When two pledges touched off a racial storm, their sorority sister united
The civil rights movement was heating up in the South, but racial discrimination still wasn’t a pressing issue in 1950s Manhattan to this young black daughter of a doctor and a nurse. True, Terrie Williams Schachter, J59, was shocked by the “Colored Only” signs she saw on a childhood visit to Virginia. “I was a bright little girl,” she says. “I’d heard about those things, but it was not real to me.”
Reality would hit hard, however, in the spring of 1956, when as a Jackson College freshman she and another black freshman joined the Omicron chapter of the Sigma Kappa sorority. Weeks later, the sorority’s national office in Indianapolis sent a letter that revoked the Jackson chapter’s charter, offering no reason, saying only that the action was “for the good of the sorority as a whole.”
But the reason was clear enough to the Jackson women and university officials: Omicron had had the temerity to pledge two black freshmen—Schachter and Eleanor Turpin Murrell, J59. The charter of Sigma Kappa’s Cornell University chapter, which had also pledged a black student, was pulled at about the same time. A year after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Alabama, the sorority sisters at Jackson and their dean of women refused to accept the gentlemen’s—and gentlewomen’s—agreement for whites-only (and often only certain whites) fraternities and sororities.
Fifty years later, some of those Jackson alumnae look back at what happened with a mix of pride and amazement. Pride that they took a stand that mattered. Amazement that such a stand would even be needed. “The whole thing seemed silly to me then and it seems silly to me now,” says Schachter. But 1956 was a very different era, in the nation and on the Hill.
“We didn’t pledge these black students trying to be any kind of pioneer,” says Audrey Saperstein Shapiro, J57, who was president of the Omicron chapter in the fall of 1956. “We never anticipated being thrown out of the national sorority.”
Shapiro, who now lives in Cranston, Rhode Island, was studying in Paris when the expulsion letter came to Medford, but distance did not dull her outrage. “I feel that I can speak for the chapter as a whole when I say that we feel we have done what is right,” she wrote in an August 6, 1956, letter to Dean of Women Katherine Jeffers. “We pledged these two girls because we liked them and wanted them in our group and if the color of their skin is the reason for our suspension by the national council, then we are better off that our affiliation with them is broken.”
Change of heart
When she arrived at Jackson, Terrie Schachter wasn’t planning on joining a sorority. “My narrow impression was that sororities were a bunch of girls talking about other girls and were sort of snooty. I was much more interested in theater,” Schachter says. Nor did she see herself as a racial pioneer, though she was aware of the role race had played in her own family history. “My grandfather’s grandfather was an Irish lord who was sent to the Americas, where he hooked up with my great-great-grandmother, who was a slave.” One of their descendants, Schachter’s grandmother, graduated normal school as a teacher, but as a black woman could not find a job as a teacher and instead became a maid.
“My grandfather was a feisty man who was fired when he tried to get a union established at the Norfolk naval yard,” she says. He ended up becoming a Pullman porter—and a generation or two later, his twin nephews served as presidents of the union at Norfolk.
Schachter’s strong grades and extracurricular activities in high school led to her acceptance by all the colleges to which she applied. During her Jackson interview, she recalls being told that “there were Negro males at Tufts, but there had been no Negro females for years and years and they wanted more. I didn’t care—I was used to being in the minority. I never saw myself as a symbol or groundbreaker.”
She looked forward to college life in a double dorm room and was disappointed when she was put into a Richardson House single. “In retrospect, I don’t think they wanted to take a chance and give me a roommate,” says Schachter. But she was happy with her “big sister,” junior Gemma Cifarelli, who would have a major impact not only on her, but on Jackson College.
Cifarelli is described by Schachter and others who knew her as outspoken and active. “Gemma came to me and said that Dean Jeffers believed that sororities had discriminatory clauses, but since they were secret, she couldn’t do anything about it,” says Schachter. “If they did exist, the dean didn’t want them on campus. Dean Jeffers never spoke to me about it, and I felt no real strong pressure, but Gemma asked ifI would be willing to join a sorority as sort of a test case.”
Schachter remained reluctant, but “not because I was fearful. Sororities just didn’t fit into what I wanted to do.” Then, about a month after the conversation about joining, Cifarelli died in a car accident on the night of her junior prom. “That’s what made me join,” Schachter says. “I did it for her because she was so good to me.”
Even after the two women pledged, members of the Jackson chapter didn’t really expect repercussions. “Our general feeling was that there’s no reason we shouldn’t pledge them,” says Donna Bowen McDaniel, J56, of Southborough, Massachusetts, who was president of Omicron during pledging. “I think the subject did come up of whether the national could throw us out, but I said, ‘How could they do that in public? It would be so obvious.’ Famous last words.”
The expulsion soon exploded into headlines across the country. The Massachusetts Legislature conducted hearings into fraternity and sorority discrimination, concluding that Sigma Kappa’s national office had “engaged in discriminatory action which cannot be condoned” and praising the women of Omicron and university officials. “Tufts’ fine action should be an example to all,” the report said.
Sigma Kappa officials declined to appear at that hearing. (When reached for comment on this article, Sigma Kappa national president Barbara Wilmer said the sorority has been “unable to confirm why our Omicron chapter at Tufts University was closed in 1956. However, I can confirm that, today, Sigma Kappa both welcomes and appreciates women of all races, creeds, and national origins” and prohibits discrimination in its constitution.)
Leading the administration’s support of the Omicron women was Dean Jeffers. Letters in the University Archives in Tisch Library make clear both the times and the challenge Jeffers faced. While some letters supported her stance, other Jackson alumnae were far less kind. “If you pledge them, initiate them, and have them as social equals, the next step, of course, Miss Jeffers, is to have them as your sons-in-law, your husbands or your children,” wrote one member of the Jackson Class of 1924. “For goodness sake, stop and consider what letting down social barriers will mean.”
Jeffers replied in a letter:
. . . It seems to me especially important that young men and women of college age should have an opportunity to mingle in a group as variable as possible. The two young negro women who were in our freshman class last year made a real contribution to their classmates. I hope we shall always have foreign students, negro students, Jewish students, and those of oriental background mixed in with those who are regarded as “long-time American” here at Jackson College.
This does not mean I am an advocate of interracial marriage. It does mean that I believe in freedom of association, both intellectual and social, amongst the students at Jackson College. It is my hope that you will not think unkindly of your college nor of me for this belief.
No going back
Disenfranchised by their own national leadership, the former members of Sigma Kappa, including Schachter and Murrell (now deceased), formed their own society, Thalia. “We had this group of girls and we wanted to continue as something,” says Shapiro. “We didn’t want to use Greek letters but wanted something Greek. We discovered Thalia, the muse who presided over comedy and pastoral poetry. We liked the sound of it.”
Nevertheless, things were different when Schachter returned for her sophomore year. “The Sigma Kappa event made race an issue for me, maybe for the first time in my life,” she says. “There was fallout—certain people became less friendly.” But a positive change had come about. “Almost every sorority on campus had girls asking whether there were secret clauses,” says Schachter, who, after years in social work recently began a second career as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx. “All kinds of conversations were going on. And stories kept appearing in the papers. Ellie and I joked, because they kept referring to us as symbols. When we’d write to each other, we’d sign our letters, ‘Love, your symbol.’ ”
McDaniel, who is now writing a book about the historical relationship of Quakers and African-Americans, is proud of the stand taken by her and her sisters in the Omicron chapter. “This was the 1950s, the era of great conformity. It was a conservative time, yet Brown vs. Board of Education and Rosa Parks were happening. Maybe we weren’t quite fully aware, but we were beginning to say, ‘Wait a minute—this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be.’”
Phil Primack, A70, is a freelance writer who lives in Medford, Massachusetts.