Many of you may not know that I grew up in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. I was born in Mobile, Alabama and my family moved to Pensacola, Florida the summer before my freshman year in high school. I attended Booker T. Washington High School, the preeminent Africa-American high school in Pensacola.
It was the ‘70’s and the country was at the peak of desegregation in our schools, in so much as white parents were willing to allow their children to be bused across town to a historically-black high school. To my recollection, there were no major tensions or racial incidents at my high school and I remain in contact with a large number of my classmates today.
After high school, I matriculated to a United Methodist-affiliated college, Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham. Birmingham was known to be a hotbed for the civil rights movement in the ‘60’s. Birmingham-Southern has a long illustrious history and is also the place where the North Alabama Conference is headquartered. While I have fond memories of my college experience, one memory in particular dredges up some hurt feelings after more than 30 years.
Upon arrival on campus for my freshman year, all students were encouraged to participate in sorority and fraternity rush. The administration recommended rush to every student as a great opportunity to get to know fellow classmates during orientation week. I’d heard rumblings from other African-American students to not participate because you will not “get a bid.” For someone coming from a great experience at my high school and church in Pensacola, I wanted to see for myself.
The process included visiting several sororities and submitting the list of those that you were interested in. If your name appeared on their list, you received an invitation to come back the second night. Each night, the number of people invited back decreases as the sororities narrowed down the number of pledges they could accept. By the third night, you are considered one of the finalists and you could probably expect to receive a bid.
Up until this time, I was invited back to the sororities I wanted to be a part of. On that final day, I did not get a bid from either of the two sororities. I later learned from the members of the sorority that they were not allowed to offer me a bid to pledge their sororities because the alumni would withdraw their financial support if the chapter pledged an African-American. For the first time in my life, I was told I could not be a part of a sorority because of the color of my skin. Though I was warned, the rejection hit me in the pit of my stomach and for the first time I knew what racism felt like.
Emotions – that you can never be good enough despite anything you do or say; anger that my United Methodist- affiliated institution would allow discrimination to occur on their campus; and pity for every other African-American person that experienced what I have experienced. What do I do with these emotions? I could transfer to another college or work to bring about some form of justice for those who would come after me.
In the spring of the following year, I joined twelve other women in organizing a charter group for an African-American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, on campus. While Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is the first African-American Sorority in this country, chartered in 1908, this sorority became the first sorority open to women of ALL races on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College.