Stepping up to Greek tradition

by Lee Mengistu

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One by one, representatives of each of UK’s African-American sororities and fraternities took the stage at the National Pan-Hellenic Council’s third annual “Stepping Through the Decades” event.

Hundreds of students filled Memorial Hall on Sunday night to kick off the university’s first event of Black History Month. 

In order of founding, each organization presented notable members that contributed to African-American history. Then, adorned in their signature colors, they performed their trademark step routines, many of which had been in the organization for generations.

The presence of the “Divine Nine” ­­— the nine original Greek organizations founded by African-American college students denied access to traditional Pan-Hellenic organizations ­— is historic in its own right. Though UK has chartered Greek organizations since 1865, African-American fraternities and sororities did not appear on campus until 1965, 16 years after the university became integrated with the admission of Lyman T. Johnson, UK’s first African-American student.

Johnson, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, was one of the many National Pan-Hellenic notable individuals honored by each organization, along with Minnijean Brown-Trickey of the Little Rock Nine, author Zora Neale Hurston, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, and actress Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award — the first of 35 in the Academy’s history.

The event gave students “the chance to come learn a little about the history they don’t necessarily hear about,” said Patrick Smith, NPHC president and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Vice President.

While the road paved by these historic leaders has been full of accomplishments, the panel discussion on campus race relations with representatives from each organization signaled that there is work to be done.

Panelists noted difficulties as a minority in the classroom, failures of the administration to address financial literacy and rape culture, and called for unity among the student bodies regardless of race.

Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority member Roszalyn Akins was among the small group of women who chartered their sorority’s undergraduate chapter at UK in 1975. 

Akins, the director of the Black Men Working Academy for African-American and Latino male students, said she wants to make sure her students succeed academically. Since the academy’s inception, the average ACT score among her students has risen from 16 to 23.

“I don’t want to just prepare them to get here. I want things to be so on this campus that they want to stay here and they graduate,” Akins said. “I hope that there’s a culture and community here where these young men feel welcome and that they are part of the school.” 

Zeta Phi Beta sorority member and communications senior Kelsey Harper, and journalism and political science sophomore Tanquaree McCadney are working with the administration to achieve just that. The two were among the group of minority students invited to President Eli Capilouto’s house last fall to address solutions to improve the university’s racial climate.

Harper and McCadney invited the audience to a town hall discussion Feb. 29 to discuss progress since the meeting.