Entrenched in a climate of rampant racism and daily fear, half a dozen African-American students at Cornell University in 1906 decided it was time to take a bold step.
Together they founded a brotherhood called Alpha Phi Alpha, successfully establishing the nation’s first black fraternity on a college campus.
Twelve men created the fraternity, but seven dropped out in fear of lynching and other forms of backlash from the white community.
The remaining brothers worked to promote “manly deeds, scholarship and love for all mankind,” said GW student Ishmael Renard Mitchell, president of the D.C. area chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Pro-integrationist and socially progressive, Alpha chapters soon spread throughout the country. Today, the fraternity boasts more than 100 chapters and 200,000 members internationally and famous alumni such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Not long after the Alpha’s founding, four more black fraternities and four sororities were founded nationwide. All nine are governed by the National Panhellenic Council.
Alpha Phi Alpha and all four sororities have GW chapters.
But at GW in the late 1960s, integration marked the beginning of the end for several chapters of the traditionally white organizations.
“In the spring of 1968, members of the student government debated the Human Relations Act, which was intended to enforce non-discrimination in campus organizations,” according to the University archival publication From Strength to Strength.
“When passed on May 10, 1968, it required recognized campus organizations to `have a provision in their constitution or bylaws that membership shall not be restricted on the basis of race, religion, or national origin,'” according to the book.
Many sororities were crippled by the act, and in September of 1968, Kappa Delta became the first of 10 sororities that would shut their doors during the next three years.
Four of the 12 GW fraternities would follow suit.
But the end of segregated student organizations marked the beginning of a new chapter of pride in black culture for many GW students.
Mitchell said his fraternity provides an important support system to its seven members from GW, American and Georgetown universities.
“We can’t eliminate stereotypes,” he said, “But we can contradict them.”
The D.C. Alpha Chapter is not limited to African Americans, although the majority of members are black. Mitchell said some of the chapter’s members are Latino and Native American, but the policy of including non-blacks varies from chapter to chapter.
“In my opinion, we are looking for someone who upholds our credo,” he said. “That person can’t be limited to just one skin color.”
Tameeka Wiles, president of the D.C. area chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, said 22 women at Howard University founded her chapter in 1913 on the principle of community activity.
On campus, the chapter hosts programs about clinical depression, test reviews and the monthly Delta Book Club.
Later this month, the Deltas will sponsor their annual Crimson and Cream Gala and donate the proceeds to fight sickle cell disease.
Although the African-American Greek-letter organizations meet monthly to discuss programs and concerns, Wiles said she wishes they had more interaction with the rest of GW’s Greek-letter system.
“There needs to be a more definite relationship between the African-American fraternity and sororities and the Panhellenic organizations,” she said.
The Black People’s Union sponsors events to connect black Greek-letter groups to the rest of campus.
With almost 200 members, BPU is the largest black student group at GW, and it celebrated its 30-year anniversary last year.
Formerly known as the Black Students’ Union, the group played a vital role in the desegregation of Greek-letter life at GW.
“We’d like to see the sororities fully integrated or kicked off campus by June,” said BSU organizer Peggy Cooper in the Feb. 13, 1968 issue of The GW Hatchet.
At a Feb. 5 rally the same year, students carried signs advertising the group’s founders’ day meeting: “If you are any kind of Negro at all we have something for you.”
“Although a white girl was asked to leave the first meeting, Miss Cooper said the group will `definitely accept white membership, but it won’t go begging for members,'” according to the article.
A Panhellenic response on the op-ed pages of the next week’s Hatchet countered, “Simply because there isn’t a single Negro in any GW sorority doesn’t mean that there’s discrimination.”
“The first meeting of the BSU revealed that GW’s Negroes, unlike their brothers in the streets, will attempt to achieve their awesome, yet admirable, goals through respectable means,” wrote James Goodhill and Brian Cabell on behalf of the Panhellenic Association.
“Personally, I don’t see that much intermingling between the various ethnicities here,” said junior Nneka Mokwunye, current president of BPU.
“I definitely understand the support people find within their own cultural groups, but it’s important to cross those lines, too,” she said. “Our goal is to make college life easier and fun. We strive to be a place of refuge from everyday problems for black students. We want them to feel like they are not the minority on campus.”
That idea might just be taking root on campus.
This year, Black History Month comes on the heels of the announcement by Black Enterprise magazine that GW is one of the top 50 schools in the nation for African-American students.
“It’s a great honor, especially because there are not many of us here,” Mokwunye said. “I think it shows that as an organization, we have done something to make life better for students on campus, but we can always do better.”