A People's History of Middlebury College

a history of Middlebury College centered on marginalized voices, social/political mobilizations, and periods of struggle

A People's History of Middlebury College

Anti-Racist Activism & Racial Discrimination in Middlebury Fraternities

In the mid-twentieth century, Middlebury College fraternities were often the sites of both anti-racist activism as well as discrimination based on race and religion. Fraternities at Middlebury College had become an integral part of the Middlebury experience for young men at the college. By 1941, the percentage of men involved in fraternities had risen to 80% with over 800 young men involved in the fraternity system.

Because of the tremendous power fraternities had, they also had the potential to use that power to make a political stance. One fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi, did just that. Alpha Sigma Phi (ASP/ΑΣΦ) was originally founded as an offshoot of the Commons Club, not affiliated with the fraternity system. In 1911, however, it began the process of becoming a nationally and locally recognized fraternity.

ASP, like the other fraternities on Middlebury’s campus, had discriminatory membership policies that prohibited those from the “negroid and Hebrew races” from pledging. In 1941, Robert E. Reuman (’45) petitioned the national leadership of ASP (of which the Middlebury chapter was a part of) for permission to initiate a Jewish student. Despite his efforts, however, Reuman was told, “only the convention of all the chapters could change the [pledging] ritual” (Stameshkin).

During World War II, most ASP men (along with most other men at Middlebury), left the college to serve. During the war years, most fraternity activities were put on hold. In 1945 when several ASP members came back from the war, they attempted to reactivate the ASP chapter at Middlebury College. This group of men, including Charles J Parker (’47), John David Hunt (’49), George Booth and ASP Alumni Secretary Gordin Miesse (’20), met with Ralph Burns, the executive secretary of ASP national. In 1946, the ASP chapter was reinstated at Middlebury College.

In the Fall of 1946, Burns visited the college and was thought to have given “implied permission” to Middlebury’s ASP chapter to initiate a Jewish student. That year, Middlebury’s ASP welcomed a Jewish student into their pledge class. However, in 1947, a revised ritual from national headquarters stated, “Our requirements rigidly exclude members of the negroid and Hebrew races” (Stameshkin).

The Middlebury chapter was outraged. They attempted to change the discriminatory policy by reaching out to the other ASP chapters around the country. If there a majority of the chapters wanted to change the policy, national would have to oblige. However, by a vote of 41-26, ASP chapters voted to keep the discriminatory policy in place.

Middlebury’s ASP responded to the national vote by polling their own alumni. They concluded that 29 out of the 44 Middlebury ASP alumni voted in favor of breaking from the national chapter because of their membership requirements. In May of 1947 with a unanimous vote of all members that were in the chapter at the time, the Middlebury chapter of ASP suspended its active affiliation with the national organization. With the vote, Alpha Sigma Phi changed it’s name to Alpha Sigma Psi. Alpha Sigma Psi became the first local fraternity to break with its national over racial and religious discrimination.

Inspired by ASP’s refusal to let their money dictate their political stance, Middlebury’s Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) rejected the application of Phi Kappa Tau to establish a fraternity on campus because they only allowed white members. The IFC also added an amendment that prohibited the future establishment of any fraternity with written discriminatory clauses. Additionally, on November 7, 1949, the IFC stated that all fraternities on campus would have to work to get their national chapters to remove their discriminatory membership policies by the fall of 1952. By that time, a judicial board would decide if frats that still had discriminatory clauses in place had made “sufficient effort” in tried to have these clauses removed.

For this brief moment in time, it seemed as if Middlebury’s fraternities were going to lead the charge in anti-racism and anti-religious discrimination. However, within a few years, IFC policies started to soften. By the fall of 1952, there were still 4 frats on campus that had discriminatory clauses. Yet instead of pushing these frats to break from their national organizations like ASP did, the IFC found that the four frats had all made “satisfactory improvements” and were allowed to remain on campus.

The IFC continued to make excuses for these four frats, becoming more and more lenient in their “recommendations.” It wasn’t until 1960 that the last frat, Alpha Tau Omega, removed its “white Christian clause.”

ASP led the charge against discriminatory membership clauses. Middlebury’s ASP tried to change ASP national policy, but it soon became clear that the national organization was not ready to make that change. Rather than wait idly and continue to receive funds from their national organization, ASP decided to break from national because they believed it was the right thing to do. They let their beliefs determine the future of the organization, not money. ASP inspired the IFC to push other fraternities on campus to do the same. Although ASP’s action did not immediately inspire all frats on campus to break from their national organizations, they can be seen as a site of major resistance that Middlebury can learn a great deal from today.

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