The Untold Stories of Black and Brown Student Experiences in Historically White Fraternities and Sororities

The Untold Stories of Black and Brown Student Experiences in Historically White Fraternities and Sororities

Phillip Cockrell (University of Toledo, USA) and Thomas Gibson (Bowling Green State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7835-2.ch009


This chapter will highlight the experiences of underrepresented minority students who are members of majority Greek-letter organizations at two institutions of higher learning located in the Midwest. The authors will explore the reasons why students joined majority Greek-letter organizations as opposed to those associated with their ethnicity/race. In addition, peer-to-peer perceptions, sense of mattering and belonging, and interest in upward mobility within their respective organizations will be examined.
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Literature Review

Greek-letter organizations have a 200 year history in North America on college and university campuses. They have evolved from literary societies to models of present day fraternities and sororities (Mauk, 2006). The first Greek-letter organization was Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity, founded in 1776, at the College of William and Mary (Boschini & Thompson, 1998; Gregory, 2003). Phi Beta Kappa was the first student society to bear a Greek-letter name. Phi Beta Kappa established many of the present day fraternities and sororities traditions and customs such as secrecies, initiations, and mottos in both Greek and Latin to mention a few (Torbensen & Parks, 2009).

The rigid curriculum of early American education gave way to student interest in extracurricular activities and desire for more intellectual freedom (Rudolph, 1990). Phi Beta Kappa was a source for social activities and afforded white men opportunities for creative, intellectual, and political outlets beyond the classroom (Gregory, 2003).

It would take nearly another century for the emergence of societies for women. Early colleges were segregated by race, ethnicity, and gender. Women colleges were not founded until the 1800s (Parker, 2015). The earliest women societies was established at the first women’s college, Wesleyan (Georgia) in 1851 and 1852 (Torbenson& Parks, 2009). With coeducation, albeit limited, women began forming their own organizations (Whipple & Sullivan, 1998; Parker, 2015). Kappa Alpha Theta is credited with establishing the Greek-letter movement for women in 1870 (Whipple and Sullivan,1998; Torbenson & Parks, 2009).

Although Greek-letter organizations were created to foster a sense of collegiality, the first fraternities were all white and did not admit African Americans (McClure, 2006). According to Hunter and Hughey (2013, p. 523), “early fraternities and sororities were always exclusionary in both racial and socioeconomic terms, explicit discriminatory entrance requirements did not become widespread until the beginning of the 20th century.” In response to this practice, African Americans began establishing their own social organizations. The vast majority of Black-letter Greek organizations were established between 1906-1922 (Hunter & Hughey, 2013).

The National Panhellenic Council (1902) and The North American Inter-fraternity Council (1909) were created primarily to govern the affairs of majority Greek-letter organizations. The first known Black Greek-letter organization, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., was formed in 1906 (Kimbrough, 2003). Since Alpha Phi Alpha’s inception, eight additional organizations have formed establishing what is known today as the “Divine Nine” or the National Pan-Hellenic Council (Ross, 2002). Collectively, these organizations including the Multicultural Greek Council (1998) have been at the forefront of breaking down racial barriers, leading the Civil Rights Movement, and creating avenues for people of color to excel within their personal and professional endeavors.

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