Band of Brothers: Exploring the relationship between WU black men and historically black fraternities

| Director of Diversity Initiatives

Band of Brothers is an investigative series that examines the experiences of black men in Washington University’s historically white fraternities. In Part 1, we examined the role of personal connections in influencing pledging, the impact of the decision to rush a white fraternity, and how race did—or did not—impact the brothers’ current experiences. Today, we’ll dive deeper into what prevents brothers from engaging with black Greek organizations and the cultural differences between black and white fraternities in St. Louis.

Malik Stewart, a junior in Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated, always knew he wanted to be an Omega. His mentor in high school was also an Omega, and he embodied the kind of man Stewart wanted to be. The decision to join was a no-brainer.

“I didn’t really think about any other fraternities. Like I didn’t really research. It was just like, okay, this is the one for me. It was a feeling,” Stewart said.

Stewart met an Omega brother off campus who was able to connect him with the other fraternity brothers. From that point on, he was plugged into the membership intake process.

The motto of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., is “Friendship is essential to the soul.” This forms the basis of his interactions with his brothers, and with the St. Louis community in general.

“I’ve become a better person, a better friend. In general, just learning values and just being around other black men who share my goals in life and also seeing black men that are in positions that I want to be in. So it’s definitely helped me and encourage me in just every way,” Stewart said.

It never occurred to Stewart to consider rushing a historically white fraternity.

“That’s not my cup of tea,” Stewart said. “I don’t think that being surrounded by a group of white men will better me…maybe it could help me in the corporate world, once it gets to that point, but as far as socially in college, I don’t really [think so]. And especially at [Washington University,] I don’t really share their experiences and I don’t really have a desire to be involved with them too much.”

Stewart doesn’t intend to sound rude, he says. “We care about different things so we have different ways of life. Like everything’s different.”

Joining a white fraternity is a decision that wouldn’t have sat well with his family, especially his grandmother. “That wouldn’t work for her,” Stewart said. His friends and family were extremely supportive of his decision to join Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., and Stewart later found out that he had several extended family members who were also Omegas. This lineage reaffirmed that he’d made the right decision. Stewart currently serves as the President of the Omicron Sigma chapter of the fraternity.

Stewart’s early intention to become an Omega contrasts with the much more loose decision-making process experienced by the brothers in Part One. The common thread with engagement in both black and white Greek organizations is personal connections. For all of the brothers we spoke to, it was the individuals who made the first point of contact that influenced how they engaged with fraternities on and off campus.

Stewart’s navigation of the black Greek community in St. Louis is unique compared to other Washington University students in black Greek organizations. According to Mike Jones, a fellow Omega and Saint Louis University alumnus who crossed in the Omicron Sigma chapter in the spring of 2009, Stewart’s engagement in St. Louis’s black Greek community stands out from the typical pattern of engagement compared to other Washington University students.

“I would say the unique thing also about Wash. U. Greeks is what’s different from Greeks from other campus is that most of the Greeks here are not first-generation Greeks…their parents are Greek and they were exposed to Greek life,” Stewart said.

Because Stewart’s immediate family is non-Greek and he didn’t meet his Omega relatives until after he crossed, he didn’t grow up learning how to navigate the Greek system. Jones, who is also a student engagement manager in the Gephardt Institute, noted that Stewart’s path reflects his dedication to becoming an Omega.

“What I see with guys like that is they have aspirations to be Greek and may or may not know what organization they come from but they go seek out those opportunities on other campuses,” Jones said. “I think for a lot of guys, that’s the road that they take and it’s the road less traveled because they don’t have front seat access,” Jones said.

Stewart is currently one of two black men on campus involved in National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations. The NPHC is an organization of nine historically black fraternities and sororities. The limited engagement of Washington University black students in city-wide fraternities is a continuous pattern of historically low engagement.

Currently, 11 Washington University undergraduate students represent three of the nine NPHC organizations. According to Campus Life, there is one member each in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated has nine members, as of fall 2018.

Over the past several years, less than 20 students annually have been involved in NPHC chapters, according to Campus Life. Generally, at least one or two students are represented in the city-wide chapters each year, though there tends to be more representation in sororities than in fraternities, according to Jones.

In the fall of 2015, there were 13 total students who crossed NPHC chapters. There were 11 students in the fall of 2016 and 20 members in the spring of 2018. Generally, at least one or two students are involved in a black fraternity each year, according to Jones. Off of the top of his head, Stewart could list all of the former Washington University Omega brothers back to 1993. Jones can do the same for both sororities and fraternities.

“It’s like every three years or so,” Stewart said.

“It’s not foreign for me to know Malik who crossed nine years after me or know an Alpha or a Delta who crossed nine or 10 years after me because of the small lineage,” Jones said. “A unique experience about the city-wide chapters is that I can…know some younger people by name or at least by face and be able to make a connection.”

Despite the consistently low involvement in NPHC chapters, Jones described the University’s commitment to providing space for black Greeks on campus.

“Wash. U. has traditionally been the only campus who was open to letting Greeks host events who weren’t a member of Wash. U. And so oftentimes you would have people or organizations who didn’t have representation from Wash. U.,” Jones said.

Because of the importance of personal connections in engaging with black Greeks, recruitment efforts are greatly impacted by limited representation of the Divine Nine on campus.

“It would definitely impact [recruitment] inevitably because you don’t see those people on campus, you don’t interact with those people every day. If you see them at all, you just probably see them in passing or at a distance.”

And from what we heard from brothers in white fraternities, seeing their brothers on campus is a key aspect of fostering the brotherhood that has played a large role in their college experience.

The culture of black and white fraternities vary widely and there are a variety of terms that shed light on those differences. NPHC organizations are commonly referred to as the “Divine Nine,” and were founded as organizations intended to support and uplift black men and women. The Greek organizations were established between 1906 and 1963. Most were founded at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), such as Howard University and Morgan State University. Three were founded at predominantly white institutions including Cornell University, Butler University and Indiana University. In St. Louis, there are five fraternities and four sororities with members from schools within the greater St. Louis region. Each has their own unique culture, history and traditions, but all have a strong commitment to scholarship, leadership and service.

Rather than “rushing,” prospective brothers engage in the “membership intake process.” While rushing a white fraternity is more public, with events scheduled on Facebook and prospective members publicly expressing interest, a brother wanting to join a black fraternity must be discreet. For example, one wouldn’t announce on social media or in public that they were interested in joining a black fraternity. Telling a current brother in public that you were interested in joining their fraternity is considered out of line. It’s through a series of private conversations that one becomes connected with black Greeks. The details of membership intake are not widely known, nor are they discussed publicly.

Reuben Hogan, a 2017 Washington University alumnus and member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., noted the importance of discretion in the membership intake process.

“These organizations spend a lot of time curating their image and spend a lot of time trying to manage who comes in their door and who doesn’t,” Hogan said.

By publicly associating oneself with a fraternity you’re not yet part of, an individual can impact others’ perception of the fraternity itself, according to Hogan.

Once intake is complete, a brother “crosses,” a term used to describe one’s full initiation into an NPHC fraternity. The new line, equivalent to a pledge class, is revealed at probate, an event that introduces new brothers and sisters to the Greek community.

The Black Greek experience is often referenced in popular culture and can be found in films like Spike Lee’s “School Daze, Stomp the Yard” and the controversial Netflix original film “Burning Sands.” Beyonce’s Coachella Festival performance this February borrowed heavily from Black Greek culture, even featuring Greek letters and “stepping,” a form of dance which incorporates claps and stomps along with precision of movement, utilizing chants and song in unison. In effect, brothers and sisters use their entire bodies as instruments to create these unique movements and sounds. Just as with white fraternities, the stereotypes seen in popular culture are not fully reflective nor representative of black Greek organizations. What we know for sure is that the only way to have a full understanding is to engage with the Divine Nine organizations themselves.

Cultural differences can be found within the black Greeks themselves. According to both Jones and Stewart, some NPHC members see Wash. U. brothers as different from brothers at other St. Louis area schools.

“In my opinion, you could tell the difference between a Wash. U. Greek than you could a SLU Greek or UMSL Greek or Harris-Stowe Greek because they just in many ways had different life experiences and they were motivated in different ways, I would say, than students who were from other chapters or other schools,” Jones said.

“About Wash. U. generally they think it’s just an amazing school. About the black people generally, they think they’re weird,” Stewart said.

After Stewart crossed, his brothers noticed that he was a bit more reserved and less social than “typical Omega.”

“I think people definitely come with a certain idea about who I might be or who I am,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t say it gets in the way because they ended up like actually talking to me, engaging with me. But I would say that people do come with an expectation of who I am or who I should be.

Both Stewart and Jones acknowledge that these differences aren’t a bad thing. They’re reflective of the difference between the culture of Washington University and other institutions.

“Wash. U. students as a whole, you guys come in highly motivated, know what you want to do…you’ve already been coached in some ways on how to get the resources that you need once you get to college,” Jones said. “I think it’s as simple as going to the places and the people where you feel the resources are for what you need, whether it be socially or academically.”

As a staff member, Jones notices the tight-knit community of Washington University Greeks who rely upon each other for support.

“I think it was more important for them to establish brotherhood and sisterhood amongst Wash. U. Greeks because of the rigor of Wash. U. and those are the people that they would be hanging out with,” Jones said. “I think that in terms of just adjusting to the culture of Wash. U. and dealing with systems of whatever it may be at Wash. U., it was important for Wash. U. Greeks to be on the same page.”

Stewart has grown closer to other Washington University students who are members of black Greek organizations in St. Louis.

“Me and some of the [Alpha Kappa Alphas] have gotten close since I crossed. Me and Jaylen [Johnson] share experiences since we’ve crossed,” Stewart said. “Throughout the Divine Nine, I think you definitely have some kind of common bond because it’s something that kind of joins you all because you all are black Greek[s] and you all kind of go through the same thing.”

Washington University’s campus culture—the same one that allows black men to join white fraternities with relative ease—is perhaps the same culture that creates a certain characterization of black Washington University fraternity brothers as “different” within the city-wide Greek community.

While 637 individuals are in Interfraternity Council fraternities, only two are in NPHC fraternities. The stark contrast is not just attributed to the population differences between black and white students at the University. Statistics like these beg the question: Why aren’t more Wash. U. black men joining black fraternities? Jones primarily attributes the limited black male engagement in St. Louis city-wide chapters to a general lack of awareness.

“Just the sheer amount of people who may or may not know…Greeks exist. They may have seen people walk around with letters on it, but the, but the city-wide thing is as a foreign concept,” Jones said.

Stewart attributes it to both a lack of interest and to connections with those in white fraternities.

“A lot of black men I do know that join white fraternities, a lot of them are athletes,” Stewart said. “So maybe they just surrounded by that group and then that group joins a fraternity and they say, ‘oh, might as well do it too’, but maybe like those that’s been their environment like growing up and that’s just what they’re comfortable with.”

Ultimately, Stewart doesn’t see black men in general expressing interest in joining an NPHC fraternity.
“The black men at Wash. U. just really aren’t interested. That’s really what I chalk it up to,” Stewart said. “They don’t seem interested in that lifestyle or that kind of life or joining or anything like that.”

The brothers we interviewed in Part One cited several reasons for their decision not to pursue a black fraternity. In addition to the lack of awareness about the NPHC chapters, the logistics of navigating the city-wide Greek community posed a significant barrier to entry.

Emmanuel Engermann, a junior in Sigma Chi, was familiar with black Greeks coming into the University, and his best friend from Baltimore is a pledgemaster within an NPHC fraternity at another institution.

“The exposure of course does play a role in my perception of what I thought of black fraternities and white fraternities and stuff like that. I don’t know. I just kind of wasn’t into the idea of Greek life in general, but if there was going to be a thing it was going to be a black fraternity,” Engermann said.

Ultimately, a city-wide chapter means traveling around St. Louis on a regular basis to see one’s fraternity brothers. For some brothers that’s a decision that they cannot, or are not, willing to make.

“I was very interested in it but…it’s easier if 80 of my close friends are right next to the Athletic Center in the middle of campus rather than having to go see them. It just wouldn’t be as close of a brotherhood, I guess,” junior Emmanuel Engermann said.

“That’s one of the reasons I didn’t rush a fraternity off campus. It’s because it’s off campus. I don’t have a car. I don’t have the means of going to places like that. And it would definitely come up in my decision, but I don’t think it would stop me from rushing,” sophomore and Sigma Chi brother Anthony Williams said.

Junior Miles Charles, a brother in Tau Kappa Epsilon, the lack of NPHC fraternity presence at Washington University led to hesitation on pursuing black Greeks further. At the time he rushed, Charles remembered seeing three brothers on campus who could represent the fraternities.

“They definitely weren’t necessarily as accessible,” Charles said. “I think I definitely would have considered it. I definitely would’ve at least gone out and gotten information about it if it was on campus.”

Senior RJ Doro, a brother in Sigma Nu, became aware of black fraternities in the middle of his pledge process. At that point, he’d already invested time into connecting with white fraternity brothers, and opted to continue investing his time in fostering those relationships. It would be too much, he said, to restart in another organization.

“It might’ve changed my opinion if I’d known about them before I got here or something like that and then I might’ve put more consideration into it. But it was already kind of in the process and I was like, I’m comfortable making the decision with places I’m already looking at that,” Doro said.

While all of the brothers enjoy their current experience in their respective white fraternities, nearly all acknowledged that they would have further considered black fraternities. What’s clear is that the interest in black fraternities is here. It’s a matter of bridging the connection between the St. Louis NPHC organizations and the prospective members at Washington University, specifically first-generation Greeks who are unsure of how to navigate the black Greek community, especially one as unique as the St. Louis chapters. What remains to be seen is how to increase awareness of NPHC organizations while maintaining the integrity of their membership intake process. Further discussion of this dynamic and its role in shaping the involvement of black men in NPHC fraternities will come in Part Three of this series.

Additional reporting by Matthew Wallace

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct locations and dates of the founding chapters of some Divine Nine Greek organizations.

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