The Color Line in Fraternities

A noted paleontologist, ALFRED SHERWOOD ROMER, who graduated from Amherst College in 1917, is Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. A member of Phi Kappa Psi, he was head of the corporation which owned the chapter house at Amherst, and therefore the alumnus who stood most directly in the crossfire which developed between the local chapter and the national fraternity when the Amherst undergraduates pledged a Negro for membership in the fraternity. Here is what happened.



DURING the year just past I have found myself deeply concerned with the affairs of a group of fine youngsters who, acting from high motives, were unexpectedly embroiled in a major social problem. Under vicious attack, for a time they were dismayed and confused; but they came through and, I think, won their final trial.

For me, it all began with a phone call from Amherst in March of ‘48. I happen to be president of a corporation owning a fraternity house there —a fraternity which was at that time a chapter of a national organization known as Phi Kappa Psi. The rushing season, during which freshmen are pledged to the various houses, was in full swing, and on the phone was a member of the Phi Psi rushing committee. They were thinking, he said, of pledging a Negro boy, one Tom Gibbs. Did I approve? What would the alumni generally think?

Personally, I told him, I would approve, and I felt sure that at least a fair percentage of the alumni would also approve. But I felt equally sure that there would be some who would oppose the action. This was a pretty radical step, even if in line with college policy. Better think it over carefully, and get plenty of advice. They did; although they could not then imagine all that was to follow. Tom Gibbs was pledged to Phi Psi membership, with the general approval of the college community.

Fraternities are an old-established part of the college scene. The fraternity house gives the boys a home, friends, an adventure in group living and coöperative effort. My own experience is, I think, typical of that of many Amherst men to whom their fraternity was a source of strength. I came to college with a partial scholarship and $50, and not much more support in sight. I was not, obviously, a potential athletic star, nor did I show much evidence of becoming a campus “big shot.” But the fraternity took me in, found me jobs, loaned me money, gave me friends to buck me up when the going looked rough. Without its aid I could not have completed college.

In the thirties there was some deterioration in the Amherst fraternity situation, and there were complaints on the part of the faculty against them as being anti-intellectual and centers of a type of life with definitely lowered moral standards. This complaint was to some extent justified. But actually the fault lay, it seems to me, not so much with the fraternities as with the character of the student body as a whole and hence, basically, with the admissions policies of the college. To Amherst, as to most colleges in those days, there was admitted a considerable percentage of “nice boys” who, whatever their family standing, were no students — boys of the raccoon-coat-and-hip-flask variety. The presence of these gentlemen changed the social and moral picture of student life for the worse. Since the fraternities were the major expression of this life, the blame was laid at their door; but the same condition would have developed even if there had been no fraternities.

During the war, the Amherst fraternities were quiescent, and in this lull future college policies were discussed and reported upon by alumni and faculty groups. In both reports the majority vote was against continuation of the fraternities. Final decision lay with the trustees of the college, who had to take into consideration the fact that the fraternities were responsible for lodging half the college body in their houses. The trustees decided to allow the fraternities to continue, but threatened to terminate their existence if reforms were not made and lived up to. Strict rules were laid down for fraternity-house conduct, and a committee of undergraduates and alumni was formed to see that these rules were enforced.

On the matter of membership qualifications the general thesis of the trustees was that any man good enough to be admitted to Amherst College should be good enough to be admitted to one of its component social groups. Here, however, their ideas could not be completely reconciled with the fact that selection of membership is a basic feature of the fraternity, and insistence that a group accept a student not of its own choice would in itself have ended its existence. Here the trustees compromised. They worked toward the democratic goal, however, in various ways. They insisted that the number of members admitted to the fraternities each year be high enough to include most of the college body, and themselves sponsored a fourteenth house, in which boys not bid to one of the thirteen fraternities would be able to enjoy a somewhat comparable social life.

Racial intolerance was a puzzling problem. The trustees desired that racial barriers be eliminated, having, of Course, anti-Semitic bars particularly in mind. Here, however, their only ruling could be merely a negative one — namely, that no fraternity could continue at Amherst if its charter had any limitations on membership based on race or religion.

Under these regulations, fraternities were reestablished at Amherst when the war closed. On the whole the experiment appears to be a successful one. Conditions have not been perfect, but there has been a sharp swing back from the “collegiate" days of the thirties to a state in which the college body — and consequently the fraternitiesis closer to the older and healthier ideals of earlier decades. There has been a further breakdown of racial barriers. Nearly every house contains Jewish members, voluntarily elected as a matter of course in line with a reasonable college policy.

Into this scene a year ago came, as a freshman, young Thomas Gibbs of Evanston, Illinois. I have only met Tom briefly, but every account of him is the same. A good student, but not a spectacular one. A good cross-country runner, but not a star athlete. A modest, friendly, likable boy; a naturally popular one, and, as a result, the first member of his class to be elected to the student council. A democratic spirit was abroad in the student body. If Amherst democracy meant anything, if the ideals of the Amherst fraternity system were something more than a string of noble words, here was a lad who belonged.

It was a departure from tradition, nevertheless, and only three of the thirteen houses felt strong enough to consider seriously bidding him. Two, I am told, came within a vote or so of the unanimous action required, but could not quite reach agreement. Phi Psi finally agreed unanimously to pledge him, after considering the situation from every viewpoint. Faculty and administration opinion would, of course, favor them. The student body, they felt, would back them—which it did most heartily.

The social picture, house parties? Smith and Mount Holyoke girls when asked saw no objection. Amherst alumni? Fraternity houses are owned by corporations of which the alumni are the majority members, and alumni support is of major importance. Time was too short to take a poll, but Phi Psi hoped that Amherst graduates would approve their action or at least adopt an attitude of tolerant forbearance (which the great majority of them have indeed shown).

There remained one further important matter. What of the national organization of which they were a part? What was the legal status of the matter? What was the ethical background? They searched the fraternity constitution and by-laws and found that the selection of members was specifically stated to be the business of the local group alone. Nothing gave the national organization any right to interfere.

Character and ability, said the constitution, were the true criteria for membership. The Phi Kappa Psi ritual, like that of every fraternity, was full of encouraging and noble phrases about brotherhood and democracy. And what could be more heartening than this declaration by the man who was then president of the national organization, Winston R. Tale of Kansas City ? “Too often fraternities overemphasize conformity to the demands of a tight little social world, create fake standards of excellence, cultivate a snobbish exclusiveness. . . . Phi Kappa Psi strives to avoid these tendencies, both bv teaching and example. It insists that personal character is the first concern, both of the organization and of the member. . . . Phi Kappa Psi seeks to assist men to lift their eyes to wider horizons, to become tolerant, to question all things in the light of reason; and finally to develop the moral courage to follow those paths that have been illuminated unto them and without regard to external consequences.”

The way seemed clear and open; Tom was pledged. And note the spirit in which it was done. These boys were no set of professional liberals campaigning for social equality. Just a group of very decent youngsters, living up to the principles which animated their college and (they fondly imagined) their fraternity. Here was a boy they liked, whom they wanted to be one of themselves. It was as simple as that.


THE news of the pledging of Gibbs presently reached national fraternity circles in the Midwest, and the troubles of the Amherst chapter began. Little more than a month later, there arrived a deputation from the national fraternity headed by an ex-president, Harry S. Gorgas, a New York lawyer. Its object was to persuade the chapter to withdraw the pledge to Gibbs. The boys refused.

Both morally and in fraternity law, they were on firm ground. The deputation withdrew - pointing out, however, that the Amherst chapter would encounter strong opposition at a national convention of the fraternity to be held in Colorado in early July. The undergraduates, they said, had better poll their alumni to sound out their sentiments on the matter, and state their case by circular letter to the fifty or so other chapters of the fraternity.

Here was trouble, but not, it then seemed, too great difficulties. The alumni were polled —some 500 graduates stretching back over half a century. They overwhelmingly supported the chapter — 90 per cent for Gibbs, many enthusiastically. Letters were sent to inform the other chapters, and in June a delegation of the boys — live undergraduates and two young graduates - set out for Estes Park, Colorado, eager to discuss the matter in brotherly fashion with the executive council of the fraternity and the convention delegates. But at the convention, the matter was treated not as one for discussion but one to be hushed up and summarily disposed of. The Amherst delegates were met with threats and peremptory commands. Most active and vociferous in opposition were alumni groups from the Middle West, particularly Chicago.

The delegates had expected to plead their case with the executive council of the national organization, and, if necessary, plead it on the convention floor. No discussion, no plea was allowed them; when they arrived, they were presented with a fail accompli. The council had already voted unanimously that Gibbs could not be initiated, and, should the Amherst representatives show signs of recalcitrance, there was ready for introduction on the convention floor a resolution to revoke their charter and summarily throw the chapter out of the fraternity.

The delegates were staggered by such treatment. This action was quite illegal, as members of the council were willing to admit in private. But whether this action was legal or not, it could be overridden only by a two-thirds vote of the entire convention. Discussion with other delegates soon convinced the Amherst men that such a vote could not be obtained.

The Amherst men were in a most difficult position - one for which they were not at all prepared. They did not feel they had the right to place the chapter’s very existence in jeopardy; so, after lengthy discussion with some of the national officers, a “compromise" was agreed upon. Definitely, said the national representatives, Tom could not be initiated, although the chapter might, if it wished, keep him as a sort of permanent pledge and treat him as a “social member” of the local group (whatever that might mean). If - and only if—the delegates agreed to this stipulation would the resolution to cancel the Amherst charter be withdrawn. The delegates pointed out that they could not, of course, say in advance what the decision of the chapter would be; but they agreed to work for this “compromise” and promised that, should the chapter not agree, there would be no attempt to initiate Gibbs without due notice.

Within a day the national officers broke the agreement by the further demand that Gibbs be depledged at once; nevertheless, the delegates faithfully worked for the “compromise” in discussions back at Amherst.

One point of dispute regarding this “compromise" cropped up in later stages of the controversy This had to do with the word blackball. One negative vote is enough to prevent election to a fraternity, and it was later the contention of certain national officers that the Amherst delegates had agreed to blackball Gibbs. But as far as I can discover, the word was not mentioned in these talks, and the delegates had no idea that such an outrageous promise was implied — a promise which, if made and carried into effect, would, of course, have effectively hamstrung the chapter and prevented any further discussion or action.

The convention was addressed by Mr. Gorges, who said: —

“May I just take a moment of your time to speak to you in two capacities, first as a Phi Psi, and second as a member of the Executive Committee of the National Inter-Fraternity Conference ? I am very sure that everyone in this room knows that the eyes of the entire fraternity world have been focused upon our sessions here during the past four days and that the possible decision which might be reached here has been awaited with fear and trepidation by everyone interested in the progress and development, reputation and standing, of the American college fraternity system.

“At this time at Attleboro, Massachusetts [where the fraternity pin industry is centered], Dr. Gilbert Meade, Chairman of the National Inter-Fraternity Conference, is presiding over a meeting of the Committee and a group of about forty of the most active and prominent fraternity men in the country, and it is going to be my privilege at the close of this meeting to send him a telegram which will read as follows: —

“‘Controversial matter settled in friendliness and most fraternal manner.’ I am very sure that many of those fraternity men in Attleboro will feel incredulous at the ability of Phi Kappa Psi to settle such a delicate and dangerous subject in such a fraternal manner.” (Applause.)

The national officers regarded their victory as won, the upstarts from Amherst quietly and effectively crushed. A circular sent out after the convention staled smugly: “Before the convening of the Grand Arch Council, a great many alumni were advised that one of our chapters had pledged a Negro. Thanks to the fearless, diplomatic leadership of President Winston R. Tate and the able assistance of his Executive Council associates, the problem was settled at the G.A.C. without discussion on the floor of the Council,”


BACK at Amherst, the matter was far from settled. When the news spread among the boys as they reassembled at the end of the summer vacation, there was worriment, fear, anger. What was their proper course? They had wanted — and still wanted — Tom as a brother. The clear course of honor was to make him one of them. But that almost surely meant their expulsion from the national fraternity, and what would result ? Could they continue to exist if that were done? For one thing, the house in which they lived belonged to the Phi Kappa Psi alumni of the chapter. What would the attitude of their alumni be, if they were expelled? Further, what were their prospects if they became a local society without the prestige of national affiliation? Lack of national connections, it was feared, might reduce this strong chapter to insignificance.

These worries were very real to the undergraduates, and for two weeks at the beginning of the fall term the discussion continued. All were for Tom; no one favored throwing him over. But, for the time being, the house membership seemed irrevocably split between two courses of action, weighing honor and expediency. Half the group, afraid of expulsion, favored an attempt to work within the framework of the national fraternity for the acceptance of Tom, making him a “social member” meanwhile. The other half insisted that internal reform was hopeless, that “social membership" was a meaningless sham — either you were a member and a brother or you were not — and that the only honorable course was to keep their pledged word, even if expulsion resulted.

Vitally concerned, of course, were the other youngsters from Tom’s class who were pledged to the fraternity. Their approval had been asked and given before Tom was pledged. They now got together, the fifteen of them, without Tom, to discuss the matter. All agreed that they still wanted him, and most of them signed a pledge that they would not be initiated unless Tom were loo.

Letters were again written to the alumni; the alternatives— equally unpleasant - were placed before them, and they were invited to give their advice. Nearly 100 interested graduates wrote back promptly. With expulsion in view, the opposition had increased to 20 per cent. Two or three letters of this group were rabidly anti-Negro (“Brother Romer, would you want YOUR DAUGHTER to MARRY a NEGRO?”), but most of the letters in opposition were well-reasoned conservative arguments to the effect that though acceptance of Tom was in theory a fine and democratic action, it was not a wise one in the present state of society.

The big fact was that 80 per cent of those who wrote favored Gibbs. A few suggested that we at least try the “social membership" compromise. A good two thirds of the writers, however, insisted that Tom should be taken in as a full brother; stated that social membership was a sham, and that honor and decency demanded that we stick to our guns, no matter what the outcome. That was what the chapter unanimously decided, for itself, to do.

As a forlorn hope, the Amherst chapter made an attempt to solicit support from other chapters before informing the national officers of its stand. Little support was found. A few replies were favorable, some bitterly opposed. Other chapters, even if somewhat sympathetic, were obviously afraid to express a real opinion. Answers ranged from one received from a Pennsylvania institution, nominally of collegiate rank, whence the brethren replied “In short, you STINK,” to the dignified statement of the University of Mississippi men that they felt it the privilege of any chapter to choose its own members— a reply especially distinguished as coming from a group so located geographically.

The hand of the more ardently anti-Negro alumni groups would seem to have lain heavily on the undergraduates. As an example of such alumni feelings I cite a document circulated by the Johnstown (Pa.) alumni of Phi Kappa Psi, when the matter had become public: —

The undersigned members of the Johnstown Alumni Association can find no words equal to the deep indignation and justifiable wrath that they feel towards the inconsiderate, wilful, dishonest, oathbreaking undergraduate members of Massachusetts Alpha. We demand that each and every one of these mischievous imps be disgracefully expelled from the fraternity, that the charter of Massachusetts Alpha Chapter be irretrievably revoked, and that alumni trustees, who may hold title to the Phi Kappa Psi House at Amherst, be requested to bodily eject these ungrateful outcasts. . . .

We reiterate what we said in our petition to the 1948 Grand Arch Council and suggest that the Attorney-General take immediate steps to have the fraternity’s Constitution amended so that our chapters are not only traditionally, but constitutionally, forbidden to initiate negroes and restricted to initiate only members of the white race. The amendment should also forbid religions which do not respect the oath of secrecy, adherents of faiths and isms which are known to be antagonistic to the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the great majority of our present undergraduate and alumni members, and adherents of all political doctrines which would destroy our nation’s system of democratic government and free enterprise. Furthermore no Chapter must ever hereafter be permitted to suspend the unit rule for admission to membership. All these restrictions should be carried out under penalty of expulsion and charter revocation.

A malignant growth has been found in our fraternity. Prompt surgery may remove the cancer, but whether entirely or not depends on our skill and foresight now. Certainly a deep and ugly scar will remain. Complete recovery at this time is too much to expect. The damage done to our fraternal body is extremely severe, perhaps fatal.

In early November a letter giving the national organization fair warning of the Amherst chapter’s intent had been prepared but not yet sent, and replies from other chapters were still being received. Then a wandering reporter for a Boston newspaper discovered the story and broke it prematurely. No further delay was possible; the national officers were informed of the intention of the chapter to initiate Gibbs in the near future unless action were taken against them by the general fraternity.

The reaction of the national officers was not unexpected. The executive council was obviously enraged by the refusal of the chapter to accept humbly the punishment given its delegates at Estes Park, and further inflamed by the high praise given the Amherst group by the newspapers of the country. The chapter was promptly suspended by Howard L. Hamilton, newly elected president (who is Secretary of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Ohio Slate University), and his action was confirmed by the executive council. Shortly there arrived imposing legal documents summoning the chapter to trial at a council meeting to be held in Chicago during the Christmas vacation. An extra vicious touch was the demand that the five undergraduates who had attended the July convention be also brought to trial.

Obviously, the proposed “trial" would be in the nature of a kangaroo court, with the expulsion of the chapter, and presumably of the individual members, as a foregone conclusion. A feeling of revulsion against this hocus-pocus at first inclined the chapter, and the boys especially concerned, to resign from the national organization as the simplest way out. This, of course, would play squarely into the hands of the executive council. Further consideration by undergraduates and alumni led to the decision to go through with the forms of a defense and put the onus of expulsion, and the resultant obloquy, directly on the shoulders of the national officers.

A short time before the trial, I received a letter from the father of one of the boys concerned. He told me that he had been visited by a neighbor, Mr. Harry Gorges, who had expressed regret over the sad situation in which these lads were placed and had suggested that the father write me to ask that I use my influence to get the chapter to withdraw voluntarily; in which case, he indicated, the charges against the individuals might be dropped. This cold-blooded attempt to use the five as hostages was enough to rouse one’s adrenalin to a high rate of output.

The kangaroo court was held, as scheduled, in a Chicago hotel during the last days of December. One of the chapter’s graduates (a lawyer) and two of the boys concerned presented a defense as a matter of form. The officers of the executive council, m conclave assembled, acted as the prosecution, judges, and jury, and would even, in questions of procedure, resolve themselves gravely into a court of appeals. As scheduled, the Amherst chapter was thrown out of the national fraternity. But on the question of expulsion of the individual boys, the officers compromised by suspending them for a twoyear term.

With this pitiful farce of a trial, the name of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity disappeared from the Amherst campus. Reorganized as Phi Alpha Psi, the Phi Psi house continues, as before, with the respect and admiration of the college community.

In recent decades, the fraternity politicians active in the affairs of many of the national organizations have tried to strengthen the formerly loose-knit ties between the chapters, and by levying stiff taxes upon the undergraduates they have built up elaborate and powerful national administrations. These not only have tended to interfere actively with the conduct of individual chapters, but have further attempted to interfere with the administration of the colleges themselves.

This attitude is well illustrated in a “Report on the State of the Fraternity" presented at the Estes Park convention: “Relations with college and university administrations are generally favorable, but in a few instances the old ‘Squeeze-play’ is on, and vigilance and extreme effort on the part of the alumni and national officers of Phi Kappa Psi and other fraternities will be required to save these chapters. We believe that much can be done to change the anti-fraternity attitude of these college administrations; or, failing in that, to change the personnel of such administrations.” (My italics.)

The rituals of Phi Kappa Psi and I imagine of other national fraternities are filled with fine moral and ethical precepts which reflect the sincere beliefs of the founders of these organizations. But when, as in the present instance, it is clear that those in national control of fraternities are in direct opposition to the ideals of the undergraduates and indeed of our democracy, the question is naturally raised — and not on the Amherst campus alone—as to whether these national organizations shall continue.

As for myself, my term as a chapter officer expires in June, and I shall retire to my peaceful occupation as a vertebrate paleontologist. I do so, however, with the warm feeling in my heart that in this torn world there exist educational institutions with high ideals, and young men with principles and the strength to defend them. I salute Amherst College and my brothers in Phi Alpha Psi, winners in their battle with reaction and with their own fears.