But as distressing as the University of Oklahoma story is, it’s hardly an aberration. The American fraternity system has long been the site of pitched battles about racial integration, Confederate symbols and racist language. These incidents happen with such frequency that it’s almost worth looking at racial blowups at fraternities as a lagging indicator of American attitudes, a sign that progress toward racial equality is not the same thing as widespread consensus in favor of it.
As early as 1907, the New York Times was reporting on meetings of Jewish students at Columbia University, where one participant “referred to what he said was the discrimination against Jews by the Greek letter fraternities.” (The first Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, had been formed nine years earlier at the City College of New York; it opened membership to “all men of good character” in 1954.) His was hardly the consensus view: “The others who were present were quick to repudiate that charge. The fraternities, they said, had nothing to do with Columbia life proper.” Whatever the truth of the charges, three years later, Columbia had its first Jewish fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi.
In the decades that followed, anti-discrimination rules adopted by colleges began to force fraternities to reconsider their policies. In 1949, Harvard’s Student Council passed a ban on discrimination based on “race, color or nationality,” and the rule withstood an attempt to overturn it. At the time, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity at the center of the University of Oklahoma controversy, was the only national fraternity with a chapter at Harvard. The national charter said that only “members of the Caucasian race” could be members, and that the fraternity had to choose between changing its charter or losing its Harvard affiliation. The national organization chose to change the charter, and just in time. In 1951, University of Connecticut President Albert Jorgensen began to enforce a 1949 anti-discrimination measure that blocked organizations that barred members based on race or religious creed from using campus facilities.
At colleges that were not already integrated, fraternities sometimes made public shows of their displeasure when black students began to enroll. When Charlayne Hunter-Gault enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1961, “a notoriously racist fraternity lowered the Confederate flag on its building to half-staff, sending an angry message from its members about what would become their second Lost Cause.” And some fraternities held out even when their schools integrated: In 1982, fraternities still hadn’t admitted a black member in the two decades since James Meredith managed to enroll.
My own fraternity, Delta Psi (which was fractured during the Civil War and reunited in the years after the war), has a fraught racial history: When the Yale chapter tapped its first black member in 1961, members from the University of Virginia branch went to New Haven to protest the decision. Six years later, the chapter at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began admitting black members, making it the first fraternity or sorority on campus to do so.
The fights to integrate fraternities sometimes prepared participants for larger battles. Michael Schwerner, who, along with his Congress of Racial Equality colleagues Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964, was in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a fraternity rooted in Jewish principles, at Cornell. At his funeral, one of his fraternity brothers, James Garment, recalled their efforts to break the color barrier in their chapter.
Former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, by contrast, used his position as president of the intra-fraternity council to fight efforts to integrate both the University of Mississippi chapter of the Sigma Nu and the national organization. In 2002, after Lott made remarks at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond that implied that the United States was better when it was segregated, Lott disavowed his college campaign against fraternity integration, saying that his position was wrong back then and in the present. But he also tried to downplay his role in the efforts to keep Sigma Nu exclusively white.
But integration campaigns didn’t necessarily make minority students feel at home in the Greek system. In a 1968 feature on black students at newly integrated colleges and universities, J. Anthony Lukas devoted part of the piece to efforts to create all-African American dorms and co-ops, a push that was linked to the fights over fraternity access.
“The advocates of black living units often argue that they are asking for nothing more than the right to ‘be with your own’ already enjoyed in fact if not in law, by many all-white or even all-Jewish fraternities,” he reported. “At most of the schools surveyed, Negroes have been dropping out of fraternities and sororities to which they had gained admission some years ago, often after lengthy battles. ‘Every fraternity and sorority wants a negro now — you know sort of the House N—–,’ a Bridgeport student said. ‘I had that for a while and then I couldn’t take it. I got sick of them making me an exception all the time. You know — ‘You’re great; I wish they were all like you.’ ”
In the 1980s, as Southern colleges began shedding Confederate symbols, it was fraternities that sometimes stubbornly held on to old images. The University of Mississippi stopped buying Confederate flags for football events in 1983 after the school’s first African American cheerleader said he wouldn’t carry the battle standard; Sigma Alpha Epsilon members told the Times they’d go out and buy their own. Auburn forbade its chapter of Kappa Alpha from flying a large Confederate battle flag in 1985; members posted smaller flags and dressed up as Confederate soldiers.
There was overdue progress, even in the face of resistance. In 1988, the University of Mississippi’s fraternity row finally added a house for a black fraternity, but not before arson destroyed the building the frat had been renovating. The University of Alabama held its first integrated Greek rush process in 1991. Forty years after Kappa Alpha, which draws some of its principles from the conduct of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, began to discourage its members from wearing or displaying Confederate paraphernalia, students at Jacksonville State University finally decided to ban those accessories during their 1992 Old South Week.
Banning flags didn’t eliminate racist incidents from fraternities, either. University of Alabama sorority pledges dressed up as pregnant African American welfare recipients for a party in 1991, in an incident that echoes in a gang-themed party at the all-white chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Clemson late last year. Incidents weren’t limited to schools in the South: A Montclair State University student from Mississippi found himself in hot water in 1994 for taking a Confederate flag to a cafeteria and pronounced himself bewildered by the idea that it had “racial implications.”
And schools that tried to make changes to their fraternity systems in the 1980s sometimes find themselves pulled back into the past, as the University of Mississippi was last year, when the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter there was suspended after its members became suspects in the placement of a noose and Confederate flag on a statue of James Meredith. The chapter has since been permanently closed.
Looking back into the past makes clear that clashes over race and fraternities have shifted over time. Where chapters might once have ensured harmonious relationships among brothers by tapping men only of the same race or religious background, events like the University of Oklahoma video, the Clemson party or the noose at the University of Mississippi suggest relationships forged by shared racist transgressions. A willingness to joke about lynching or dress up in a stereotypical costume is a way to sort out a like-minded group of students, if not an admirable one.
But as maddening as these incidents are, they also provide us with a useful barometer. We’ll be closer to the ideal of brotherhood from sea to shining sea when the most retrograde of U.S. fraternities no longer need to seal their bonds of brotherhood with racism.
Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect the date that Zeta Beta Tau began to admit non-Jewish members.