It’s Thursday at noon, music is blaring and students are mingling on Rand Terrace, talking about classes and singing along with their favorite songs. All of a sudden, the song “Knuck if You Buck” comes on and student spectators form a circle, making sure they have a good view. A select few gather with their groups in the center, form a line and begin to move in synchronized motions. There are shimmies, hops and primping and preening in imaginary mirrors — depending on the chapter. There’s a stern grit on most of the students’ faces as they perform one of the most visual parts of the Greek experience. As the song comes to a close, groups slowly fall off from one another and return to their earlier conversations.
To most students watching, these performances are an unexpected pause from their midday Chef James meal. For the members of National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), however, performing their Greek stroll as part of Terrace Thursday, a probate or a yard show means much more.
“[Students] only see these kids that come out shucking and jiving and stepping on the Rand Terrace every once in awhile,” said Dr. Rosevelt Noble, Vanderbilt grad, senior lecturer in Vanderbilt’s sociology department and member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. “That’s a very small glimpse of what it actually takes to be a member of those groups.”
For NPHC’s members, the routines are a window into a rich history and tradition. Known by some as just “the black frats,” NPHC organizations are historically African American fraternities and sororities that were incorporated in 1930 nationally and have been on Vanderbilt’s campus for several decades. Each chapter has its own values, but the organization overall emphasizes community, scholarship, leadership and activism.
In providing a community of support for black students, especially at a predominantly white institution, Vanderbilt NPHC has given its members access to social, academic and professional networks. Members are dedicated to serving their local communities, with one of their focuses being improving the lives of black youths in both the short and long terms.
Currently, 36 students at Vanderbilt are members of NPHC organizations. The height of NPHC involvement was in the spring of 2010, when there were 84 NPHC members on campus.
The importance of history
In May of 1953, Vanderbilt admitted its first black student, Joseph Johnson, to the Divinity School. African Americans would continue to break barriers in the Vanderbilt community for close to two decades before the first NPHC chapter, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, was colonized on campus on March 1, 1971. Since then, seven chapters of the eight other national organizations of NPHC have been established.
The first black students present on Vanderbilt’s campus did not feel as though they were a part of campus. When NPHC organizations were started, the groups provided a way for some of these students to make their marks on campus, enabling them to create a legacy for black students that would persist beyond their four years.
Every Vanderbilt student who’s in these NPHC organizations can easily recite their organization’s founding dates, how many founders they had, when their chapter was chartered and with how many charter members, in addition to the dates they crossed and other facts. After giving this information, junior Kiara Rhodes, member of Zeta Phi Beta, offered even more.
“Do you want my founders?” she asked, ready to name each of the “Five Pearls” who founded her sorority in 1920. For many members, the history of the national organization — their mottos, their values, their founders — is central to what their fraternities and sororities mean to them.
NPHC organizations are a part of Black history, and the members of these organizations know that history, the challenges that the founders of these organizations faced, and the legacy that they are now building on.
Tony Harris (‘91), member of Omega Phi Psi Fraternity, Inc., reminisced on a march organized by a group of black students, a significant portion of whom were NPHC members, to deliver a manifesto that consisted of a list of demands for Vanderbilt from its African American community.
“Everyone was pulling in the same direction. Everyone was active and vocal and a part of that march and that effort,” he explained. “I count it as a success. The university did listen, and they made an effort, but that didn’t happen without the students.”
In 1996, NPHC galvanized the Vanderbilt community to get behind the crowning of a black homecoming queen, Jackie Lopardo, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
“You can’t have divisions in the black community to get a black homecoming queen,” Noble said. “You need everybody on board.”
The support to the black community did not end on campus for members of the NPHC organizations, who also took part in activism and community service outside campus.
“Our job is to build our community,” Karasheila Jackson, a graduate student in the Divinity school and member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., said. “If we don’t do it, who else will?”
“The history is not lying about the job that these organizations have done,” Dr. Frank Dobson, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the BCC said of how these organizations raise leaders.
“Whether it’s King or Nikki Giovanni, Jesse Jackson, Benjamin Mays,” he listed. “You see that so many of these people were leaders in the black community at least in part because they got nurturance and guidance and mentorship through NPHC organizations.”
Noble pointed out the presence of NPHC members the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Of the four men with King on the balcony, there was an Omega, an Alpha, a Sigma and a Kappa — all members of NPHC fraternities. King, himself, was an Alpha.
“Not just on campus have our great leaders come from NPHC groups, but in real life as well,” Noble said.
NPHC rests on how much its members value the history of the organizations. Some think, however, that this history isn’t understood or appreciated at Vanderbilt.
“We have a heritage. We have tradition. We want you to know what it is you’re building on,” Jackson said. “I don’t feel like Vanderbilt knows the history enough to support it.”
Jeff King, who began working at Vanderbilt 11 years ago, has been a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. for 34 years. He is currently the associate director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center. He believes this lack of understanding of the history of NPHC has led to a decline in its membership — even as the number of black students on campus has grown.
“It’s harder and harder to recruit more students,” King said. “Vanderbilt students are not interested and don’t have that sense of history or legacy.”
The number of black students in other Greek organizations now outnumbers the NPHC members on this campus, according to both Dobson and King, who have both worked at Vanderbilt for over 10 years.
James Crawford, Vanderbilt’s coordinator of Greek life, doesn’t believe that low numbers necessarily means bad news for NPHC. He cited the different criteria that factor into who can and cannot become a member that may be affecting membership levels, such as class level, academic standing, and other organization-specific requirements for membership. For example, some NPHC groups don’t allow first-years to join.
King echoed Crawford’s sentiment, saying that these numbers vary from year to year for many reasons.
“When you have an organization that has 16 members one year and four the next, it makes a lot of things more difficult,” King said. “It’s not necessarily the demise of NPHC, but of NPHC being from time to time on the brink.”
As Vanderbilt and other campuses push for campus diversity, some worry that black students are encouraged to be a part of other organizations rather than the historically-black NPHC groups.
“It’s sad and lamentable,” Dobson said. “Because we’re looking at strengthening some of our other organizations, maybe our NPHC organizations have been rendered somewhat invisible. Not on purpose, but just because we’re looking at inclusivity and diversity.”
Noble, Dobson and King also agree that there has been a shift in the type of black students who are coming to Vanderbilt. There are many students who may not have been exposed to NPHC at home and may not realize that it’s an option for them — and therefore come to Vanderbilt and gravitate towards other organizations that may be more visible.
“Part of me wonders if this is the effect of this idea of a ‘post-racial America,’” Nicole Malveaux, a graduate student working in the BCC who has been a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Inc. for 18 years said.
According to Dobson, increased exposure to options like NPHC for black students may have prevented the multiple cases of black students who rushed and dropped because they didn’t feel at home in the other Greek organizations.
Crawford explained that functioning with few members in a chapter has its challenges, but that students have prospered through strong alumni involvement and through interaction with the Office of Greek Life. There is a lot of pressure because members want their chapter to survive on campus, but also must manage the stress of being a student.
Jackson said predominantly white Greek organizations are limited in what they can and do offer for black students, meaning that although diversity may improve upon the outward image of predominantly white organizations and include more types of students, there may not be outlets for black members to cater to their mental health within those spaces.
“What about my mental health?” Jackson said, “What about my spirit? What is that organization doing for my community?”
Looking forward, Dobson proposed working more closely with students of color who come to campus to better educate them about what NPHC can do for them. Also, he said increasing exposure, support and access to funds could allow the Vanderbilt NPHC chapters to grow, and would give them more of an opportunity to excel even further.
“Students who come to Vanderbilt are not necessarily looking at Greek life as something that’s important to them, and feel that the white organizations are just as viable for them as NPHC, which is something that we didn’t think about 30 years ago,” King said.
“We have several examples through history that when integration of something happens, the black equivalent of that group suffers tremendously,” stated Noble.
These are the people who might need to be introduced, because they may not have been exposed to what NPHC stands for and what it does for students before they came to college, according to Jackson.
“Our students need it, and frankly our institution needs it,” Dobson stated.
For its members, NPHC has for decades provided opportunities for growth, leadership and a sense of community — all that founded in traditions and a rich history of inspiring individuals. Although the NPHC community may be smaller than it has been in the past at Vanderbilt, that doesn’t mean that these pockets don’t shape the Vanderbilt experiences of some individuals.
“I cannot imagine what it would have been like attending a ‘Vanderbilt’ 40, 50 years ago as a black woman, in a segregated southern city like Nashville,” Malveaux said. “I don’t think sometimes that the African American students understand that they are standing on the shoulders of giants.”
READ PART 2 HERE: Chapters mean to them, from chapter culture to steps and calls — as well as their visions for NPHC’s future.
Photos courtesy of Rosevelt Noble and The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center