Greek Life

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In this episode, we’re listening to the voices of Courtney Monroe, Dr. Cesar Orozco, and Richard Nunn as we explore the history of exclusion and the impact of student organizations rising to reflect campus climate.

Courtney has been working with the Office of Greek Life as the National Pan-Hellenic Council and Multicultural Greek Council Advisor since January 2011. As a native Detroiter, she was exposed to the service that Greek Life provides at an early age -rendering interest in joining her National Pan-Hellenic Council sorority.

Richard is a current doctoral student in the School of Education with a concentration in Public Policy and Postsecondary Education. In college, Richard was a founding brother of the Alpha Omicron Chapter of Lambda Theta Phi Fraternidad Latina, Inc. at the University of Michigan.

Cesar is the Director of Government and Community Affairs at the Office of the Illinois Comptroller. Cesar obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and his Juris Doctorate from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. In college, he served as the Induction Officer and President of the Alpha Omicron Chapter of Lambda Theta Phi Fraternidad Latina, Inc.

The History of Greeks of Color

Multiple narratives encompass the essence of Greek life, where organizations may find themselves in a space that is often overlooked through the overwhelming misconceptions of the generalized “party life.” Many Greek organizations, especially Greek organizations of color, were founded to provide service, support, and solidarity for other students and community members. In the 1950s and 1960s, universities began to adopt anti-discrimination laws that opened up opportunities for students of color to join Greek organizations and to claim their space in these institutional areas. However, students of color joining historically white Greek organizations was fraught with conflict and protest. At Harvard, a debate was held in 1949 to determine lifting a ban on discrimination based on race, color, and nationality for incoming members. The debate was unsuccessful in dismantling the ban and members in organizations such as, the national charter of Alpha Epsilon continued to allow pledges who were exclusively members of the Caucasian race. Other Greek organizations did not admit African American students until the 1980s but the fight to remove discriminatory practices was only the beginning of a more inclusive Greek System.

Greek organizations that encompass communities of color have a historical context that remind us of community efforts to create spaces for inclusion. In 1853 and in 1876, the first African American male and female were admitted to the University of Michigan, nearly 50 years after its founding. This milestone opened up opportunities for inclusion in student organizations and eventually led to student organizing to bring Multicultural Greek Organizations at U-M to develop spaces of support for students of color on campus.

African American Greek Life

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., Epsilon Chapter, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American Men, was founded at U-M in 1909. Through the establishment of brotherhood and support for minority students, it served to carry on traditions through their main principles of scholarship, fellowship, good character, and the uplifting of humanity. In a letter to Augustus A. Williams, who was eager to find an organization of Black men while in college, charter members of the fraternity stated, “the object of the organization is to promote union.” Alpha Phi Alpha has a long history of combating issues of discrimination and fighting for civil rights issues through leadership such as W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, William Gray, Paul Robeson, and many others. Through representation, voice, and vision, members of Alpha Phi Alpha have continued to lead education, economic, political, and social justice movements at the U-M.

Black sororities were also influential in promoting community, support, and social change. With relatively few women attending colleges in the early twentieth century,  four major black sororities were founded: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. In 1908, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. (AKAs) was formed nationally, but charted at U-M in 1932. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. was formed in 1913 nationally, but proceeded AKAs by 11 years at U-M’s campus. These sororities were formed to promote sisterhood, but also had specific political and civic goals, especially at a time when Blacks were shut out from many social, economic, and political processes in the US.

In a recent article about the role of fraternities and sororities in Black activism, Philip Lewis, a former U-M staff member and current writer, points out, “From its inception, Alpha Phi Alpha — directly and through its membership — has played an instrumental role in the African-American’s struggle towards racial equality and social justice. One could say activism is written into the fraternity’s DNA.” With prominent members such as WEB Dubois (who was extended membership into Alpha Phi Alpha at the University of Michigan in 1925), Ezell Blair (Jibreel Khazan), an organizer of the Greensboro, Alabama sit-ins, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Alpha Phi Alpha represents the presence of Black Greeks in the forefront of activism for social change, justice, and civil rights, nationally and on college campuses.

Latinx Greek Life: Growing Multicultural Movement

Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc. and Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. were the first Latino/a Greek organizations founded nationally in December, 1975. During the influx of Latino enrollment in secondary education institutions, there became an increase in first-generation students, particularly students of color with no established support system. With the current political climate, there became a need for Latinx students to organize and find representation in social, political, and education levels. Through the establishment of these Greek organizations, a foundation for Latinx support to build community and sustainability in higher education became recognized for the progress of students of color.

Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity Inc. was founded at U-M in 1988.

Delta Tau Lambda Sorority, Inc., a Latina based sorority was founded nationally at U-M in 1994 on U-M’s campus with a purpose to “build Latinas’ position in society through community service, commitment and professionalism.” Since their founding, they have dedicated themselves to empowering Latinas and women of color through programs such as “Salute to Latinas.”

Though secretive in their initiation rites, activities, and traditions, the social role Greek organizations of color have played brings prominence to the sororities and fraternities. Echoing the history of Black Greek organizations on campus, Latinx students sought similar structures of support and representation of culture. In some ways, Latinx Greek organizations modeled their own traditions from Black Greek organizations, but also defined themselves uniquely in how these traditions were translated and displayed. Each organization had a foundation of service to their community, but also worked to counter stereotypes and combat lack of institutional support.

Asian American Greek Life

The University of Michigan was also the home to the first Asian American fraternity in the Midwest, Lambda Phi Epsilon.  The founding of the chapter in January of 1992 marked the beginning of a movement of Asian American focused Greek organizations at the University of Michigan.

Nationally, there are over 65 such organizations and, at U-M, the more than 3,000 students identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander American founded multiple chapters that continue to fulfill the original purpose of empowering voices, promoting all forms of Asian culture, and confronting stereotypes.  Nationally, while only 2% of A/PIA first year students join Asian fraternities and sororities, the chapters and their members  provide further support and space for their community.

Greek life first existed at the University in 1845 and as students of color slowly gained access to higher education spaces, so too did they bring their own organizations-often chapters of national organizations-to campus. Alpha Phi Alpha began the movement in 1909 and marked the wave of National Pan-Hellenic or “Divine 9” chapter at UM.  Efforts of the brothers and sisters of these organizations echoed beyond the University and their community engagement inspired young people to not just go to college, but to become members themselves.  Latinx Greek Life is far newer to the University, as is A/PIA Greek life, but their members continue the strong tradition of community engagement, graduating members, and building a strong structure of support for their entire community.

Greeks of color organizations have important social roles, which include hosting events, raising money for scholarships, and providing spaces for camaraderie. Community service is embedded into many charters as well. But these organizations also serve the larger society through their activism, organizing, and attention to issues affecting their communities, such as racial discrimination, resource allocation, housing equality, etc.

Contributors: Barbara Diaz, Alexis Gonzalez, Richard Nunn, Thalia Maya, Tonya Kneff-Chang