The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists
By Abbey Crain and Matt Ford | CW Staff
“Are we really not going to talk about the black girl?”
The question – asked by Alpha Gamma Delta member Melanie Gotz during her chapter’s sorority recruitment – was greeted by silence. The sorority’s active members and a few alumnae gathered in the room to hear the unexpected news that there would be no voting on potential new members that night. The chapter, they were told, had already agreed on which students would be invited back for the next round.
Gotz and several of her sorority sisters, however, were far from satisfied. They wanted to discuss one potential new member in particular.
By any measure, this candidate was what most universities would consider a prime recruit for any organization, sorority or otherwise. She had a 4.3 GPA in high school, was salutatorian of her graduating class and comes from a family with deep roots in local and state public service and a direct link to The University of Alabama.
The recruit, who asked to remain anonymous, seemed like the perfect sorority pledge on paper, yet didn’t receive a bid from any of the 16 Panhellenic sororities during formal recruitment. Gotz and others said they know why: The recruit is black. She and at least one other black woman, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of personal safety, went through formal recruitment this year, but neither was offered a bid.
Like other black women before them, these two students tried to break what remains an almost impenetrable color barrier. Fifty years after Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first black students to desegregate The University of Alabama, there remains one last bastion of segregation on campus: The UA greek system is still almost completely divided along racial lines.
With each passing year, the University falls further behind other universities in terms of greek integration. The Crimson White reported in 2012 that other large Southern universities, such as Auburn and Ole Miss, have integrated their greek systems to a further extent than the University.
“People are too scared of what the repercussions are of maybe taking a black girl,” Gotz said. “That’s stupid, but who’s going to be the one to make that jump? How much longer is it going to take till we have a black girl in a sorority? It’s been years, and it hasn’t happened.”
Gotz was the one to openly question the motives behind executive members and alumnae of Alpha Gamma Delta as to why they dropped the black student that she and others wanted to become a pledge.
“It was just like a big elephant in the room,” Gotz said. “So I raised my hand.”
In response, Gotz said alumnae in the room cited the chapter’s letter of recommendation requirements as a reason for the potential new member’s removal. Active sorority members then began standing up to voice support for the recruit and challenge alumnae decisions, Gotz said.
“It was just so cool to see everyone willing to take this next step and be the sorority that took a black girl and not care,” Gotz said. “You know, I would say there were probably five people in the room that disagreed with everything that was being said. The entire house wanted this girl to be in Alpha Gam. We were just powerless over the alums.”
Monday, The Crimson White contacted Alpha Gamma Delta Chapter President Alex Graham who declined to comment on the situation.
However, Karen Keene, an Alpha Gamma Delta alumna, denied the allegations.
“Your information is wrong,” Keene said. “It wasn’t anything to do with someone. It was policy procedure, and if anything, we have to follow policy and procedure with our nationals. That’s all I can say.”
The Crimson White also contacted Alpha Gamma Delta national headquarters Monday. The statement released by the sorority’s national organization said:
“Alpha Gamma Delta has policies that govern its recruitment process. These include policies about the roles undergraduates and alumnae play in the recruitment process. In addition, Alpha Gamma Delta policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in all of its activities including recruitment. We take seriously any allegation that recruitment policy was not followed.”
An active member of the University’s Delta Delta Delta sorority, who asked to remain anonymous, also said her chapter’s alumnae interfered with the proper voting on the same black student being recruited by Alpha Gamma Delta sorority members.
“To my knowledge, the president and the rush chair and our rush advisors were behind [pledging the recruit], and if we had been able to pledge her, it would’ve been an honor,” the Tri Delta member said. “However, our [alumnae] stepped in and went over us and had her dropped.”
The Tri Delta member said the student’s “excellent scores,” influential family and “awesome resume” would have made her a more-than-qualified candidate for Panhellenic recruitment and would have ensured her a bid from a sorority if she wasn’t black.
“Not a lot of rushees get awesome scores,” the Tri Delta member said. “Sometimes sisters [of active members] don’t get that. [She] got excellent scores. The only thing that kept her back was the color of her skin in Tri Delt. She would have been a dog fight between all the sororities if she were white.”
The Tri Delta member said she knew of other Panhellenic houses that wanted to pledge the recruit and were also hindered by alumnae members.
Contacted by The Crimson White Tuesday, Tri Delta Chapter President Callan Sherrod would not publicly comment.
While some sorority members attribute alumnae as the main cause for lack of chapter integration, that is not the case for every sorority.
“We’re one of the few sororities on campus that alums are allowed in the voting process, which also kind of breaks my heart, because some of the other sororities that didn’t have to deal what we dealt with,” Gotz said. “Why didn’t they take this awesome black girl?”
A member of Chi Omega, who asked to remain anonymous, said her chapter dropped the black recruit because of its rush advisor, Emily Jamison, who is listed in the UA directory as director of UA, president’s and chancellor’s events.
“I know [the recruit] got perfect scores from the people in chapter the first day, and she got cut after the first day and I know it had to do with our advisor – is the one that dropped her,” the Chi Omega member said. “Her name is Emily Jamison.”
The Chi Omega member said the black recruit was originally on the slideshow of potential new members the sorority hoped to pledge and received perfect scores from active members, but she disappeared off the slideshow after the first round of recruitment parties.
The Chi Omega source said Jamison was one of only two people allowed in the room when votes were being sent; however, the source was not present in the room and does not know if other names were dropped.
Emily Jamison responded to the specific allegations with a statement to The Crimson White:
“As a private membership organization, Chi Omega’s membership selection process is confidential; however, our criteria for membership is simple, we seek women who reflect our values and purposes. Our recruitment processes and procedures were followed, and while I cannot take away the disappointment a potential new member or chapter member may feel, I can share that all women were treated fairly and consistently in our process.”
The Chi Omega member said the chapter’s philanthropy chair resigned from the sorority following recruitment. Additionally, she said members of the chapter called Chi Omega national headquarters, asking them to investigate whether the decision was made with discriminatory intentions.
“Our philanthropy chair really wanted her and was rooting for her and left before the parties and everything when she found out [the recruit was dropped],” the Chi Omega member said. “She was living in the house – she just packed up all her stuff and left the house and left rush.”
Whitney Heckathorne, director of communications for Chi Omega nationals, said, “Our membership policy embraces women from different ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. Our sole membership criteria is that our members live and reflect Chi Omega values, and so I can speak from the national standpoint that certainly singling out someone because of race is not something that would reflect Chi Omega’s ideals.”
A member of Pi Beta Phi, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that, upon learning that the chapter planned to pledge the same black student recruited by Alpha Gamma Delta and Chi Omega, Pi Beta Phi alumnae threatened to cut financial support if the recruit were to pledge.
President of Pi Beta Phi, Livia Guadagnoli, responded to calls from The Crimson White on Monday with an emailed statement:
“Recruitment is a mutual selection process. The Fraternity does not share why or why not a member was selected for membership – even with alumnae of the chapter. The decision to extend membership resides solely at the chapter level. To ensure all membership policies were followed at the University of Alabama, an International Fraternity Officer arrived on campus during recruitment to support the chapter.”
John England Jr., circuit judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit and one of three black members on the UA system Board of Trustees, said he is confident UA system leaders will take appropriate action to ensure that no student in any organization is denied acceptance because of race.
“I made some inquiries and found out there were other black young ladies who were also not accepted through the rush process,” England said. “So I have requested the leadership on The University of Alabama and the UA system to find out what’s going on. I have talked to them about my expectation that no organization will accept or deny a potential member based on race. It is not something we at The University of Alabama will accept.”
The topic of integration is no stranger to the University, and its greek system remains largely segregated today, 50 years after then-Gov. George Wallace stood in a Foster Auditorium doorway in an unsuccessful attempt to block black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering.
“Someone has to break the rules to make a change, and everyone is scared to do that,” Gotz said.
She went on to describe what she expressed to her chapter after the recruit was dropped.
“I honestly knew coming in tonight that it probably wouldn’t be changed,” Gotz said. “You know, but I really, really hope it ignites something for you guys; it sparks something for the future that this can be something that we accomplish.”
Despite the lingering questions of greek segregation, there has been intermittent progress.
In 2003, Tuscaloosa native Carla Ferguson became the first black woman to pledge a traditionally white Panhellenic sorority through formal recruitment. She accepted a bid to Gamma Phi Beta and remains the only black woman to have pledged through the formal recruitment process, over a decade later.
Sigma Delta Tau, a Panhellenic and traditionally Jewish sorority that does not participate in formal recruitment, has reportedly also pledged black members in the past.
The University’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, composed of traditionally African-American greek organizations, has accepted a diverse array of members over the years. According to a 2011 article in The Crimson White, Zeta Phi Beta pledged white member Eve Dempsey in the spring of 2007, after integrating in the 1980s.
UA Dean of Students Tim Hebson responded to The Crimson White’s questions regarding sorority recruitment with an emailed statement:
“Every UA organization should be committed to making sure that its policies are held to the highest ideals and that its actions and decisions help make sure this campus is inclusive and welcoming at every opportunity. Our student leaders, our student body and their parents, our employees and our alumni will work hard to continue the progress of the last 50 years as we work together to make access to opportunities available to all.”
Nevertheless, questions still remain about the future of greek integration.
“We’re in the 21st century,” Gotz said, referring to racial segregation in 2013. “We’re the only campus I know that has greek life the way it is. We have entirely separate black and white fraternities and sororities, and it’s just sad.”
Editor’s Note: Editor-in-Chief Mazie Bryant and Managing Editor Lauren Ferguson, although members of greek organizations, did not participate in the reporting of this story.
Editor's Note: A quote from the Tri Delta member was clarified for accuracy on September 17 at 9:30 p.m. The word "this" was replaced by the phrase "pledging the recruit" in brackets.