South Wrestles with Segregated Sororities ; at University of Alabama, Greek System Remains Divided along Racial Lines, despite Prodding by Faculty

Article excerpt

Christina Houston never set out to break a race barrier at the University of Alabama.

But recently, the curly-haired, mixed-race sophomore revealed that last year she had been accepted into one of the university's all-white sororities.

"Growing up in the North, this just didn't seem like that big of an issue," says Ms. Houston, whose father is black and mother is white. "I wasn't worried about my race, I was worried about getting into one of the sororities."

Her admittance is one of several modest signs of change in the Greek system here. But if integration began without fanfare here - up to now the only Greek system in the country to never admit an African-American - it remains highly controversial.

Nearly 40 years after Gov. George Wallace made his spirited "stand in the schoolhouse door" here against integration, the reality is that the Greek system across much of the South is as separate but equal as a Montgomery bus at the height of Jim Crow.

"The integration of the Greek system has hardly moved at all," says William Harvey, a minority-issues analyst at the American Council on Education in Washington. "This is not where we thought we'd be by now. What's happening is, we have a whole new generation growing up with segregation."

Nowhere is the challenge more evident than on this antebellum- style campus. The segregation issue flared recently as one student, junior Melody Twilley, said she hoped to become the first African- American to join one of 15 all-white sororities here.

Houston came forward to defend the system, and to say that the barrier had already fallen.

The university, for its part, can point to relatively high black enrollment - 15 percent of the student body - and largely integrated dorms and academic groups.

But Ms. Twilley - a top student who sings first soprano in the campus choir - was rejected by the sororities two days later. She alleged that race was the reason.

That allegation has only fueled longstanding faculty and administration frustration with the segregated Greek system, which they say offsets university efforts to improve its image as an academic powerhouse.

Faculty versus many alums

Over the course of a decade, the integration issue has become a tense tug of war between the faculty and the Greeks. The faculty has the strength of its convictions for an egalitarian campus. But fraternities and sororities retain the right of private assembly. What's more, the school has the world's largest alumni association, and many of them oppose integration.

Indeed, New South dictums clash mightily with Old South notions on this campus, which was largely burned by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War. In the mid-1980s, its ominous past flared up again when a cross was burned in front of a black sorority on Magnolia Drive.

While only a minority of students rush the frats each year, colleges across the US have been cracking down on divided systems.

Last year, the University of Georgia suspended a sorority for excluding a black woman because of her race. …