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Can the greek system play a role in eliminating racism?

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AGD Rush

Senior members of AGD welcome their new pledges with a chant during OU's Panhellenic Recruitment last August. 

The recent incident with Sigma Alpha Epsilon involving the racist song sung by its members is a reminder not only of the continued existence of racism in America but also of the particular racism that flows from the largely segregated living pattern of fraternities and sororities on American campuses. There are few data on diversity within the greek system, but clearly many sororities and fraternities have no minority members. A 2010 study of eight mostly white Greek chapters on three East Coast campuses found that the average non-white membership was 3.8 percent. No doubt, the percentages in the south and elsewhere are much lower.

The struggle to integrate the greek system at OU is a long-standing one. The undersigned were involved in an effort in 1967 to integrate Delta Tau Delta, a fraternity on the OU campus. At the time, by conventional standards, it was a very successful fraternity: high grade points, extensive participation in campus activities, successful intramural athletic teams and a generally high “desirability” rating within the university community. However, like every other fraternity and sorority at OU at the time, it was not racially integrated.

Because of the social and cultural forces at the time – it was the '60s after all – a group of us decided that it was the time to integrate our fraternity. We asked a black person who was in the President’s Leadership Class, Tony Gilkey from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to consider pledging. He had all the attributes of an outstanding pledge and future fraternity brother. He was a natural candidate, and he decided to go through rush.

The first problem was that, at that time, fraternity rules allowed a single person to veto any new member. The second problem was that the fraternity was on the verge of financing a new house and the alums, although they disclaimed any racist motive, said that pledging a black man would create such a financial risk that they could not guarantee financing for the new house. We solved the first problem by changing the rules to allow 80 percent of the members to approve a new pledge. But the financing problem was harder. We took our case to the new president of OU, Herbert Holloman, who in turn asked the outgoing president, George Cross, for assistance. Within a few days, Holloman reported to us that an Oklahoma City businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, would help us. If we pledged Tony – and if we needed it – the businessman would cosign the note for a new house, an obligation that would have exceeded a million dollars.

In the end, our fraternity failed to pledge Tony. After a heated meeting that lasted over three hours, the vote, by the almost 100 members, fell one vote short of approving him for membership. That was our failing, no one else’s. In protest, about 15 current and prospective members either resigned or declined membership in the local Norman chapter, the undersigned included. Our chapter president also raised this issue at the fraternity’s national convention in New York in 1968. It was to no avail. As a result, he also resigned and received several threatening phone calls.

That year Tony pledged Delta Upsilon. He went on to have an extremely successful professional and personal life as a radiologist and banker before passing far too early in 2003, at age 53. Thus, Delta Upsilon and Tony Gilkey broke the racial barrier in OU’s greek system — 10 years after President Cross, Bud Wilkinson and Prentice Gautt courageously broke the race barrier in football at OU. They all gracefully but forcefully refused to back down when anti-integration emotions and hateful actions were plentiful at OU and throughout Oklahoma.

The authors of this op-ed piece have never forgotten the support of an unknown businessperson and the OU administration. That tradition lives on with the leadership of President David Boren, who has spoken out forcefully against the SAE’s racist conduct.

Today, things are better at OU. Delta Tau Delta has pledged several black members. Phi Delta Phi has black members and a black president. Other fraternities and sororities have also integrated, including Phi Delta Theta, OU’s fourth largest fraternity, which also has a black president and two other executive officers who are black. But the greek system still is largely segregated.

The greek system can play a role in moving our society forward toward tolerance and diversity. That role is to help the university to become a racially and culturally diverse and integrated institution. Why should this happen? The first reason is that for the few years of their undergraduate university experiences, the collective lives of racially mixed fraternity and sorority members would be infinitely richer if they can learn to live together and share their views and experiences. This learning experience will stay with them throughout their lives. The second reason is that this kind of diversity can be a much-needed model for the rest of the nation.

The greek system is called “greek” because classic Greek civilizations promoted the highest values – courage, honor, the willingness to sacrifice for others and the quest for knowledge. In theory, fraternities and sororities are founded on those ideals. What if more of today’s greek organizations promoted the idea that people ought to relate to one another because of who they are (human beings), not because of their skin color or other divisive characteristics? That would be a contribution truly worthy of the classic Greek tradition.

Edward Correia, B.A., 1970

John Gregory, B.A., 1971

Larry Gross, B.A., 1970

Allan Keown, B.A., 1970

Michael McGaughey, BSCE, 1970

Patrick Phillips, B.A., 1970

Mark Rollins, B.A., 1969

Steve Sherrod, B.S., 1971

J. Michael Wise, B.A., 1970

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