At Howard University, the national focal point of black Greek activity and the birthplace of a number of black Greek fraternities and sororities, there is renewed interest in fraternal organizations once considered "bourgeois," or snobbish by black power advocates.
Last spring, for instance, nearly 50 women pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority which in the past, according to members, had "lines" of less than 15 pledges. Members of other black Greek organizations at Howard say their numbers are on the increase or are holding steady.
Greek interest at Howard has stimulated the growth of a number of exotic social clubs such as Groove Phi Groove - its female counterpart Swing Phi Swing - as well as Wipe Psi Phi. (The latter organizations, W.I.N.E. - We Initiate New Experiences - is said to call its pledges "raisins" and its president the Grand Grape.)
The renewed interest in fraternal organizations, according to Howard officials, stems in part from the "me generation" atmosphere on today's campus. This term, which prompts an immediate argument from a number of Howard students, describes them as more interested in self than in social concerns, in contrast to college students of the 1960s.
"Students are getting back to basic college life," said Goldie W. Claiborne, director of the Howard University financial aid and student employment department, who has monitored students at the college for nearly 30 years.
"I think it is healthy," she said. Claiborne believes that students who took part in demonstrations during the 1960s "missed a critical stage in their development at college."
Recent pledges, however, say they joined fraternities and sororities because the organizations are involved in critic activities.
Another factor that continues to prompt interest in the Greek organizations, according to the pledges, is that the Howard student population is composed primarily of commuters. Of the more than 10,000 students who attend Howard, about 3,000 live in campus housing. Howard students say it is difficult to meet people unless they join fraternal organizations. One Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority member said, "some girls join the sorority just to get a man."
Black fraternal organizatins at Howard and other campuses have gone through several phases, according to historians and those who have participated in the organizations since they began just after the turn of the century.
In the era of segregation, they provided a social setting for middle class blacks excluded from the social life of white society. Skin color and other characteristics of white ancestry were key elements of acceptance into black middle class society up until the beginning of World War I, according to E. Franklin Frazier, author of "Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class." He said this was especially the case in Washington, the hub of "blue vein society" during that period.
From the founding of the black fraternal organizations - both on and off college campuses - until the black power movement of the 1960s, the organizations with their "Debutante Balls" and "cotillions" reveled in what Frazier called "conspicuous consumption" - expensive parties, Cadillacs, and the lavish expediture of money. According to Frazier," . . . in 1962 during the Christmas holidays, nine (black) Greek letter societies meeting in four cities spent $2,225,000."
Members who participated in fraternal organizations during this period say Frazier failed to mention the civic role of these groups. They say their organizations raised money and took part in activities ranging from voter registration to the Mississippi Health Project.
Sojourner Jackson, the president of the Washington alumni chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority who said she graduated from college in the 1930s, said: "In my time if you joined a fraternity or sorority you were supposed to be above other people . . . At that time if you didn't have the money - if your parents didn't give it to you - you couldn't get into the organization."
According to a number of black Greeks, some chapters of at least one fraternal organization conducted a "paper bag" test. The test involved comparing the color of a brown paper bag to the skin color of members attempting to join the fraternity. If the prospective pledge's color was darker than the paper bag, the pledge could not join the organization. The historian for one of the organizations whose chapters allegedly conducted the "test" denied the practice had occurred.
Gerald Smith, a national officer of Phi Beta Sigma, however, said a number of fraternal organizations, including his own, were formed after members found they were too dark to join the organization that allegedly emphasized light skin color and white features.
Smith said his fraternity was created to get away from that practice and to provide civic service.
He said the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Omega psi Phi fraternity, which at that time were "known" to have members with "darker skin," also were created after their founders were not admitted into the fraternal organizations that barred darker colored pledges. Members of those two organizations have denied the accuracy of that account.
The focus of black fraternal organizations, which Frazier wrote about, has dramatically changed as a result of the black power movement, according to current members.
During the late 1960s, they say, black power advocates made black Greeks feel "guilty" for joining organizations that "split the black community into social cliques" and were "bourgeois." The pressure from the black power advocates, according to black Greeks, dramatically reduced their membership.
A former sorority member, who asked not to be named, said she was reluctant to wear her Howard University graduation ring for nearly five years after she graduated in 1968 because the ring was engraved with her sorority letters, "AKA".
Another factor in the temporary decline of black Greek membership during the late 1960s and early 1970s was desegregation. Most traditional, middle class blacks, once segregated in black colleges, began to choose white colleges and universities.
Black Greeks say the variety of alternatives for social activity and the limited numbers of blacks on many white college campuses retarded growth of black fraternal organizations on those campuses.
Black fraternal organizations on both black and white college campuses now draw many of their members from working class families. Black Greeks say most of their members receive financial aid. Approximately 67 percent of the students who attend Howard receive financial assistance, according to school officials.
Lynette Taylor, executive director of Delta Sigma Theta Public Service Organization Inc., said: "What we think we have is a way of life. We believe it is not enough just to get a college education, it is what you do with your education to improve the quality of life for other people, especially minorities."
She said her group's membership is close to 100,000 nationally and is represented on 240 campuses across the country. She also said her group's membership remained steady during, the black power movement because "we were dealing with relevant issues relating to civil rights."
Currently, Greeks like Monica Brown, of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, cite civic activity and "sisterhood" as key reasons for joining the sorority. "The organization gives me the same loving feeling that I have with my family," said Brown.
Valerie Rivers, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, said her sorority "made me a stronger woman." She added that her organization was different from white sororities because "we go back and help our own race - we are oppressed people."
Joining fraternities and sororities in the past has been no simple task because of hazing practices. These practices, which have resulted in injuries and deaths to pledges and the suspension of chapters on college campuses, are slowly changing, according to Charle B. Wright, president of the National Panhellenic Council, which oversees Greek activities.
"The practices are changing because of new anti-hazing laws and increased supervision by alumni chapters," he said.
Faye Martin, of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and president of Howard University's Panhellenic Council, along with other other Greeks on campus, said "hazing is now more mental and less physical."
Meanwhile, Vincent Johns, Howard University director of student life activities, said the Omega Psi Phil chapter at Howard has been suspended two years - ending next spring - for its hazing practices.
Johns also said he is not impressed with most black Greek fraternal organizations at Howard. He said some of these groups "could be doing more constructive things. They have the manpower or womanpower to get more involved in the community."
Johns said some of the black fraternities and sororities were not getting help or guidance from their graduates and alumni chapters.
One black Greek complained that "hazing practices and social life are always pointed up by the press, and you are always given a bad rap for the large number of parties we throw."
Mike Welcher, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, explained that Greek parties are the best way to raise money for their civic activities. As for the critics, he says, "They always talk about us, but they just don't know what we are about."
Terri Williams, a member of Howard's Delta chapter, said her group recently conducted a walk-a-thon and raised $2,000 for the United Black Fund and cancer research.
Gregory Scarborough, president of Phi Beta Sigma at Howard, said members of his organization have worked on a service project with residents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
Scarborough added, however, "I must admit if you had asked me a year ago. I probably could not have listed much, if anything." Scarborough said his college chapter is now getting back to more civic activity.
Gregory James, secretary for Groove Phi Groove Social Fellowship Inc., which began at Morgan State College in 1962, said his organization is involved in several community projects and members of Groove make visits to nursing homes.
James said he joined Groove, which is not recognized by the eight nationally known fraternal organizations, because he was "not into the bourgeois attitudes" of the other (nationally recognized) Greek organizations.
"Even though they are willing to help other people, it's the way they conduct themselves at other times than can be bourgeois."
The Groove member explained that Grooves are from the inner city . . . We are not into all that flash - getting all dressed up every day and going to classes."