Alumni, UO work to foster Black sororities and fraternities

Black Greek life has ebbed and flowed at the University of Oregon over the decades, but alumni of Black Greek organizations and university officials are working to change that.

Along with other university community members, campus supporters of Black Greek organizations are hoping to create a vibrant community that would help further a key UO goal of Black student retention. Damien Pitts, academic adviser and diversity initiatives specialist in the Lundquist College of Business, said that having more Black fraternities and sororities on campus would make Oregon more attractive to prospective and current Black students.

“If they were brought here, it would bridge the gap between campus and the community and give Black students a reason to want to come here and even stay here,” he said.

Pitts said he has been working to bring his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., back to the UO.

“It’s been tough to bring these organizations back,” he said. “It’s a pretty intense process. If we don’t have interested members with grades and money, we can’t bring chapters back. It’s been an uphill battle.”

The first Black Greek letter organization in the Pacific Northwest was co-founded by Nellie Louise Franklin, the first African-American woman to graduate from the UO. Franklin was not allowed to live on campus as she pursued her degree in music, but after she  graduated in 1932 she helped  found the Alpha Omicron chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. in Seattle.

The nine oldest Black Greek organizations are known as the Divine Nine, and all but one were established in the early 20th century. The first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., was founded at Cornell University in 1906 because of the racial discrimination and isolation Black students were experiencing, according to “The Divine Nine: A History of African American Fraternities and Sororities,” by Lawrence Ross Jr.  

Earlier this month, the UO Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life organized Black Greek 101, a virtual event where active and alumni representatives of Black Greek organizations talked about their organizations and connected with prospective members.

Kimberly Johnson, a UO assistant vice provost, attended Black Greek 101. Johnson is an alumni adviser to Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., which has an active chapter at the UO.

“I hope there is renewed energy so advisers around different groups will feel like they will have the support they need to be successful,” she said. “It takes a lot to keep membership interests.”

Johnson joined Alpha Kappa Alpha — the same sorority as Kamala Harris, Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King, among many other notable alumni — as an undergraduate at the UO in 1998. One of the reasons the sorority is active at the UO is because Johnson is here as its alumni adviser.

“Joining a Black sorority or fraternity is a lifelong commitment, and members continue to be involved with their chapters after leaving college,” she said, noting that members across the Divine Nine are heavily involved in service, social justice and activism.

She said the Divine Nine and their alumni are well represented in Portland but less so in Eugene. With the establishment of the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center on campus in 2019, she’s hopeful that Black students can “find their place” on campus, including learning about Black fraternities and sororities.

RoseMarie Beatty, a 1992 graduate, grew up in the Bay Area and decided to come to Oregon to study journalism. When she first got to the UO, she was struck by the lack of diversity. She pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. when she was a senior.

“It wasn’t a huge presence,” she said. “We didn’t have houses like other mainstream Greek groups. It was a select, smaller group.”

Beatty participated in the Black Student Union and attended sorority events in Portland and Las Vegas, activities that spurred her to create more opportunities for today’s students. She recently contributed the lead gift to the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center Scholarship Fund.

“I want to help others have the same great UO experience that I had,” she said. “As alumni, we should help open the doors for Black students.”

Jyhreh Johnson, the current president of the UO chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and a student in the Clark Honors College, said she too went through a period of adjustment after arriving at Oregon from Eunice, Louisiana, where African Americans make up about one-third of the population.

Johnson, a senior, is set to graduate in June with a double major in anthropology and linguistics and a minor in African studies. She said Oregon was “always my dream school,” but it took some adjustment living on a predominantly white campus. She said she’s one of just a handful of Black students in the Clark Honors College.

“In high school, I could see people who looked like me. It’s so much harder at the UO,” she said. “When I got to class, normally I’m the only Black person or person of color. It was an adjustment to make. I felt I had to prove myself more.”

That’s why she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“I needed to find my community on campus,” she said. “It helped me out a lot. When you join a historically Black Greek organization, you’ll be more connected to the Black community you didn’t know was there.”

Johnson joined the UO chapter in 2019. The chapter currently has four members, but Johnson is confident it is on an upward trajectory. But connecting with prospective members is more challenging in a pandemic.

“Normally, if we didn’t have COVID, we would do a yard show, stepping and strolling, and having a party. Obviously we can’t do that,” she said.

They also would be organizing Skee Week, their week of service, and hosting events to celebrate their founders and educate the campus community on heart health, financial planning, Black history and more.

“What has to happen is exposure, letting (prospects) know we’re here, we’re on campus,” she said.

Black alumni and other members of the UO community are joining together and working with the Divine Nine to help build a strong presence at the UO. More information and opportunities will become available throughout the year.

By Tim Christie, University Communications