Thirty years ago, the civil rights movement set off racial eruptions in communities across the nation. Black men and women met a mixture of resistance and encouragement as they demanded equal treatment and privileges.
At GW, a group of African-American students was deliberately misinformed about the spring rush schedule. The campus exploded into heated debate over the admittance practices of all-white sororities.
“We’d like to see sororities fully integrated or kicked off the campus by June,” said Black Students Union organizer Peggy Cooper in 1968. Cooper was among the founding members of BSU, an organization that took root in response to GW rush practices.
Since then, African-American women at GW have worked to create campus institutions suited to their needs. Ideally, the women say, college is a time to form cultural identity, a stepping stone for empowerment.
Black women formed their own campus sisterhoods.
Today, four historically black sororities exist at GW: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Zeta Phi Beta. Members say the sororities are more than social organizations. The letter groups are rooted in the fight for racial and gender equality. In some members’ eyes, the sororities are living, breathing legacies left by the struggles of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations.
“Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded at a time when women, especially black women, had no say in societal beliefs, ideals, politics and the way that they should govern their lives,” Alpha Kappa Alpha Vice President Autumn Saxton-Ross explains.
Students pledge “historically black” sororities as opposed to “historically white” sororities for cultural reasons, but not necessarily racial reasons, according to Rob Kennedy, a multicultural student services counselor.
“People like to be connected with the things they feel most comfortable with,” Delta Sigma Theta President Tameshiah Murphy says. “People like to feel like they are a part of a sisterhood or brotherhood.”
According to Tracey McDermit, director of the Greek life office, African-American sororities provide an outlet for students seeking a particular type of organization.
“It’s a fit thing,” McDermit says. “These sororities are primarily service organizations and have very strong values.”
Community, family and service are the principles that attract members to black sororities, Saxton-Ross says. Many students pledge because they grew up with mothers, aunts and sisters who remain active in their sororities.
Zeta Phi Beta, one of the four black sororities on campus, provides a support network for women seeking careers in the business sector. Zeta Phi Beta President Narki Kamara says that membership in these organizations is a life-long commitment.
“Once you become a member, you stay one for life,” Kamara says.
The sororities participate in mentor programs at local elementary schools, feeding the homeless and fundraisers such as Alpha Kappa Alpha’s annual fashion show. The women sponsor seminars on issues ranging from eating disorders to interracial dating.
Despite the disparity in organizational philosophies, African-American sororities have good relations with their Greek counterparts.
“From what I’ve seen, students are getting along and respecting each others’ culture and values,” Kennedy says. “They are intermingling and forming cross-cultural relationships.”
But in an era when society, struggling to distance itself from a segregated past, moves toward greater racial integration and cultural diversity, some ask whether black sororities actually promote campus segregation.
“Is it ever asked whether predominantly white fraternities and sororities promote segregation?” Saxton-Ross counters. “In our chapter, we have Egyptians, Panamanians, Indians and, in the past, Asians.”
“African-American organizations do not promote a form of segregation because they’re not exclusive,” Murphy says. “If a non-black wanted to join, she should know what the organization’s ideals are based on, and know that the focal point won’t change.”
Murphy points out that some students are not satisfied pledging the socially-oriented Panhellenic organizations. These students may turn to sororities whose purpose is community service.
“One organization isn’t right or wrong. It’s a matter of preference,” Murphy says. “We’re all unique.”
Although African-American sororities at GW have made a positive contribution to race relations on campus, many feel more can be done.
“There have been a lot of positive changes over the years,” Kennedy says. “The doors have opened a lot more, but there’s still work to be done.”
Kennedy says he believes GW is a microcosm, representing the larger United States. It isn’t perfect, he says, but it’s much better than other college campuses he has seen.
“GW students will leave here with a pretty good understanding of what America is like and what the world is like,” Kennedy reflects.
Just 30 years ago, African-American students were called “Negroes” and separate-but-equal policies were accepted without a blink.
GW sororities have come a long way since 1968, when a group of “Negro” girls were discouraged from pledging. But as Saxton-Ross points out, today’s student, whether or not she a member of an all-black sorority, faces a different kind of fight.
“My parents’ generation had to fight to get the chance,” Saxton-Ross says. “My generation must fight to keep the chance.”
There was a long path between 1968 and 1998. And it’s a start.