Historically black houses stress community, service

by Kathleen McDermott | 11/12/02 6:00am

Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity holds no pretensions of serving as a basement for the campus.

Located not on Webster Avenue but tucked quietly away in a River apartment, the fraternity doesn't even have a basement.

What it does have, however, is a group of seven African-American men committed to social activism and improving campus life for black students, according to Karim Marshall '03, president of Alpha Phi Alpha.

The fraternity is one of three historically black Greek organizations on campus -- organizations that, despite their subtle presence on campus, work to make their impact felt at Dartmouth and beyond.

The first chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha was founded in 1906 at Cornell University, not as a fraternity in the traditional sense but rather to support African-American males desiring social change at a predominantly white institution.

Nearly a century later, in a post-civil rights movement society, the organization lives on, continuing to lend support to African-American students and effect social change, yet in an ever-evolving form.

Dartmouth's Alpha Phi Alpha chapter was founded in 1972. In its early years the fraternity boasted approximately 50 members, according to Marshall.

Eleven years later, in 1983, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black sorority, was founded on campus. Many black females on campus felt the need for their own support system on campus, according to Leah Wright '03, Alpha Kappa Alpha president.

The mindset, according to Wright, was not that there was something wrong with the "mainstream" sororities, but there was "something inherent" and valuable to a historically black sorority.

Two years later, 14 women came together to form a second historically black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, according to Chanel Frazier '03, the organization's current president.

All three presidents emphasized again and again their organization's commitment to service and activism, especially on issues of pertinence to the African-American community on campus and nationwide.

Delta Sigma Theta, for example, plans to hold an overnight retreat open to all black women at Dartmouth this weekend. Alpha Kappa Alpha is in the midst of "Skee Week 2002," an annual event that includes discussions and activities addressing topics such as diversity and sexual assault on campus. Alpha Phi Alpha worked over the past week to register students to vote in New Hampshire.

Marshall explained that a good deal of his organization's programming is focused on "making life easier for black students here." He also explained that although their events and social space are open to the entire campus they continually tend to disproportionately attract students of color.

Both Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Phi Alpha were among the eight Greek organizations last year to receive an award for outstanding programming last year, according to Cassie Barnhardt, assistant dean of residential life.

"All three are very high performing," Barnhardt said, adding that the small size of the organizations makes their work even more impressive.

Marshall explained that it was Alpha Phi Alpha's work in the community that initially alerted him to the fraternity, before he even step foot on the Dartmouth campus.

After graduating from high school in Washington, D.C., he attended a summer program sponsored by a local Alpha Phi Alpha chapter. "The brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha had already distinguished themselves to me as caring, selfless individuals who were helping me out for no special reason," he said.

On campus his freshman year, Marshall said the brothers again distinguished themselves as willing to reach out as mentors.

For Wright, the decision to join Alpha Kappa Alpha began in high school as she began researching the various historically black sororities. She said that she wanted to make sure she knew what she was getting into before joining, explaining that joining a historically black Greek organization is viewed as a substantial and lifelong commitment.

Once at Dartmouth, she said, the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha distinguished themselves to her as "dynamic and inspirational" women who were "classy and sophisticated" leaders in the community.

Wright also cited specific upper-class women -- members of Alpha Kappa Alpha -- who served as her unofficial mentors freshman year.

Frazier explained that she was first alerted to Delta Sigma Theta by the presence of "powerful black women" in her home town, and many were members of the sorority.

Arriving at Dartmouth, Frazier explained, she found the environment the complete opposite of her home. Yet she found comfort and an automatic support network among the black women on campus.

Frazier explained that "as a black woman on campus, you are one of the few," which can be discouraging. Yet other black women on campus share these same concerns, and they can better understand one another's struggles, she added.

Yet Frazier added that historically black Greek organizations like her sorority, rather than perpetuating racial self-segregation, actively work to bring together disparate segments of the Dartmouth community.

"Our focus is on the black community, but that's not where it stops," Frazier said. In all their activities and events, she said, they actively seek co-sponsorship with other organizations and work to increase their presence on campus. "We continue to make attempts, we want to have an audience that is not just African-Americans," Frazier said.

Marshall likewise argued that the historically black Greek organizations on campus do not represent a form of self-segregation. All historically black Greek organizations on campus are open to students of all races, all presidents noted.

Alpha Phi Alpha has "had brothers of all colors and classes and races," Marshall said, although the Dartmouth chapter is currently all African-American.

He also noted that, although during freshman year he found himself gravitating toward a circle of predominantly African-American friends, joining the fraternity caused him to see "beyond issues of black and white, beyond issues of color" and begin to examine issues of oppression and inequality outside the context of race.

Jennai Williams '03, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, explained that their sorority is currently all African-American not out of any animosity toward members of other races, but merely because "its harder to find out about [Alpha Kappa Alpha] if you're not black."

Their sorority -- along with Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Phi Alpha -- is furthermore prohibited by national guidelines from actively recruiting members, so those who are steered in their direction are primarily those already involved in the African-American community.

Williams explained that to her, "what makes it special is not necessarily that we all happen to be black.... It's a commitment to the values."

"Even if we were all Asian, Hispanic, white, mixed, the commitment to the values and the purpose would still be the same," Wright said.

Yet Williams noted that "perception is really hard to change. We already have this really strong precedent in place."

The six other sororities on campus are likewise "stunted" by stereotypes and misperceptions, according to Ann Chang '03, a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and president of the Panhellenic Council, the body overseeing the six non-historically black sororities on campus.

She explained that the Council is working to highlight the many individuals in the sorority system who don't fit into "stereotypes and preconceived ideas" about sorority members on campus.

Yet she explained it's a difficult issue to confront. "How do you go about showing or demonstrating to the campus that this problem doesn't exist to the extent that it's perceived?"

Chang said that as a minority woman going through Panhellenic sorority recruitment in the winter of 2001 -- the only woman of Asian descent among the approximately 35 women rushing that term -- she was made more aware of her minority status.

"Ultimately, being a minority at Dartmouth is difficult," and it's only natural for minority students to desire the comfort of socializing with those of the same background, she said.

Yet she added that, from her own experience and what she has heard from other minority women in Panhellenic sororities, "the minority women that are in these houses do feel comfortable and do feel like they are sisters."

"It's not necessarily that the houses don't want to recruit more minority women, just that minority women don't go through recruitment," Chang said.

Wright, Williams and Frazier all said that they did not even consider going through Panhellenic recruitment.

Sunil Bhagavath '03, a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity and president of the Inter-Fraternity Council -- the body comprised of all non- ethnically-affiliated fraternities on campus that oversees the fraternity rush process -- said that he was unsure why African-American students might be less interested or likely to join a fraternity on campus.

It "might be a fault of ours" to not reach out to that community, Bhagavath said. "If people took the time to look at the fraternities maybe they wouldn't feel the same way," he said.

Even in a more inclusive environment, however, leaders of historically black Greek organizations at Dartmouth pointed to the continuing value to their organizations.

"Part of diversity is treating people differently," Wright explained.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!