the New Republic in February 2002, a professor, who had allegedly been working to cut down the segregation in the university’s PHC for 15 years, said he thought Twilley would be a great candidate to integrate the council, as she was “bright… attractive, she’s a member of the middle class.” Article author Jason Zenrele added that what the professor meant is that the only reason she would have been excluded is because of her race. In the same article, Zenrele reported that Twilley challenged the schools “Machine,” after she was dropped from the bid the first time around. The Machine is, allegedly, an all-white organization made up of a small number of Greeks form the most prestigious of the university’s PHC who also control student government and campus politics. The reporter claims that if you have access to the Machine, you also have access to the state’s “political and economic elite.” The rumor is that in trying to advance, the Machine told a less prestigious group that if they integrated their sorority they could have a seat at the table, hence the allegations in 2003.

A few Google searches and clicks of a button will reveal that UA’s historically white PHC has been slow to accept black students interested in pledging at UA. NPHC has, however, accepted some white UA students, as early as the 1980s. About 13 percent of UA is “African-American,” 3 percent is “Hispanic-American” and 2 percent is “Asian-American.” Twenty-eight percent of the undergraduate population is in a sorority or fraternity, according to UA’s website.

I get that you have to stand up for your rights and I’m glad that Gotz called out clear discrimination, but if I was the “the black girl,” or the 14 other minorities that will now pledge PHC sororities because UA made PHC sororities re-open its bid process, I don’t know that I would still want to join that organization.

Sororities and fraternities are secret societies that were founded and have histories dating back to the 1800-1900s. To put it bluntly, many of the PHC organizations were formed when African-Americans weren’t even considered people. As a black woman, I really have no interest in an organization that might have been rooted in bigotry and racism. Now, please don’t think that I believe that all PHC organizations have some twisted traditions in 2013 or didn’t have at least one opponent of slavery for that matter when they were formed, because I don’t. I see no reason why a fraternity or sorority shouldn’t accept someone of another race if they are genuinely interested in the candidate -- and it seems that many of the active, undergraduate members of the sororities in question did want to accept “the black girl.” It’s important that people have access to whatever organization they want to enter and I think it is perfectly OK for a person of any color to become a member of whatever organization they feel compelled to enter.

I do, however, believe that my thinking is most likely the reason the first black sorority was formed in the first place, was that it was formed on a segregated, black college campus.

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