White Tide

09.19.135:45 AM ET

Alabama’s Segregated Sororities

The University of Alabama’s Greek system has been accused of shutting out black pledges—and now students are demanding an end to the discrimination.

Around 400 students and faculty filled the steps outside the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They marched to the Rose Administration Building, holding a sign that read “The Final Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” 

This was not 1963, when Gov. George Wallace stood defiantly at an auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from attending school. Rather this protest was held some 50 years later, on Wednesday, September 18, as the University of Alabama was forced into the national spotlight for ugly segregation once more.

This time, it’s the school’s treasured Greek system that's in the hot seat for allegedly refusing to integrate. According to the Crimson White, the school’s newspaper, the first and last time a black student was admitted to one of the school’s lily-white sororities was in 2003. Sigma Delta Tau, the school’s traditionally Jewish sorority, does not participate in formal recruitment and reportedly has admitted black students, according to the Crimson White.

About 400 students and faculty members of the Univ. of Alabama march across the campus to oppose racial segregation among its Greek-letter social organizations in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. School President Judy Bonner issued a video statement acknowledging the system is segregated by race. She is requiring that sororities belonging to a campus association composed of white sororities begin using a new recruitment process aimed at diversifying the groups.  (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Dave Martin

Yardena Wolf, who is white and hails from Oregon, had pledged in Alpha Omicron Pi in her freshman year, but said she had “no idea this was an issue” until halfway through the process. Since then, she has come forward and joined with groups on campus who have called for the sororities to be desegregated. She remains in the sorority but has moved out of its house.

“This is bigger than me, this is bigger than my sorority,” Wolf told The Daily Beast. “The reason I’m doing this is because all of these girls are so much better than this.”

Wolf, 19, a sophomore studying political science, spoke at Wednesday’s rally along with Khortlan Patterson, 19, a black sophomore who is also part of the protest group. Patterson, who is not involved in any Greek organization, said at the rally that the “institutional racism” at the university “came as a shock.”

The crowd at the rally included university president Dr. Judy Bonner—who greeted students at the steps—faculty members (Wolf said she ran into her English professor, which was lucky because she had to miss the class to attend), and students wearing blue shirts bearing the name Mallet Assembly, the name of an organization famous at the institution for organizing change.

Wednesday’s protest was just the latest in a series of events that have rocked the campus since the Crimson White report came out last week. The national media picked up on the report, causing Gov. Robert Bentley, an alum of the University of Alabama himself, to speak up within two days, saying that fraternal organizations should be choosing their members based on qualifications, not race. Jesse Jackson Jr.  arrived on campus Saturday, calling any segregation “abhorrent” and saying white-only sororities will only end up hurting the sisters themselves—since “when they leave here, they’re not going to be in an all-white world,” AL.com reported.

Despite the shock from the outside community, students at school say they had long been wary of the power of the Greek organizations on campus. The University of Alabama has 56 fraternities and sororities on campus and was named by College Magazine as being the second-best university in the country for Greek life. Last year, allegations of hazing caused the school to cancel pledge week. And earlier this month, a member of the Tuscaloosa Board of Education filed a lawsuit alleging that at least one fraternity and one sorority had offered incentives for their members to vote for her opponent, tipping the election. Vans, limousines, and at least one bus were seen ferrying students at Alabama’s sorority row on Election Day.

Meanwhile, District Judge John Jr., a member of the Board of Trustees and one of the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Alabama School of Law, confirmed on Friday that his own stepgranddaughter had been one of the two students rejected by the white sororities.

The sororities, for their part, have remained tight-lipped. For one, Pi Beta Phi  placed a statement on its Facebook page insisting it is “taking this matter very seriously” and looking into the allegations, but most of the other chapters’ pages were silent since the September 11 article came out in the Crimson White.

Repeated attempts to contact the sororities were not successful. They canceled the weekend’s planned “swaps,” or mixers, over the weekend, and there are unconfirmed rumors that pledging has been canceled again. The university announced on Wednesday that block seating will be banned at the upcoming football game against the University of Colorado to encourage students to “come together,” according to University of Alabama SGA president Jimmy Taylor.

University of Alabama student Khortlan Patterson, center, 19, of Houston, Tex., gets a round of applause from other students and faculty as they gathered on the steps of the Rose Administration Building to protest the university's segregated sorority system on the campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. About 400 students and faculty marched across the campus to oppose racial segregation among its Greek-letter social organizations. Alabama student Yardena Wolf of Corvalis, Ore., is fourth from right. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Dave Martin

On Sunday night, the university’s board of trustees held a mandatory emergency meeting with Bonner, the university's president, and the sorority advisers behind closed doors. On Monday, Bonner admitted that “our Greek systems remain segregated.” Bonner insisted the sororities would have to conduct an “open bidding process” so that every student is considered equally.

But Bonner’s exact plan remains hazy. In a video statement, she admitted the university “will not tell any group who they must pledge,” but she insisted “the chapter members are ready to move forward.” Cathy Andreen, the director of media relations at the university, said the administration is still working with the sororities to end any and all membership barriers. But Andreen did not offer any specifics to the plan. She said in an email that Alabama’s Office of Greek Affairs has already planned a number of diversity education programs for the 2013–14 school year, including a program called “sustained dialogue training,” which is meant to encourage discussions on issues such as race, class, and gender. However, most, if not all, of these activities were planned before this week.

Despite the swift reaction from the university, students at school said this was not enough. A small group of students began to discuss how to effectively speak to the administration.

Archie Creech, a senior and another organizer of Wednesday’s rally, said that while students “appreciate the response” from the university, he feels students know “there’s so much more that needs to be done.”

“There’s been a huge swell—huge support,” Creech said. “We feel now is the best time for this to happen.”

Ross Green, a senior who was one of the organizers behind Wednesday’s rally, said that “this is not the time to pat ourselves on the back” after Bonner’s announcement. Adding that he felt “what goes on with the Greeks affects us all,” Green said there is a culture of segregation on campus that goes beyond the sororities.

“We’re trying to uproot our entire culture,” said Green, who said he hails from a “long line of Alabama alumni” who have worked to end segregation at the university.