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Black Greeks: A Legacy in Peril?

During the time of their inception, the purpose of Black Greek-letter organizations was clear. Amid racial oppression and segregation, these elite groups of educated Blacks assumed the charge of activism, scholarship, social uplift and service.

With each periodic revelation hazing persists – in an incident brought to light last spring, three members of a Black sorority are accused of striking a prospective member who they also allegedly forced to eat garbage — the ongoing community service projects, leadership endeavors and other laudable activities of BGLOs get overshadowed. Many wonder if these founding principles have given way to violent hazing, or the stylistic stepping Black Greeks are widely known for, rendering them irrelevant.

The five Black fraternities and four Black sororities that compose the “Divine Nine” were established in the early 20th century as a response to White Greek-letter organizations that denied Black students entry. Today, as Black Greek life pervades American pop culture via film and music videos, the membership numbers for BGLOs continue to surge. Cloaked in their distinctive colors and signature Greek-letters, fraternity members have become as regal as the mythological characters they emulate and many students will endure unfathomable hardships to join their ranks.

Every year Black college students “rush” to join the Greek-letter organizations of their choice oblivious of danger that may lie ahead. Marcus Jones was no exception. The former Florida A&M University student hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, who is a Kappa Alpha Psi.

But after a hazing incident in 2006 that left Jones with a ruptured eardrum, surgery-requiring injury of the buttocks and subsequent psychotherapy, he is suing Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity for damages. The civil lawsuit could cost the fraternity millions and send a stark message to other BGLOs: the hazing must stop.

Although two of the five fraternity members charged with felony hazing reckoned with their abuse of Marcus in a Florida criminal court, for Marcus, however, the hazing persists — on an emotional level, says his father, Mark Jones.

“He has problems. He lives in a bubble. He doesn’t leave the house often. He is very different from the young man who left for Florida A&M four years ago,” Jones told Diverse. But, he added, “Marcus is one of the lucky ones. He lived.”

Other like Joel Harris were not so lucky. In 1989, Joel Harris died while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha after being punched and beaten at Morehouse College. Marcus Polk at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore needed reconstructive surgery on his buttocks to fix ruptured blood vessels. Shawn Blackston a student at the University of Louisville was treated for kidney damage after pledging Omega Psi Phi. Kenitha Saafir and Kristin High in Los Angeles were allegedly pressured by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority members to venture into the ocean late on night. They were pulled from Dockweiler Beach both dead. And there are more.

Efforts to stop hazing have been ineffective, and it’s just a matter of time before another hazing tragedy occurs, says Dr. Walter Kimbrough, author of Black Greek 101: the Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities and president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.

“Street culture has infiltrated college life in and some of these chapters have become like street gangs jumping members in,” he says.

Kimbrough, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, has pondered the idea of dismantling BGLOs on the undergraduate level where the hazing takes place. “A resurrection may be necessary if this type of behavior persists. Current measures have proven ineffective. We need to take an in-depth look at each one of these undergraduate chapters. Some of them need to be shut down.”

Chapter suspensions and other efforts to stem hazing are not breeding results. Kimbrough champions a more aggressive National Pan-Hellenic Council that holds chapters accountable, regulates the new member intake process as well as monitor chapter grade point averages and the amount of service being performed by each chapter. “At Philander there is a zero tolerance policy, we can’t tolerate violent behavior,” Kimbrough says. 

Kourtney Coleman, a junior at the Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., agrees that something needs to change. “People are joining sororities and fraternities for all the wrong reasons. They are more interested in celebrity than service. We call those people ‘T-shirt wearers,’” says Coleman, who crossed the burning sands in the spring of 2006.

While some join to boost their celebrity status on campus, Coleman says it was the history of the organization and its commitment to service that drew her in. Coleman says there is still a place for organizations that cater specifically to the Black community. “Our chapter is very active on campus and in the community. We educate our peers on campus through various programs and mentor at-risk youth off campus.”

Kimbrough is not alone in suggesting BGLOs disband and regroup. Frustrated by the persistence of hazing, Dr. Ricky Jones, an associate professor and chair of the department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville and the author of Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities, has suggested it is time for BGLOs to close shop all together. In an editorial in Diverse, he wrote “[BGLOs] have proven that they cannot, or do not want to, stop hazing on their own. From an administrator’s point of view, these groups are risk-management nightmares and can no longer be tolerated in their present incarnations.”

Ricky Jones, no relation to Marcus Jones, is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi.

Karen Nelson, a member of Delta Sigma Theta and the first vice president of the alumni chapter in Rome, Ga., doesn’t entertain the disband ideology or the question of relevancy among BGLOs. Nelson notes that the good that BGLOs have contributed to society far outweighs the bad.

“Disbanding is not the solution,” says Nelson, who is celebrating her 30-anniversary as a member of Delta Sigma Theta. Educating new members on the precepts and ideals of organization, Nelson insists, is more strategic.

“Our chapter visited Rome Middle School recently. Young girls might never see a large group of educated professional successful Black women, if we didn’t exist,” says Nelson.

Indeed, members of Black Greek-letter organizations are still making positive contributions to society. Hundreds of Black fraternity and sorority members rallied in Jena, La., to protest for the Jena Six, and droves of Black Greeks descended on the city of New Orleans to assist in the city’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. On the campus front, the Delta Theta chapter of Phi Beta Sigma hosted its eighth annual “Sleep Out For Cancer Friday” in an effort to raise money for cancer research.

The impact of the fraternity experience has been anything but positive for Marcus Jones. He was slated to graduate this year, but since the hazing incident he has withdrawn from school and much of the real world. His father hopes that one day he can put this entire incident behind. “Marcus has to go on with his life,” he says.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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