I have watched with amusement all the discussions lately on the “Greek” issue at the University of Alabama. First of all, I think that in the year 2013, the whole idea of somebody not being admitted to a fraternity or sorority based SOLELY one’s race is ludicrous – but not surprising. Although I do not talk much about it, I figured now might be an interesting time to talk about my “Greek” experiences at the University of Tennessee from 1979 – 1983.
Let me get this out in the open “from the get – go.” I do not personally care too much about the fraternity and sorority systems. I just don’t. I am not about to knock anybody who enjoys or has enjoyed these groups but for me when I was in college, my attitude at the time was that I personally never needed to spend money to get friends. Although my father was an “Alpha,” I had no desire to join his old fraternity.
First of all, I grew up in New Jersey where I was one of about four blacks in my graduating class of 300+. While growing up, most of my best friends were Jewish and I had no real close black friends the whole time I was growing up. There simply weren’t that many around and most of the ones in my school had little time for a green-eyed black kid, an “Uncle Tom” who was more interested in wanting to fly airplanes than goofing off and getting into trouble. So my personal experiences with whites, and my brother’s since he went to UT one year ahead of me, was one of everybody for the most part got along. We played sports together, partied together, went to dances together, and yes –yes, hush- hush, dated one another. In Manalapan, New Jersey race really never entered most of our daily lives. Certainly there were those cretins who exist in every community but for the most part, most people got along.
So when I first got to UT, my eyes were
certainly opened. For the first time in my life I actually met people who honestly and truly had never talked to a black person before. I had people tell me, “You know, you are nothing like JJ Walker or George Jefferson.” I kid you not. One day a girl dialed my suite’s phone by accident and we started talking. We were both freshmen and we did the usual banter of where we were from, what we were studying, etc. Then the conversation got around to our appearance. She told me she had red hair, green eyes, yadda yadda yadda. Then she asked me, “So, what do you look like?”
“Well, uh, I’m about 5’9”, 165 pounds, brown hair and green eyes.”
“That’s cool,” she said.
“There’s one more thing. . . . I’m black.”
Silence! After about ten seconds, you could hear the gears turning in her head, she said, “No way. I’ve talked to a lot of black people and there is no way you’re black.” (For what it is worth, I have had this conversation about 25 times in my life). Since I knew she was in Humes Hall right across the courtyard from my dorm I suggested we meet in five minutes. Still not believing me, she agreed. I told her what I would be wearing and headed downstairs. For a moment I thought I was going to need a defibrillator because she almost had a heart attack. To her credit, we remained cordial throughout our time at UT.
It was in this new environment that I was exposed to the Greek system at UT. The entire three and one-half years I was there from freshman year until graduation, only one fraternity or sorority was integrated. Only one. And that didn’t happen until my junior year. The Greek system was, to me, something to despise. The whole idea behind brotherly love was
nothing more than a cover for drunken idiocy and sophomoric behavior. To be honest, both black and white groups were equally guilty. Where the white fraternities had “hell week” the black fraternities engaged in “hell quarter.” I remember watching one black fraternity, year-after-year, forcing their new pledges to dress like slaves in torn clothes, worn out shoes, ripped or no shirts and chaining them together like animals to roam the campus. Yeah, that is what I wanted for myself. Not to mention the branding iron that awaited on the other side of being fully accepted into some fraternities.
I remember we had one white guy on my floor who was a really nice guy and he belonged to one of the more moderate fraternities that consisted of some really nice guys. He would come into my room, hang out, we would talk and I would help him with some of his class work. One day my brother and I were in my room and this guy came by and said that he had been talking with a bunch of the brothers in his fraternity and they wanted my brother and me to come to their frat house and hang out with them. Actually this was kind of unheard of in 1981 but then he said that although we could hang out with them and come to their parties, we couldn’t join because blacks were not allowed in the fraternity. We both politely declined his invitation.
Coming from New Jersey, we had friends and a sister at our state school at Rutgers and when we told them about the fraternity/sorority situation at UT, they laughed. The entire Greek system was integrated there. No surprise. So as we watched this insanity grow, a group of us laughingly called ourselves the Gamma-Delta-Iotas (Gosh-Darn-Independents). Truly, it was insanity from my perspective. Blacks didn’t want to mix with whites, and whites didn’t want to mix with blacks. To a guy from central Jersey, it was madness. Finally my junior year, one of the black fraternities, I can’t
remember their name but their colors were white and blue, had a white guy rush and became a member. When you saw this guy walking the pledge line across campus wearing blue and white, you could almost feel the Tennessee earth want to open up and swallow them. To his credit and the fraternity’s as well, they made a bold statement and never looked back.
All this being said, I think we have to be careful with forcing fraternities and sororities to admit people they simply don’t like while calling it racial. I think each fraternity and sorority has its own personality. While at UT, the Kappa – Alphas for example, had a strong southern heritage with a large rebel flag and two canons outside their front door. Personally, I could care less but I wouldn’t expect a lot of blacks to pledge them back then. And if they did, why would they be surprised when turned down? It is funny, however, my best friend from high school, a Jewish kid named Scott who transferred to UT our junior year, I believe became president of KA his senior year. All I am saying is that if people don’t want you in their group, why fight it? Now I do think the situation at UA is different since it has been reported that it was alumni, not the students, who put the kibosh on the black students.
I guess to me, personally, I have so little respect for the Greek system because of my own experiences (too many to list here) that I really don’t care what happens. Trust me, after I had an active KKK member in a fraternity, along with several of his frat brothers, verbally accost my non-black girlfriend while she was alone downtown one afternoon eating lunch, it doesn’t take long before the fangs come out and the war drums begin to beat. If any of you ever catches me alone, ask me about the showdown I had with this guy and his frat in the cafeteria one day. It was classic. The funny thing about this one girl is that her dad, who I never met (duh!!), was a White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi. Can you imagine that? I digress. But living here in Alabama, I have come to love this state more than any other I have ever lived in and I hope they straighten out this situation. It has been refreshing to see the students on campus step up and show maturity beyond their years. I hope the Alabama Greek system will move forward and shine like the already wonderful and unparalleled attributes worthy of the University of Alabama. I wish we had seen that at UT 30 years ago.