South wrestles with segregated sororities

At University of Alabama, Greek system remains divided along racial lines, despite prodding by faculty

Christina Houston never set out to break a race barrier at the University of Alabama.

But recently, the curly-haired, mixed-race sophomore revealed that last year she had been accepted into one of the university's all-white sororities.

"Growing up in the North, this just didn't seem like that big of an issue," says Ms. Houston, whose father is black and mother is white. "I wasn't worried about my race, I was worried about getting into one of the sororities."

Her admittance is one of several modest signs of change in the Greek system here. But if integration began without fanfare here - up to now the only Greek system in the country to never admit an African-American - it remains highly controversial.

Nearly 40 years after Gov. George Wallace made his spirited "stand in the schoolhouse door" here against integration, the reality is that the Greek system across much of the South is as separate but equal as a Montgomery bus at the height of Jim Crow.

"The integration of the Greek system has hardly moved at all," says William Harvey, a minority-issues analyst at the American Council on Education in Washington. "This is not where we thought we'd be by now. What's happening is, we have a whole new generation growing up with segregation."

Nowhere is the challenge more evident than on this antebellum-style campus. The segregation issue flared recently as one student, junior Melody Twilley, said she hoped to become the first African-American to join one of 15 all-white sororities here.

Houston came forward to defend the system, and to say that the barrier had already fallen.

The university, for its part, can point to relatively high black enrollment - 15 percent of the student body - and largely integrated dorms and academic groups.

But Ms. Twilley - a top student who sings first soprano in the campus choir - was rejected by the sororities two days later. She alleged that race was the reason.

That allegation has only fueled longstanding faculty and administration frustration with the segregated Greek system, which they say offsets university efforts to improve its image as an academic powerhouse.

Faculty versus many alums

Over the course of a decade, the integration issue has become a tense tug of war between the faculty and the Greeks. The faculty has the strength of its convictions for an egalitarian campus. But fraternities and sororities retain the right of private assembly. What's more, the school has the world's largest alumni association, and many of them oppose integration.

Indeed, New South dictums clash mightily with Old South notions on this campus, which was largely burned by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War. In the mid-1980s, its ominous past flared up again when a cross was burned in front of a black sorority on Magnolia Drive.

While only a minority of students rush the frats each year, colleges across the US have been cracking down on divided systems.

Last year, the University of Georgia suspended a sorority for excluding a black woman because of her race. Also, the University of Texas suspended a fraternity for allegedly taunting black athletes.

These punishments come on the heels of a number of new ideas intended to take the mystique off Greek houses and to make them more welcoming to people of all races. From the University of Virginia to Birmingham Southern, the efforts have had varying success. Alabama this year went to a delayed rush, waiting until all students were on campus before rushing. Next year, the school may synchronize its black and white rushes, which now fall at different times.

"We're just trying to make the system more welcome," says Kathleen Cramer, an Alabama student-affairs official.

House leases at risk

Still, the stakes are only rising for the beleaguered Greeks. School officials are now threatening the fraternities' $100-a-year land leases if they don't find some way to recruit African-Americans.

Larry Vinyard, vice president of the Interfraternity Council, says the Greek houses are making progress. "Sure, we have strong traditions, but we're also willing to change," he says, pointing to Houston's successful pledge last year.

Mr. Vinyard notes one frat extended two positions to African-Americans this year. Supporters of integration welcomed the admittedly modest move, but no one stepped up to take the spots.

To many here, that is a sign class and cultural differences, as well as race itself, underlie the divided system.

On frat row, where antebellum plantation houses serve as Greek headquarters, trousered white gentlemen walking across the trimmed lawns seem more concerned about displaying their new BMWs than battle flags.

Black fraternities have come out in support of their white peers on the pledge process. The two groups also combined their Greek week last year.

Walking up Magnolia Drive, past deliverymen dropping off wooden cases of bottled Coca-Cola, black senior Maryella Matthews says the Greeks may be snobs, but they're not racist. "The South is still in love with neo-Classicism. They love the architecture, the parties, the clothes and the wit." Though she never rushed, the Mobile, Ala, native says she might if she goes to graduate school - but at the black sorority her mother joined.

As this school wrestles with its future, Houston has become the Greek system's most provocative spokeswoman. She concedes she encountered racist notions during her semester among the Greeks (she has returned to the campus this fall after dropping out midway through last year).

But "they accepted me. And to their credit, they didn't make a big deal about it," she says.

That air of guarded exclusivity is what Greek life is all about: Being accepted brings popularity, connections, and party invites to a select few, with the right credentials and the good gossip.

"Rushing is ... very traumatic," Houston says. "Rejection hurts no matter what your color."

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