IMG_2826-1

2012 Final Exercises

Late in the spring of 1927, the noted black monthly, The Messenger Magazine, published a titillating piece entitled “What Good Are College Fraternities.” Here, James W. Ivy and Raymond W. Cannon offered opposing views on the political and cultural utility of black Greek life.  A graduate of Virginia Union and a member of the Omega Phi Psi Fraternity, Ivy had an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Black Greek Life.  Such knowledge led him to the view of black fraternities as merely “social organizations” devoid of intellectual depth, political consciousness, and transformative potential. Noting the “disintegrating effect of college fraternities upon college life and student activities”, Ivy offered a stinging rebuke of “frat life” from the perspective of an insider:  “The alleged premise that college fraternities are working for the welfare of the school community and the ultimately triumph of the race is in truth altogether fantastic.” To prove his point, Ivy noted the differences in the quality and democratic nature of student governance before and after the arrival of fraternities. “During my early years in college,” he explained, “it was the ambition of every talented student to rise to some position of influence in the one or the other of these organizations. Any student with ability had an equal chance with all the others. True there were at little politics, but it never mattered much. If you had the goods your fellow students would quickly recognize it.”  According to Ivy, the “advent of the frats” imperiled this system of meritocracy. “College organizations are now the arenas where “frat” politicians demonstrate their knowledge of Mark Hana and Tammany Hall. Candidates are now put forward because they belong to this or that “frat” and not because of their abilities to capably fill the offices in question. If it is found that one fraternity alone cannot dominate the organization, two of them will combine against their more hated rival and there will be a pooling of the offices.” [1]

Ivy’s negative assessment received a strong rebuke from Raymond Cannon, the president of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc.  With painstaking detail, Cannon challenged the portrayal of fraternities as having a negative influence on campus life.  As he explained, “I have frequently heard it said that the fraternities play politics, even to the point of splitting the college into fractions. Any right-minded individual can readily see that this is ridiculous. Fraternities have the welfare of the college at heart. In fact, the influence of some fraternities has helped to make some colleges what they are.” Fraternities, he continued, “teach a respect for the rights of others and a brotherly love. The personification of virtue, the sanctity of the home and abhorrence of all evil are indelibly impressed upon the minds of all members…Every effort is exerted to stimulate the ambition of the members to attain the highest possible scholarship and intellectual achievement.” [2]

Today, several of the issues raised in the debate between Ivy and Cannon echo on colleges across the country, including the University of Virginia.  As many are well aware, Black Greek Letter organizations have been a permanent presence on UVA’s campus since 1973, when the Lamda Zeta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi arrived on grounds.  Since then, black fraternities and sororities have made important contributions to student life. Moreover, many NBGOs have launched important service projects designed to assist the larger Charlottesville community. In fact, for several students, sororities and fraternities provide a direct link to black Charlottesville.

Zetas and Sigmas Football

Zetas and Sigmas at UVA Football Game, Early 1980s

 This does not mean, however, that BGLOs have not been held up to critical scrutiny.  Criticisms of black Greeks have ranged from their alleged failure to adopt a more explicitly political character to their purported role in the segregated nature of student life on grounds. If nothing else, these criticisms have ignited vibrant conversations around the true meaning of integration, as well as the importance of maintaining certain cultural and family traditions.

Alphas

Alphas

The definitive history of black Greek life at UVA has yet to be written, but hopefully as we enter another season of 40th anniversary celebrations, we can gain a deeper understanding of this important aspect of the University’s history.

Here’s a video collage of interviews conducted by two of my former students, Shannon Davis and Roxanne Campbell (who did most of the cinematography). In 2012, Shannon and Roxy began interviewing alums and documenting the activities of Black Greeks at UVA.

[1] Messenger Magazine, 1927.

[2] Messenger Magazine, 1927.