You’d think it was 1954 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where stepping inside the secret chapter rooms of sorority rush reveals a pre-Civil Rights Movement mind-set. But last fall, a group of women—black and white—stood up to the backward traditions that have kept the nation’s largest Greek system segregated well into the 21st century.
Upon learning which sorority offered them a bid to join, pledges run from the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium on August 17, 2013, to their new homes. As in years past, none of the pledges were African-American.
In August 2012, Chrystal Stallworth, of Lawton, Oklahoma, packed her bags and set off for sorority rush at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She was the total package: 4.3 grade point average, premed, student body president of her high school, a cheerleader, and a volunteer for an organization that raises money to fight cancer. “I tried to make myself the all-around college candidate,” she says. During the first round, Stallworth, now 20, visited the 16 Panhellenic sororities that participate in formal rush and loved every minute of touring the multimillion-dollar mansions and meeting the women who could be her sisters. “I was giving it my all,” she says. “Trying to meet these people and be like, ‘This is who I am.'”
But after the first round, she was invited back to only four houses. Other similarly qualified girls were asked back to nearly every house—more than the 12 maximum they were allowed to visit in the second round. In other words, sororities were fighting over them, while rejecting Stallworth. After the second round, she was invited back to only one house and decided to withdraw from rush. “I was really upset,” Stallworth recalls. “It was probably one of the worst weeks I’ve ever spent at Alabama. It made me feel like, ‘What am I doing here? Nobody wants me?’ I felt like I didn’t belong, which is hard, especially as an incoming freshman.”
Weeks later, after classes had begun, Stallworth figured out what set her apart from other candidates: She’s half black. “When I got on campus, I started noticing when I would see all the girls in sororities, there were no minorities, or if there were, maybe a few Asian women,” Stallworth says. “I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have a best friend who is in a sorority at the University of Oklahoma. Her sorority is so diverse. … That was the point I realized, Whoa, people still do see race here.”
THE LAST STAND
With more than 8,600 members, the Greek system at the University of Alabama is the nation’s largest. At some universities, the Greek system may be an insignificant part of life on campus, but at Alabama—where one out of every four students belongs to a Greek-letter organization—Greeks rule the school. The bonds students foster at these organizations continue long after graduation, influencing job placements and even government elections. At the time Stallworth went through rush—and since the first sorority opened at the university in 1904—only one woman who was identifiably black had ever been offered a bid, or invitation to join, during formal recruitment. Her name was Carla Ferguson, and she pledged Gamma Phi Beta in 2003. (Another woman, Christina Houston, rushed Gamma Phi Beta in 2000, but it wasn’t known that she was half black until after she was accepted.) When Ferguson was admitted, Alabama’s then Panhellenic Association president Heather Schacht told The Tuscaloosa News, “We’ve made a big step today, and hopefully it is something that we can build on.” But in the years that followed, none of the 16 traditionally white sororities extended a bid to an African-American, despite the fact that 90 percent of women who rush are offered a bid and at least a handful of black women rush each year. Perhaps more black women would give it a shot, but the Greek system’s all-white reputation precedes it. “During orientation, someone advised us against rushing,” says Halle Lindsay, 20, a junior from Dayton, Ohio, who attends Alabama with her twin sister. “Someone told my mom sororities don’t really take black girls. Everyone from around here knows that, but being from out of state, you wouldn’t really know. … It was really confusing, like, just because I’m black I can’t be a part of this?”
Be True To Your School