Unearthing The Archive: Segregation, Greek Life, and The Politics of Liberalism
Content Warning: racism, racial slurs
On October 26, 1950, the Tufts Weekly—which would later become the Tufts Observer—published an op-ed by Richard Goodwin entitled, “An Ideal Thwarted.” Goodwin described a “malignant, hypocritical system of fraternities” at Tufts, calling attention to racial and religious segregation occurring within Greek Life. Goodwin’s op-ed created a campus-wide debate. For rest of the 1950-51 school year, and continuing into 1951-52, students filled the opinion pages, letters to the editor, and cartoons in the Weekly with their thoughts on university-sanctioned segregation and discrimination on Professors Row.
Some students believed that Greek Life would inevitably change. In 1951, Bob Zinman wrote in the Tufts Weekly, “present trends clearly indicate that these [discriminatory] clauses will soon be eliminated.” Students debated desegregation in an open forum sponsored by the “Liberal Union” on March 21, 1951, and the campus was rife with debate on the subject.
It seems like much of the conversation was in vain. On October 21, 1955, almost five years after Goodwin’s original op-ed was written, the Weekly published an article specifying identity-based restrictions of certain fraternities. Sigma Nu, a fraternity that remained on campus until 2015, was deemed “anti-negroid”; Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), which later disaffiliated to become ATO of Massachusetts, only allowed “white Christian men.”
This story doesn’t start or end with a fight between Goodwin and disgruntled fraternity brothers. In March 1951, Dorothy Avid Doubleday took an even more radical standpoint in an interview with the Weekly, saying, “However, to abolish the traditional stupidity of discriminatory clauses is not enough to ameliorate the situation…the act must be practiced by admitting qualified students of the human race into any fraternity or else abolish fraternities all together.” In 1941, long before Goodwin, a Jackson alum named Delilah Reimer-Rubin challenged Anti-Semitism in the Greek system. Leonard Carmichael, then President of Tufts, responded to Reimer-Rubin, writing, “After talking with Dean Bush and some other student leaders I am convinced that there is absolutely no trace of anti-Semitic feeling in our student body.”
In 1962, 12 years after students both called for and protested against an end to segregation in Greek Life and 21 years after Carmichael’s insistence that Anti-Semitism did not exist on the Tufts campus, Greek Life still practiced racial and religious discrimination, yet the Tufts Trustees stated that Tufts “looks forward to the time when no Fraternity or Sorority on the Tufts campus will be operating under such provisions.” However, the Trustees’ statement reflected a greater pattern of believing in the inevitable improvement of problematic institutions without insisting on dramatic structural changes. The Trustees said while they didn’t support discrimination in Greek Life, they wouldn’t get involved in stopping it. The next year, administrator Alvin R. Schmidt wrote to Chi Omega sorority, “Any charter, bylaw, written or oral rule or practice that implicitly or explicitly that would bar a candidate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin … shall be implemented and enforced by the college administration.” The Letter then gave Chi Omega a list of various racial and religious backgrounds, asking them to check off which identities (including “Moslims” “Negroes” “Orientals” or “Hebrews”) were barred from joining.
The Tufts Digital Collections and Archives contains student letters, Tufts Weekly articles, and notes from the Board of Trustees that all demonstrate that the University knew about, sanctioned, and continued the practice of racial and religious segregation within Greek Life in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We found documents all protecting the structure of Greek institutions that attempted to ensure no Muslim student, Jewish student, and/or student of Color would live on Professors Row.
While this was the norm at many universities throughout the nation, most striking was the particular way Tufts defended the segregation that occurred. The defense of segregation in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, was not one of the explicit racism we might assume to be associated with the time. There were no swastikas or white robes with pointed hoods or claims of racial superiority to defend segregation within the Greek system—that we know of and/or were documented in the Archives.
Instead, segregation in Greek Life was enacted mostly by liberal students and administrators who cited their own set of progressive values, while simultaneously upholding and maintaining racial and religious segregation. Archival research reveals that segregation in the Greek system was letters to nationals asking for a change in policy, but then sitting idly by while nationals maintained the policies students claimed to oppose. Segregation was holding campus-wide meetings to change the culture of fraternities and worries about the erosion of free speech. Segregation was “civil debate and discourse” about an issue that should never have been up for debate. Segregation was stating desires to reform Greek Life without suggesting any tangible structural change.
The Tufts Archives showcased a history of segregation in Greek Life that White students during that time thought were a set of good intentions and progressive values, but were enacted as a maintenance of White Supremacy.
While the racism found within the Archives on this subject wasn’t explicit, it was nonetheless there. The difference is that liberal racism does a better job at going unnoticed by White people, particularly within Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) like Tufts. This type of liberalism is dangerous in that it can often prevent those in power—and yes, even those who call themselves liberal or progressive—from seeing the injustices and violence they are enacting. And this type of oppressive liberalism didn’t go away when Greek Life was finally banned from participating in religious and racial segregation. It still lives on our campus today.
One major defense of segregated Greek Life was that discrimination happened everywhere on campus, not just within fraternities and sororities. In an initial response to Goodwin’s op-ed, also published in the Weekly, two fraternity brothers, Tim Mulholland (’51) and George McGovern (’52), addressed the racial and religious discrimination within the fraternity system saying, “There is discrimination inherent in any process of selection, but a reasonable discrimination such as this does not constitute prejudice.” They went on to say, “We do admit that there are some practices carried on by a fraternity which seem inconsistent with the ideal democratic system. There are men whose fundamental beliefs coincide with our own but whose racial background does not, and those who cannot be admitted because of physical limitations of space. These are problems…which are not only the burdens of fraternities but those of colleges, civic organizations and the government itself.” Their response, like many published in the pages of the Weekly, was that racial discrimination happens everywhere, not just within fraternities, and it doesn’t seem right to single out the Greek system.
Another way Tufts students sought to defend segregation was by blaming their national chapters. Responding to Goodwin in a Tufts Weekly “Letter to the Editor” written in 1950, then ATO President, Richard Tenney, said, “We are in the unfortunate position of being members of a predominantly southern fraternity which naturally excludes negroes.” Tenney explained that discrimination is a problem with ATO nationals rather than the Tufts ATO chapter. He asserted his chapter wanted to take Black members, but simply couldn’t because nationals would not allow it. And that “to withdraw from the National [organization] would hurt Tufts by destroying the fraternity system here.” Tenney seemed to believe he was doing a good thing by not desegregating his fraternity, and was actually helping his university. Tenney ended his letter by saying, “Until discrimination is officially outlawed, we are doing our best, don’t you think?” Like Mulholland and McGovern, Tenney thought these decisions were largely out of his control—meaning he was unwilling to make significant structural changes—and believed that he was doing his best to make reforms within the system, despite those reforms still maintaining racial and religious segregation.
Goodwin had a response for Tenney. He said, “I do not think that ATO is doing its best or anywhere near its best. It can only be a lack of moral courage which compels this fraternity or any fraternity to remain within a national organization that compels them to obey standards of discrimination in which they do not believe. A withdrawal from the national would not weaken Tufts, but rather strengthen its position as an educational institution which seeks to practice the ideals it professes.”
Greek Life members also used the few students who were racial and/or religious minorities and a part of Greek Life as a way to excuse racial and religious segregation throughout the various University chapters. Tenney said, in regards to ATO’s laws, “our constitution is worded such that some Jews were unable to join. Yet recently I was very excited to tell a Jewish ATO transfer that he was sincerely wanted here by all members.” And in the same piece where Zinman said time is needed for change, he also said, “Last fall at least four houses rushed members of other religious and racial groups and at least two rushed students of a different color. This year two more Tufts fraternities in national conventions eliminated discriminatory clauses from their charters. True, there are still a few houses whose hands are tied by National restrictions.” Zinman believed that sanctioned systemic discrimination was fine, as long as certain chapters allowed one or two racial and/or religious minorities into their ranks.
What’s more, members of Greek Life often used their philanthropy work to justify segregation. Tenney spoke of the work his fraternity did with the Black community in Medford, despite the fact ATO did not allow Black students into their chapter. Discussing the purpose of this charity work, Tenney said, “We sincerely hope that our [philanthropic] action will set a precedent. If each fraternity would undertake such a project each semester or even each year, it would then eliminate some of the valid criticism that has been directed at fraternities by outside observers.” Tenney’s hope certainly came true. All fraternities on campus now do engage in some of sort of philanthropy work. But it doesn’t “eliminate some of the valid criticism” of Greek Life. Greek Life can be both philanthropically inclined and deeply rooted in racism and White supremacy—to view these two things as mutually exclusive would be to misunderstand the history of Greek Life at Tufts.
In a follow-up op-ed, Goodwin responded, “We do deny, most emphatically deny, that a university which accepts democratic values, a university which attempts to instill the traditions and ideas of democracy into its students, has any right to stand by approvingly and permit a basic perversion of these tradition and ideals to go unchecked.” Goodwin believed if the university claimed the liberal and democratic values it espoused and prided itself on, it couldn’t then allow such discrimination to persist.
Something of note is that none of the student perspectives found in the archives explicitly defended segregation or argued that White people are racially superior. In order to embrace a discriminatory fraternity system while holding on to their liberal values, Greek Life defenders went to lengths to obscure the systematics of Greek Life by describing the ways that segregation happens everywhere, talking about philanthropy, tokenization, and blaming discrimination on nationals.
The parallels between the claims of good intentions and progressive values embedded in discussions surrounding Greek Life in the 50s and the conversations happening now on campus are striking. Today, Tufts students still talk about being at the will of nationals, or how those calling for the abolition of Greek Life are unfairly blaming Greek Life for problems that exist everywhere. On March 30, 2017, when discussing the protests students conducted against Greek Life, Alpha Omicron Pi Chapter Alumni Advisor Katherine Tapper told NBC News, “It seems like Greek Life is a scapegoat for issues that are not unique to Greek Life but prevalent throughout the Tufts University campus.” Tapper’s defense of Greek Life is noticeably similar to those employed in the 1950s. And the similarities don’t end there. Students today often excuse problems with Greek Life with the claim that they serve philanthropic causes. At the same time, they often tokenize gay members to mask their issues with queer people and queerphobia.
Recognizing the parallel liberal values in past and present defenses of Greek life does not mean equating individuals defending the existence of Greek life with those defending segregation in Greek Life; instead, these parallels work to complicate seemingly liberal or progressive values themselves. Examining the liberal language of the 50s in relation to the language of present day Greek Life reform can help us understand how discussions of progressive values become diversion tactics when those conversations do not center around and result in substantial structural change. The language of liberal ideals masks the agency of Greek-affiliated students to act on their own values—students can drop Greek Life altogether, or even leave their national chapter.
When we comparatively view the arguments defending the Greek system in the 1950s and the defenses of today, it’s hard not to be moved by their obvious likeness. And the comparisons of today and the 40s, 50s, and 60s prove two important points. First, liberal values don’t make Tufts special. Our liberal values conceal, rather than eliminate, White Supremacy. Second, a meaningful conversation about Greek Life is not a conversation about values, intentions, hopes, and dreams. It’s a conversation about structures and logistics. A real conversation about structure involves discussions about the end of dues, whether women should be able to host parties, how they can refuse the gender binary, what it means that national organizations lobby Congress to protect sexual assailants, and much more. If these changes seem too hard to enact right now, it may be worth remembering that is exactly what they said in 1951.