University of Alabama Moves to End Segregated Sorority System

After more than a century of discrimination – and a week of bad publicity – the school will allow black women to join white sororities

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Michelle Lepianka Carter / AP

Potential new sorority members during the annual Fall Formal Sorority Recruitment on the campus of the University of Alabama on Aug. 16, 2012

Nearly a week after the University of Alabama came under fire for persistent segregation in its sorority system, school officials are set to announce a deal that would clear the way for black women to be admitted to the school’s prestigious and historically white Greek organizations.

The deal, which a university spokesperson confirmed to TIME, is the first step toward ending more than a century of systematic segregation in the school’s sorority system.

The move comes after a story last week in the school’s student newspaper, the Crimson White, about a highly qualified black student being denied a bid to join any of the school’s prestigious, historically white sororities. Despite receiving excellent scores during the recruitment process from current sorority members, the young woman — who requested that her name not appear in the paper’s story — was reportedly blocked by alumnae. The sole reason, according to current sorority members: she was black. Another black woman was also denied a bid. Some alumnae even threatened to pull financial support from their sororities if they accepted black members.

(MORE: Sorority Turns Down Black Applicant, Then Turns on Itself)

“The issue is the alumnae and not the undergraduates,” says Gentry McCreary, who served as Alabama’s director of Greek affairs from 2007 to ’11. “There’s definitely some fear, whether real or imagined, that there would be some repercussions if a sorority took an African-American member. They’re able to subvert the will of the chapter, and it’s gone on for far too long.”

The new agreement will allow sororities to offer new bids to candidates who were not accepted during the recruitment process. The deal was reached following an emergency meeting Sunday night between the university’s president Judy Bonner and sorority-chapter advisers. The agreement is expected to allow sororities to extend bids to the young women mentioned in the Crimson White article. If they accept the offers, it will end one of the last bastions of segregation at the school.

“The allegations are that young women were not selected because of their race,” Bonner said via e-mail. “If these allegations are true, then that is discrimination. It is against the law, University policy and the policy of the national organizations. No University organization will be allowed to discriminate against students based on their race.” 

The story and ensuing media attention have rattled a tradition-bound institution that prefers to deal with its problems in private. As news media descended on the leafy campus, some sororities instructed members not to talk to reporters and to avoid wearing their sorority letters to make them less identifiable. Swaps, weekly parties organized between fraternities and sororities, were canceled Thursday night, and fraternity recruitment, which takes place after sorority rush, was suspended for the weekend. 

(MORE: At University of Alabama, Sisterhood Is Prejudiced)

Even football can provide only so much distraction. The school’s victory Saturday over Texas A&M, the only team to beat them last season, would normally provide this pigskin-crazed campus with a week’s worth of chatter. But it has been eclipsed by the tumult over a practice that is anything but news to students and alumni.

In the early 2000s Melody Twilley (now Melody Zeidan) rushed two years in a row but never received a bid from one of the historically white houses, despite being a National Merit Scholar with a 3.85 GPA. Many other well-qualified black women have been turned away in the years since. 

“The sting of rejection never really fades completely,” Zeidan says. “What needed to happen is what’s happening right now. Actives needed to speak out about what goes on after the rush parties. Actives in the houses are voting, and they’re being told by their alums who they may and may not vote for.”

Campus Greek organizations are subject to administrative oversight, but they have traditionally been allowed to make their own membership decisions. In response to questions about sorority segregation in 2011, Robert Witt, the university’s president at the time, said fraternities and sororities are “independent social organizations” that can choose their own membership.

Tradition exerts a powerful pull at Alabama, the last of the large Southern universities to maintain a segregated sorority system. Less than a decade ago, white Greek students were handed prized reserve seats to football games by the Student Government Association. One fraternity, Kappa Alpha, had an annual Old South parade where they cavorted around campus in Confederate garb. Minorities were routinely shut out of positions in student government because they couldn’t get endorsements from what is known around the state as the Machine, a secretive coalition of traditionally white fraternities and sororities that controls campus politics. Administrators rarely intervened.

(MORE: Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham Is Resurrected)

The national attention on a relic of a bygone era presents substantial image problems for a school that is growing aggressively and trying to recruit high-achieving students. Alabama has increased its enrollment by more than 14,000 students in the past decade and invested millions of dollars in raising its academic standards. Sixty percent of students in this year’s freshman class are from out of state. This large and diverse student body has spent the past few years rejecting many of the university’s traditions, one by one. The Old South parade ended in 2010. Reserved football seating was opened up to a more diverse group of students the same year. A black student was elected to an executive position in student government in 2012.

While members of the school’s Greek community praised the effort to increase diversity, some say the official response is not enough. “It feels like a very quick solution to a very slow problem,” says Kirkland Back, a senior and member of the Kappa Delta sorority. “Young people never like Band-Aid solutions.”

Yardena Wolf, a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, calls the open bidding a “knee-jerk reaction to the media attention.” Wolf moved out of her sorority house after none of the black girls in this year’s pledge class were offered bids.

“I think that the only time the administration or the sororities would ever take accountability for something is when there’s all this outside pressure,” she says. “I wish it could be coming more from a place of love during real rush, and I wish this had happened a month ago.”

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