In sororities, integration still elusive
Kimbrely Dandridge is a black Phi Mu at Ole Miss and president of the SGA-equivalent Associated Student Body. Dandridge’s experience underscores dramatic racial progress at Ole Miss, a university that, like UA, was at the center of the civil rights upheaval in the 1960s. While UA can also point to increased diversity among students, faculty and staff, the greek system here remains largely segregated.
Dandridge rushed as a sophomore at Ole Miss, using her freshman year to become acclimated and involved on campus with student government.
“What they look for in sophomores is more intense than it is for freshmen,” Dandridge said. “You’ve been in college for a year, and they know you, and they can look up more about you. I don’t know why I went through recruitment. I thought I would pledge a predominately black sorority, but I don’t know what changed my mind.”
A resident advisor at the time, Dandridge said she ultimately decided to go through recruitment because of some of the girls on her floor.
“Phi Mu was the only one I pref’ed,” she said. “I didn’t know any Phi Mus, so I didn’t feel like I would get in. It just so happened, like they say, you end up where you’re supposed to be, and I ended up in Phi Mu – where I was supposed to be.”
Guy Bailey has framed pictures leaning against the dark wood walls of his office in Rose Administration Building. In one, the University’s new president sits leaning against a post, listening as two men talk on a porch. Bailey’s in the background, with his head tilted slightly down so that unless he points himself out, a casual viewer might never know it was him. He loves the picture – but after only five full weeks in office, he hasn’t had time to hang it yet.
In an interview in his office on Oct. 12, Bailey explained that he hasn’t been at The University of Alabama long enough to have heard any concerns about racial segregation in Alabama’s fraternities and sororities, either.
“That’s something that hasn’t been discussed since I got here,” he said in response to a question about equal opportunity policies and whether they apply to the University’s greek chapters. “Normally, your policies don’t involve telling them who their membership can be or cannot be. Having said that, we would like to see the integration of the fraternities and sororities.
“That would be a very positive thing for the image of the institution and for the University,” he said. “I don’t know what the issues are or how integrated or not integrated they are, but we certainly will do what we can to encourage that and help move them forward.”
Though Bailey might have yet to hear about the degree to which UA’s sororities are segregated, Dandridge has. UA’s Panhellenic rush in the fall has traditionally been a barrier for black potential new members after the second or third round of parties.
“When I heard the greek system at UA didn’t have any [African Americans], that kind of surprised me,” she said.
Dandridge said nationally Phi Mu is a diverse sorority, and she was not the first black woman to be pledged by Ole Miss’ chapter. Although she never considered attending UA, she said if she knew she would not have received a bid from the traditionally white Panhellenic sororities, much less that she would have been dropped after the first few rounds of parties, she would not have rushed.
Dandridge did acknowledge, though, that Ole Miss’ greek community has its own flaws, as well.
“We are a big sorority at Ole Miss, but not the biggest,” she said. “We still have a long way to go, and from my experiences going through rush, I know we have a long way to go. There are so many sororities here that haven’t had an African American or anyone of color. There are only three sororities that have accepted African Americans.”
Given Ole Miss’ controversial chapter in the Civil Rights Movement – in 1962, riots that resulted in a battle between segregationist civilians and the National Guard erupted when James Meredith, a black man, enrolled – Dandridge is proud of her school as it works toward integration.
“Ole Miss has made so much progress over the years, but we aren’t a perfect institution,” Dandridge said. “If any school can relate to Ole Miss, it’s Alabama. If you think of Alabama, you think of Mississippi.”
While UA’s greek system has been slow to change, some members of the community agree that widespread integration needs to be addressed.
Emily Parker, a senior at the University majoring in environmental science and a member of Sigma Delta Tau, a historically Jewish sorority with non-Jewish members, confirmed that her sorority does have black members, but other Panhellenic sororities do not.
“We have three,” Parker said. “No, none of the other ones have black members.”
The Crimson White contacted the Alabama Panhellenic Association on Sept. 13 and the Office of Greek Affairs Oct. 16 regarding demographic information for Panhellenic sororities and did not receive a response before going to print.
Parker said Sigma Delta Tau was founded on the principle of nondiscrimination and accepted their first African American member as a chapter in 2010. Although a big step for the chapter, Parker said there wasn’t any controversy, but she has received stares at Panhellenic meetings when with a black sorority sister.
“I guess it’s just the stereotypes on campus,” Parker said. “Segregation by choice – I don’t really understand it. I don’t understand why it’s taken so long.”
The University of Alabama last addressed the issue of membership in greek houses publicly in September 2011. Then-president and current UA Chancellor Robert Witt stated that greek organizations were independent social organizations and would be treated accordingly by the University.
“Approximately 25 percent of our student body participates in the greek system at UA,” Witt said in an emailed statement. “[This] includes traditionally African American, traditionally white and multicultural sororities and fraternities. As independent social organizations, it is appropriate that all our sororities and fraternities – traditionally African American, traditionally white and multicultural – determine their membership.”
Bailey, in his Oct. 12, 2012 interview, said while the greek houses remain independent social organizations, the composition of fraternity and sorority membership will ultimately mirror national trends.
“If they’re not integrated now, I’m sure it won’t be very long in the future before they are,” Bailey said. “It’s just the way things are happening around the country. Those national trends will happen here too, at some point. We’ll encourage that as we can.”
Living the Creed
Those national trends have already made their way to the South, even to the state of Alabama. Auburn University saw its first black woman join a traditionally white sorority more than ten years ago, Auburn Panhellenic President Emily Riley said.
“Our sorority chapters are supportive of one another as a community and join together based on their common values, so it has not been a divisive thing,” Riley said. “Our students of different races sit by one another in class, live with one another in residence halls and work together at the same jobs. They are all part of the same Auburn University community, so it is only natural that they would join the same organizations, including sororities.”
Riley said Auburn’s Panhellenic body ensures their members know to follow their own policies in membership selection – all of which include treating all races fairly and equally, she said.
Dandridge, however, said she thinks the issue of greek integration wouldn’t exist if sororities and fraternities took a step back and reexamined their founding principles.
“The most important thing to greek organizations should be to live out their creed,” she said. “Nine out of ten times, their mottos talk about love, trust and loyalty. Nobody’s motto talks about discrimination or judging by color. If they live their creed and motto, there wouldn’t be any of this. My sorority’s motto is about love and honor and living that love part of my creed. I’m going to love anyone coming through recruitment, and I’m going to love someone not because of their color.”