The Columbus Free Press


Part 59

Black fraternities and sororities

by Thomas C. Fleming, Nov 4, 1998

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, I became very close to some college students from Los Angeles. When I was home, most of our time was spent on 7th Street in Oakland, the main drag for black-owned businesses in the city, where many black professionals had their offices. A large number of young black men from Los Angeles -- 400 miles to the south -- seemed to hang out there.

The three schools in California with the most black students were the University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA; the University of Southern California, USC; and the University of California at Berkeley, which is right next to Oakland.

UC Berkeley had 18 or 19 thousand students throughout the 1930s, and the highest number of blacks in the student body was 105, in 1935. That didn't increase until after World War II. UCLA was almost as big as Berkeley. It had the most blacks of any campus, and recruited more black athletes than any other school.

USC, which is also located in Los Angeles, is the largest private university in the state, and it had a lot of black students. Stanford University, about 30 miles south of Oakland, was another very large university. But Stanford never had many blacks, because the tuition was too high, and it did not recruit black athletes at all.

Quite a number of blacks from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area were attending Sacramento Junior College, a two-year school located in the state capital. Either they did not have good enough grades from high school, or they felt the four-year schools were too big, and they needed to go somewhere they could become adjusted to college-level work.

The most important social organizations for black college students were the fraternities and sororities. At UC Berkeley, there were two black fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi. Alpha, the oldest of the black fraternities, was founded at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in December 1906, and gave rise to many other national black fraternities and sororities in the first quarter of the century. Berkeley also had two black sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta. Besides holding dances, parties and meetings, they made contributions to the black community.

Insignia for Alpha Phi Alpha, the first inter-
collegiate Greek-letter fraternity established
in the United States for black men.
UC Berkeley was the only school in Northern California with black fraternities, so students from other colleges and junior colleges -- in San Francisco, Sacramento and other places -- were pledged by the Berkeley chapter. I was pledged by the Alphas when I was a student at Chico State College, 170 miles from Berkeley.

There were no black frat houses on the West Coast then, because the students didn't have the money that the white students had. Another difference was that the members of black fraternities were just as active after they graduated as they were when students. A lot of the graduates were professional people -- doctors, lawyers, dentists. That was the top of black society, and the fraternity and sorority events were the most prestigious social affairs in the black world.

The graduates were more active than the undergraduates; they kept it going. Now they've got both graduate chapters and undergraduate chapters, but in those days, there was just one chapter of each in any area.

Every time USC or UCLA came up to Berkeley to play football, a lot of black students from Los Angeles would come. The frats or sororities would always have a party after the game at night, at the student union on the Berkeley campus. When Berkeley played football at UCLA and USC, the blacks from Berkeley would go down there, and the frats had parties there too. We knew about the black athletes in Los Angeles, just like they knew about the ones up here. Other college sports usually had black members too, but the football games always attracted larger audiences than baseball, basketball or track.

All the black students knew about these parties; they had been going on for a long time. The dues-paying members invited other people; that's how I got in. I went to every one of the parties they had in Berkeley, and to some in Los Angeles, because they were the best affairs that I knew I could attend.

I heard that some of the white fraternities at Stanford and Berkeley pledged black students, but most blacks at Berkeley and USC and UCLA stayed together. I think they felt more comfortable with other black students.

There were exceptions. You'd see interracial couples walking around campus at Berkeley in the 1930s. Nobody paid any attention to it; they figured it was their business. Some members of black fraternities had white girlfriends, and they took them to the events. You'd see maybe one or two white people there. Everybody knew them, and they seemed to feel welcome.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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