City Paper is not for tourists
The first time the Qs beat Joe Snell, in late January 1993, they caught him completely by surprise. When he got his formal letter of invitation to join the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) Chi Delta chapter of the black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, Snell was told to dress up in a suit and tie and report to a house in Gaithersburg for an “interview.” A few weeks earlier, during the official “smoker,” when prospective pledges learned about Omega Psi Phi (they call themselves the “Qs” because the Greek letter Omega looks like a Q), the president of the chapter and its alum adviser had told Snell that “hazing was a thing of the past.”
But in Gaithersburg that January night, Snell learned that the frat’s single most important lesson was never to let an unsuspecting pledge know what was going to happen next. Until then, he hadn’t realized that joining “the Sons of Blood and Thunder” would involve shedding some of his own blood.
In a trial for the civil suit he eventually brought, Snell testified that after he and his six line-brothers arrived, they were brought inside and blindfolded—he could hear and feel dull thuds as other pledges were “body-slammed” into a wall. When his turn came, he was also knocked down. When the battered pledges finally had their blindfolds removed, they were made to kneel down and were interrogated with a bright light shining in their eyes. “If your mother, an Omega man, and Jesus Christ were drowning, who would you save?” Snell was asked. “I’d save my mom, then the Omega man. Jesus can save himself,” he answered. He was rewarded with a beating, but actually there was no right answer.
According to his testimony, one of the Qs decided that Snell, who is very light-skinned, needed some more color; he placed a radiant space heater half an inch away from Snell’s face. Snell later testified that he could feel his skin begin to sizzle. Later on, when the group was driving back to College Park, Snell was congratulated on how well he had done in the interview.
For the next two weeks, there were no beatings, but pledges were forced to obey what is artfully dubbed “the schedule.” The schedule was designed to keep the pledges jumping from dawn to dusk: Jogging, push-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises ran from 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Between 7:30 and 8, the pledges brought the fraternity brothers breakfast and drove them to classes. They busied themselves with their own classes and course work throughout the day, and then the chauffeuring and feeding process was repeated in the evening. The real action started about 11 p.m., when the line-brothers were forced to memorize fraternity history or learn the chapter’s step-show moves. The drills and rehearsals, Snell testified, could go on for hours.
Snell recalled in his testimony that the beatings started up again on a Saturday morning during Valentine’s Day weekend. The brothers tried to give Snell what they called “a third tit” by using a hammer to repeatedly hit him in the chest hard enough to break the skin and build up enough scar tissue to look like another nipple. On other nights, Snell testified, he was flogged on his back and stomach, hit in the head with a crab mallet for giving wrong answers about Omega history, and beaten with a chair leg and a horsehair whip.
Snell testified that he quit after five of his seven line-brothers had suffered severe injuries. One received a fractured ankle and an injured cheek; another suffered a ruptured spleen, a blood clot, and a collapsed lung; a third received a ruptured eardrum and a cracked rib; another had a concussion and a neck injury; the fifth sustained a chest injury after being hit with a rock. Snell said in court that he suffered stress-related stomach problems and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, including horrific nightmares and daytime flashbacks of the Omegas assaulting him. “I began to have powerful feelings that I had to hurt myself to get away from these people,” he said. Finally, he called a suicide hot line, which advised him to get help. He spent a week in George Washington University Hospital, from March 17 to March 24, 1993, being treated for depression and suicidal thoughts.
As a subterfuge to bring a halt to the hazing, Snell pretended to be the father of a pledge and called Omega’s national headquarters in Washington. After he received no response, he pretended to be a “concerned Christian female,” and on April 10, 1993, he wrote a three-page letter to the UMCP campus police, detailing the injuries and charging that the Omega pledges were too exhausted to do their academic work.
The UMCP police received the letter on April 13. After a careful investigation, they issued an internal report on the “allegations in reference to Omega Psi Phi” to the Office of Judicial Programs on June 8. In addition to confirming the injuries, the UMCP police also reported that 24 Omegas had hazed pledges with acts that included beatings, “dropping hot wax on pledges necks,” and “forcing pledges to eat vomit, drink from toilets, and eat dog biscuits.” They also reported that the Omegas had “[required] pledges to use the following [six] separate medical facilities to avoid detection of a pattern of injuries.” The police also noted that all seven pledges had been forced to live in one room on campus, and that all pledges wrote papers, did homework, and took class notes on behalf of their would-be brothers.
The jig was up; the underground hazing process had been brought to light. Twenty-four Qs were eventually arrested and released on bail. On Oct. 22, 1993, college officials banned the chapter from the UMCP campus for five years, in an agreement with the fraternity’s national office.
Fraternity members who are familiar with pledging rituals will tell you that the process creates bonds that last a lifetime. It can also create equally lasting scars. Some of the most devastating evidence of the physical and psychological consequences of hazing came out during Snell’s civil lawsuit against the fraternity in 1997.
After it became obvious that Snell had sent the letter to the campus police, Snell testified, the Qs met him behind a shopping center in Greenbelt and told him he could still become a member if he were willing to tell police that his injuries had resulted from accidents or football practice. He refused, and from that point on, he said, he was treated like a cheerleader who had turned in the captain of the football team for rape. He said that he received anonymous threatening phone calls and that fraternity brothers kicked at his door in the middle of the night. “I couldn’t understand why I was being treated this way for doing the right thing,” Snell testified. He dropped out of school and lost the rest of the semester.
On June 29, 1994, right before a criminal trial was scheduled in the case, Snell and his family agreed to drop charges against 23 Q s in return for their promise to apologize to Snell and pay his medical bills and lost tuition. Sixteen were required to serve 100 to 150 hours of community service. Prosecutors noted that Snell’s fellow pledges were “recalcitrant and uncooperative,” denying that they had been injured and even that they had had any association with Omega Psi Phi.
But when Snell tried to return to UMCP, in the fall of 1994, he was continually harassed and treated as a pariah on campus. He was ostracized to the point that university officials agreed to let him take part in an unusual transfer program and earn his Maryland degree from Moorehead State University in Minnesota.
In 1995, he initiated the civil suit against the Omegas’ national organization and some of its local officers, saying they knew—or should have known—that pledges were being put at risk. The trial took place on July 8, 1997, and Snell was eventually awarded $375,000. It was a sad end to a story about a kid who had only been anxious to find friends and be part of an important black tradition.
Nothing in the run-up to pledging had prepared him for the brutality that followed. Snell had hung out with the Qs for about year before actually pledging, or going “on line.” The Qs became his close friends. They sent him down to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the campus where Omega started in 1911, to learn the fraternity’s founding principles: manhood, perseverance, scholarship, and uplift. He found out that becoming an Omega would put him in the proud company of two of America’s greatest black celebrities, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan. The Qs also taught him the all-important “Lesson of Discretion”: that Omega Psi Phi was a secret society whose lore and traditions were never to be disclosed to outsiders. But some of those hallowed traditions had warped and twisted into a pledge process that put his life and sanity at risk.
Common sense suggests that a person should walk away the minute he found out that his initiation involved physical abuse. But the pledge process creates its own logic and reason, in a hermetic world where groupthink takes over. Still, when people started going to the hospital, you’d think a pledge would bail out. That’s exactly the question John Clark, the attorney who defended the Omega UMCP chapter, raised in Snell’s civil trial. “Why didn’t you just leave the first time they hit you?” Clark asked several times, pointing out that Snell had studied karate and that his father was a D.C. police officer who could have protected him.
Snell’s answer seemed odd. “I felt confused,” he replied. “I didn’t have time to think about it. I was trying to obey the schedule.”
Actually, Snell’s father, Officer Joseph Snell, who works at the Metropolitan Police Department’s 5th District in Northeast D.C., had suspected that something was wrong early in the pledge process. But when the elder Snell asked his son how he had gotten a black eye, he said he had bumped into another pledge doing exercises. In several hazing violence cases, pledges have acted like battered women who tell friends they “walked into a door,” initially trying to cover up their abuse.
The elder Snell says the fraternity’s inculcation rituals are designed to make sure recruits conform to group demands: “The pledge process Joe went through closely parallels tactics described by
people who have later been deprogrammed from religious cults.”
In the months before his son actually pledged, Snell explains, the Omegas warmly welcomed him and took him along to parties and on trips. Gradually, he invested significant time and money in the group, helping fraternity brothers move furniture and buying them endless amounts of food and beer. By the time he went on line as a pledge, virtually all of his associates were Qs or pledges—he had withdrawn from many of his other friends. While the actual pledging process was underway, the elder Snell says, his son was subjected to constant exercise, social isolation, and food and sleep deprivation.
The father says that powerful messages were used to convince the pledges to tolerate the abuse heaped on them. Just like religious cults, black fraternities justify hazing within a moral and philosophical framework. “Joe and the other pledges were always told that the point of the hazing was to see if they could become the kind of leaders black folks need, the kind who could live up to Omega’s ideals of perseverance and manhood,” the elder Snell adds.
The allure of the black fraternity cannot be overstated. Black fraternities and sororities claim approximately 800,000 members, current and alumni, culled from the forefront of black culture, positioning them as some of the most important and influential African-American institutions in the country. They are an immense force for good in many of the communities they occupy—each year they offer countless scholarships and conduct thousands of service programs. Famed black Greeks include Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, and Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1998, Kappa Alpha Psi alone boasted of six members of Congress.
Black fraternities have a primacy in black culture that goes beyond white fraternities’ role in white culture. Black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs) have alumni chapters that are totally separate from their undergraduate chapters and offer an active, lifelong network of professional connections and personal support.
These institutions create powerful connections long after college is a distant memory. My father and my father-in-law are Omegas, and their allegiance to their frat has been well-rewarded with lasting friendships. When a hit-and-run accident on the West Coast left my oldest brother dying in a coma, my father knew he could fly cross-country to the hospital and find solace in the home of a frat brother he hadn’t seen in decades.
The promise of those enduring relationships is part of what draws students to pledge. At UMCP, the Qs may be suspended, but the powerful pull of black frat life was very much in evidence at a March 8 open house that Kappa Alpha Psi’s Theta Theta chapter sponsored in St. Mary’s Hall. The brothers told their potential new members the meaning of the Kappa diamond, why they carry striped canes, and the origin of their colors, crimson and cream. But mostly they were talking about that “mad love,” a term fraternity members use to describe the depth of their affiliation.
“I joined because when I started college and didn’t know anybody, this Kappa showed me that mad love,” a brother at the meeting declared. “I was, like, lonely, and he just came over and introduced himself and showed me around. Later, I found out that he was K A Psi”—one of the terms the fraternity uses to describe itself. All the other members spoke to the acceptance and brotherhood that had drawn them in.
Toward the end of the meeting, the brothers shared one of their proudest treasures, a home video of Kappa’s 1998 “probate show” on UMCP’s campus. (The probate show is designed to present a fraternity’s newly initiated members to the broader community.) In the video, the new brothers are presented to a crowd of several hundred Greeks, girlfriends, and curious onlookers. The six pledges, stripped of all individuality with ski masks over their faces, march in a line so tight that the chest of one brother touches the back of the next. As the ritual progresses, they gradually shed their masks as they go through the fraternity’s intricate steps and chants. The performance of the Kappa Kane Dance marks a turning point in the spectacle. Now considered worthy of their canes, the line-brothers are allowed to dance and strut.
The spectacle was striking, but it hinted at the fruits of underground pledging. There were snatches of chants—”I took some wood. How did it feel? Kappa good!” And the intricacies of the steps themselves raised a question: How did full-time students who weren’t professional dancers learn all those fancy moves and chants in just a few hours during the official intake process?
The videotape was a hit. On the way out, one of the prospects said, “If I have to go through being hazed, then I’ve just got to go through it.”
Any woman wearing skintight jeans got a discounted admission to the party the Zeta Phi Beta sorority sponsored at Bowie State University the first week of March. The promotional scheme worked. Brothers came in from all over, and it seemed that at least 200 sisters had saved a few bucks by showing up in snug designer jeans.
Despite the smorgasbord of black femininity, senior Joe Harris and about a half-dozen of his brothers—wearing the black and gold of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity—felt as if they were in pretty good company dancing in a corner all by themselves. Harris leads a champion step-show team, and the Alphas were pumping themselves up for a quick circuit around the dance floor. Their step-show moves were a combination of marching and breakdancing. Under the pulsing reggae beat, they took a few moments to get in sync, working their moves in place like an idling locomotive. When they had worked up enough steam, Harris led the human train straight through the gyrating crowd.
The step shows represent one of the BGLOs’ most important traditions. They’re a big part of the reason Harris, who is the immediate past president and historian of Bowie’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter, believes that joining the Alphas was one of the best decisions of his life. Competing in step shows all over the East Coast has helped him fulfill every young man’s dream of performing live on stage in front of cheering fans and taught him the basics of producing and promoting concerts and shows.
But that’s not the only thing Harris loves about being in a black frat: He also embraces pledging, another BGLO tradition that many believe is destroying their chapters, hospitalizing their members, alienating their advisers, and costing them millions. Like thousands of other members, Harris still passionately supports an old system that has gone from problematic to toxic now that it has been forced underground. Pledging means different things to different chapters, but in some instances, it can encompass weeks on end of demeaning rituals and brutal beatings.
Just one day before the March party, Harris had represented the Alphas in a meeting of Bowie’s Pan-Hellenic Council, which governs the Greeks on campus. The students grumbled at the news that Marriott, which operates the dining halls, had to be consulted about any food sold at Greek events. But the real complaints started when Eloise Molock, director of student activities and adviser to the Pan-Hellenic Council, passed out Bowie State’s rules governing the fraternities’ and sororities’ member intake process (MIP, also sometimes called “member intake program”). The MIP regulations reflect the official policies of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which governs the nine oldest and largest BGLOs.
The rules explicitly warned that the university would not tolerate any hazing or pledging. “Are you kidding?” Harris asked Molock. “Do you really expect us to take these rules seriously?” He felt free to openly challenge Molock because he knew she had joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in the mid-’70s, when pledging was still allowed.
If you talk to fraternity members, they will tell you that pledging was—and is—a profoundly important part of black Greek life, a set of rituals that were longer, harder, and generally much more elaborate than those of white fraternities. Going on line was something prospects had to go through to prove they were worthy of “crossing over the burning sands” to join a BGLO. For decades, black Greeks proudly took their pledge lines out in public so that everyone could watch as pledges danced, marched, and chanted. But darker rituals went on out of public view. Dozens of interviews suggest that while pledging, the vast majority of men—and a smaller but significant percentage of women—were spanked with long wooden paddles.
At different chapters and at different times, paddling could range from one or two symbolic taps to serious abuse. Even pledges who were never actually hit—usually women—were often forced to make themselves paddles as part of the psychological intimidation. After the Greek letters themselves, paddles are the BGLOs’ most potent symbol.
Knowing that Molock had crossed over “the old way,” Harris says, he simply assumed that she shared his belief that pledging is critical to building the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that have enabled the BGLOs to survive for almost a century. The next day, when he was asked about his bold challenge to a faculty adviser, he said, “Bowie is a historically black university, and they know the importance of the black Greeks. As far as underground pledging goes, it’s like gays in the military: The attitude is ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell.’”
At a party sponsored by the Alphas, Harris went a step further. “This is my family,” Harris said, gesturing toward the crowd. “Pledging makes the difference between a member and a brother.”
Harris was walking on thin ice. Locally and nationally, universities and colleges are taking pledging abuses a lot more seriously after being named as co-defendants in several lawsuits. Molock is on the lookout and says she is determined to rub out covert pledging. “They’re not fooling me. I know that by the time I get the official list of new members they’ve probably been crossing them over underground for weeks. If we catch them, they’re gone.”
Like many other people charged with advising and overseeing BGLOs, Molock faces an uphill battle. Alpha Phi Alpha’s display case in Bowie’s student center hosts evidence that both pledging and paddling—known as “giving and taking wood”—are deeply entrenched. Alongside the chapter’s paraphernalia—its black-and-gold Sphinx, Juan Williams’ biography of the fraternity’s great brother, Thurgood Marshall—are not one but three different paddles.
In early February 1998, the Kappa Alpha Psi chapter at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) in Princess Anne started an unauthorized initiation of five new members, according to news accounts. The plan was to schedule underground “pre-pledging” and “post-pledging” processes before and after the official MIP, which started at the end of February and ended March 8. The underground pledging brought the process to about eight weeks.
During pledging sessions, each Kappa would usually paddle the new pledges three times, according to newspaper accounts. Depending on how many alumni brothers showed up for the fun, pledges were hit anywhere between 15 and 45 times a night every night for two months, according to those same accounts.
The five line-brothers, who had each paid about $500 in dues, tried to remain steadfast. But Marcus Polk finally went to a campus nurse, who discovered that the Kappas had broken so many of the veins in his backside that the pooling blood had coagulated into huge lumps beneath his oozing, broken skin. He had a life-threatening gangrene infection and was admitted on April 4 to Peninsula Medical Center for surgery to remove two 4-inch hunks of dead flesh from his behind, according to news reports.
It could have been worse. Severe paddlings often lead to damage of the kidneys and other internal organs. All the other pledges wound up hospitalized, according to news accounts at the time, but no one told authorities. Polk’s parents learned that he was in the hospital only by accident, when he called home to speak with his brother. His mother overheard the conversation and called the police.
Despite their injuries, the line-brothers were reluctant to cooperate with the investigation until the university threatened to expel them. On May 16, four Kappas were arrested; a total of 11 were eventually charged with first-degree assault—a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison—hazing, and reckless endangerment, according to the Associated Press.
The charges were reduced—in part because the judge pointed out that the pledges had participated voluntarily—but seven brothers were eventually convicted of misdemeanor hazing, fined $500, and sentenced to two years’ probation. Acting through their regional director, Polemarch Anthony Hill, the national office of the Kappa Alpha Psi organization permanently revoked the charter of a chapter that was more than 50 years old.
The BGLOs’ historical relationship with violent pledging took a bad, hard turn back in 1989, with the death of Joel Harris at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Harris had a pre-existing heart condition; he died after being slapped in the face and punched in the chest while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha. In 1990, in response to Harris’ death and a laundry list of other abuses, the National Pan-Hellenic Council didn’t just ban hazing—it eliminated pledging altogether. Instead, it instituted the short, painless two- or three-week MIP, which consists of a few interviews and some history lessons.
Even though the new MIP was quickly ratified by all the BGLOs during their national conventions, many young Greeks believed it had been rammed down their throats by older fraternity officials. The MIP never captured the imagination or loyalty of many members and alumni, say several academics familiar with the process. Pledging may have seemed to go away, but in reality, it just went underground. Under the cloak of secrecy, the paddling and beatings continued in many chapters.
In 1994, when Michael Davis suffered massive injures after a brutal beating by Kappas at Southeast Missouri State University, his fraternity brothers did not immediately get him medical care. Davis wasn’t just paddled; he was repeatedly body-slammed to the ground in a late-night hazing session wherein drunken pledges were made to jog around a makeshift baseball diamond and were tackled or knocked down at every base. Even though he was unconscious, the Kappas drove him past a hospital and simply put him to bed, according to the prosecutor. Paramedics weren’t contacted until 12 hours later. By then, it was far too late to save his life, or to prevent six Kappas from going to prison for involuntary manslaughter, according to court records.
Given those deaths and the 1998 debacle at UMES, black Greeks might have concluded that underground pledging just wasn’t worth it. But its persistence has made the months between February and May an ongoing nightmare for pledges and officials alike. Compiled from news reports from around the country, a list of incidents that happened just this year suggests that the effort to stem the tide of black-on-black violence within the BGLO system is failing miserably:
* A Phi Beta Sigma pledge at Michigan State University suffered kidney damage after being paddled in March. According to the Associated Press, to avoid accusations of hazing, the chapter’s president claimed that the pledge was already a member and had been voluntarily “trading wood” in a hitting contest to see who was toughest.
* Five Kappas beat and hospitalized a pledge at Georgia State University in March. According to news accounts, they have been arrested.
* A Sigma pledge was treated in May after being beaten at West Virginia University, where another fraternity, Omega Phi Psi, had been banned for hazing in 1996.
* An Alpha pledge was hospitalized at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where the chapter had already received a five-year suspension for beating a student in 1994. It was later discovered that the brothers running the process were from an entirely different campus and had never sent the pledges’ dues to Alpha headquarters.
* An Omega pledge was hospitalized after being beaten at Mississippi State University in February.
* A Delta Sigma Theta sorority pledge was placed into an intensive care unit after she was hazed at Norfolk State University in Virginia. In May, an appeals court judge upheld Norfolk’s decision to expel nine Deltas involved in the incident. Two were just weeks from graduation.
* In April, the Zeta Phi Beta sorority was thrown off the University of South Florida campus for four years after being charged with paddling pledges.
* Kappa officials—who closed down the chapter at UMES—say they are now investigating charges of hazing at Bowie State.
The African-American fraternity movement began in 1906, with the founding of the first Alpha Phi Alpha chapter at Cornell University. It was a time when hazing wasn’t just a frat phenomenon: Upperclassmen routinely hazed freshmen, and in the working world, on-the-job journeymen hazed apprentices. Nine decades later, scholars and researchers who study campus Greeks are grappling with the question of why physical hazing remains so intense in black fraternities and sororities when it’s fading out everywhere else except military academies.
According to Hank Nuwer, author of the book Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, during the ’70s and ’80s physical hazing became much less common at white frats than black ones. Some white fraternities and sororities still haze their members, but most often they do so by making them eat disgusting things or drink too much alcohol—alcohol poisoning has killed a number of pledges in recent years.
Nuwer’s findings have important ramifications. White frats may hurt pledges through stunts like dropping them, half-naked and drunk, miles from campus during the winter, but the fact that BGLOs are more likely to beat their pledges poses greater legal risks. Douglas Richmond, an attorney and former college administrator who specializes in defending fraternities and sororities, says that it’s much easier to explain a dumb accident to a judge in such cases because the pledges, who were usually over 18, participated willingly, and no one expected anyone to get hurt. “However,” he adds, “when someone was killed and his parents are in the courtroom weeping, it’s a lot harder to go before a jury and explain why a pledge died after being kicked around by six men. It looks a lot more like a crime and shows a deliberate intention to hurt someone.”
Florida State University sociology Professor Yancy Martin says that the durability of violence in black fraternity life speaks to the nature of male relationships within specific subcultures:
“Among white men in frats, the main interpersonal competition seems to be sexual—who can score with the most girls no matter what it takes. Among black men, the main arena of interpersonal competition seems to be withstanding the pain and violence they inflict on each other.”
And, although the pledge process seems broken, the BGLOs haven’t come up with anything satisfying enough to replace the old ways. Recruits who are hungry for rituals and rites of passage persist in going underground to demonstrate their mad love of frat life.
Underground or not, the consequences of BGLO rituals may provide an irresistible impetus for change. In 1996, Kappa Alpha Psi and its local officers and advisers were forced to pay the parents of Michael Davis $2.25 million for his death in Missouri. And at least one pledge from the UMES chapter has filed notice of his intention sue Kappa Alpha Psi and the school.
Abused pledges are finding sympathetic courts and juries in part because many of them are told that they will not be beaten as part of their initiation. It’s the official line. Snell testified in his civil suit against Omega Psi Phi that he had expected only push-ups and sit-ups in his initiation. His award of $375,000 was the highest ever paid in a Maryland hazing case in which the victim survived.
Doug Fierberg of the D.C. law firm Sherman, Meehan, Curtin and Ain, who represented Snell, has a specialty of representing young people who have been injured by fraternities or sororities, or in other school-related incidents. In his M Street office, he has a cartoon from the Prince George’s County Journal that depicts the $375,000 award as a giant paddle to discipline the frats.
“Omega Psi Phi’s national office argued, in part, that they shouldn’t be liable, because the entire underground process was against their rules, and because all the pledges [had] signed a statement saying they would not allow themselves to be hazed,” Fierberg says.
“However,” Fierberg adds, “they lost because chapter officers had knowledge of and participated in the hazing, their graduate adviser knew about it, and the Omega organization never tried to protect Snell from reprisals—and it never expelled a single one of its members who beat and hurt Joe Snell.”
Vickie Robinson, the interim executive director of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority national office, located on New Hampshire Avenue NW, thinks that lawsuits against the BGLOs’ national organizations are missing the most important targets. She says that changing the ingrained culture of violence within frats requires that hazers be held individually responsible—which seldom happens. Unless someone dies, criminal charges are usually dropped or reduced to misdemeanors. Universities rarely expel hazers, and, until recently, BGLOs let them retain their memberships, so they were welcome at parties and campus events.
The specter of litigation hangs heavy over the future of many BGLOs. “Every time anyone gets hurt, everyone has their insurance rates go up,” Robinson sighs. “Whenever I get together with officials from the other black fraternities and sororities, we always worry that we’re just one lawsuit away from bankruptcy.”
Her fears are well-founded. Cases from the mid-’90s are still coming to trial, and settlements are going up. A Sigma pledge injured at Southern Illinois University is seeking more than $900,000 from the Phi Beta Sigma chapter. But an even larger suit may be looming: In 1995, Sylvester Lloyd went through a degrading nightmare to join the Alpha Phi Alpha chapter at Cornell, according to his attorney and news reports. He was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection in his buttocks and later developed depression, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He originally sought $7 million in damages—$2 million from Alpha, the rest from Cornell. Cornell has since been dropped from the suit. The university permanently expelled the historic chapter, the first black Greek organization. The Alpha house was put up for sale, and the civil trial is scheduled to begin any day now.
Not all of the pressure for change is coming from outside the system of BGLOs. Dwayne Gray, the president of Bowie’s Pan-Hellenic Council, says pledging has lost some of its value since going underground.
“No invisible process really works for us, whether it’s underground pledging or the MIP. In the past, when everyone could see who was on-line because they were marching around the campus, pledging was a great recruiting tool. There was a sense of excitement as people waited to see who crossed over. Now, no matter what process someone goes through, no one knows it is happening until they suddenly show up hurt, or wearing a fraternity or sorority T-shirt.” Gray is hoping that BGLOs will re-institute a public, nonviolent pledge process that members and alumni will accept.
Still, there are many, many members who think there’s no substitute for the old, hard ways. Jerry Thomas, a D.C. area Alpha currently finishing dental school, believes that hazing is a weeding-out process that made him stronger and created an irreplaceable bond between his 19 line-brothers, five of whom are becoming doctors or dentists.
He says that pledging needs to be put in the context of other, sanctioned collegiate activities: “People are injured playing football all of the time, yet they don’t ban football. Irreversible or serious injuries during hazing are very rare, but once the media get wind of a few incidents it’s treated like a national epidemic.”
Yemi Oshinniye, who pledged Alpha at Georgetown in 1997, is even more emphatic. “Paddling represents the struggle and adversity that one must overcome to earn their Greek letters,” he asserts. “It has become the measure of a Greek to come through the ‘Right Way.’ Whether these methods are barbaric or not is not the question.”
Oshinniye argues that most traditional African and Native American cultures had painful rituals in which young men were scarred or burned to symbolize their transition to manhood. “Creating such a bond between perspective members and your organization is not wrong and shouldn’t be illegal,” he says.
Dr. William Cox is a Kappa who co-owns Black Issues in Higher Education, Community College Week, and Black Issues Book Review in Fairfax. He has campaigned vigorously for the past decade against hazing as a legitimate tool for initiation. “I love my fraternity,” he declares. “I’m a paid-up life member of Kappa Alpha Psi, but to think that someone would be killed trying to join just turns my stomach.”
In June 1997, Black Issues published an autobiographical description of a frat brother taking obvious sexual pleasure in paddling a pledge at a black college in Maryland:
To the boy bent over in front of me, this place is a dungeon. I check his position, buttocks out, eyes forward, fists straight, trembling. Perfect. I ready my swing—up the paddle goes, hovers in the air, gathering power as it slices down, striking his butt. The air cracks. A shock races up my arm and I know I gave a good stroke. The pledge winces as the pain spreads, needles of pain, nerves shrieking, raised and trembling, on fire.
For more than a decade, Cox and his partner in the magazine, Frank Matthews, have heard stories from the administrators and teachers they cover that pledging was hurting BGLOs in both visible and invisible ways.
“I constantly got calls from professors saying that hazing was driving away the best students and faculty advisers because it is too much like the things white folks did to us during slavery,” Cox says. “I know hazing doesn’t build brotherhood, because members who always resented it tell me they’ll never be active again.”
Winfred Mundle of Washington volunteers as legal council for Kappa’s Eastern Region, which includes D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. After an extensive investigation at UMES, he has come to believe that in an effort to replicate the old days and the old ways, some of the current BGLOs have gone far beyond the history they seek to honor.
“I went over the old way, but my line was only paddled a few times during Hell Week,” Mundle notes. “We weren’t beaten every day for two months. That’s sick.”
Hill, director of Kappa’s Eastern Region, is dealing with the consequences of the death of Michael Davis and the fallout from the Snell case. He knows that part of the reason Omega had to pay such a large judgment to Snell was because the jury believed that the fraternity’s national organization had tolerated the hazing with a wink and a nod. In Kappa’s own UMES case, Hill believed that he had no choice but to kick out 19 members from the chapter there and permanently revoke its charter.
Hill, who lives in Temple Hills and works in the D.C. corrections system, has a K in a diamond branded on his bicep, and his home office is a shrine to Kappa Alpha Psi. The room is filled with reminders of his initiation: the 4-inch diamond-shaped wooden “scroll” he wore around his neck while pledging at Langston University in Oklahoma in 1977, the red-and-white-painted brick he was forced to carry during the weeks he was on-line. There are photos of him and his line-brothers wearing huge Afros and strutting their stuff in red shirts and white tuxedos. He displays every Kappa memento but his chapter’s pledge paddle, which he describes as “a 6-foot shitboard.”
The walls are lined with citations and photos of Kappa events, including an old panoramic photo of the D.C. alumni chapter posed with Calvin Coolidge. Gesturing to a newer picture, Hill points out an elegantly dressed older black gentleman and says, “He’s been a member for 50 years. I’m trying to protect all the work men like him have invested in this organization.”
Hill rejects out of hand the argument that all the young Kappas want is the same pledging experience he remembers so fondly. “Times have changed. When I pledged, Kappa Alpha Psi wasn’t hanging by a thread because some brothers got power-mad and hurt somebody. I know the MIP isn’t satisfying the undergraduates, and I hope we come up with something better—but if you want to change things, pay your dues, organize your members, and come to the convention and vote.”
Hill resents the fact that underground pledging makes brothers tell lies right to his face. Undergraduates are on their best behavior when he shows up, but he often gets calls saying that the real meeting began after he left. “I’m not so naive not to suspect that the Kappas at College Park are pledging people underground,” he muses, “but I’m not particularly worried about that chapter. It doesn’t have a history of violence, which varies tremendously from campus to campus.”
Hill is currently investigating reports of hazing at Bowie State. He says his most consistent headache is the famous Howard University chapter, because too many alumni undermine his authority by telling new members to go underground and pledge the old way.
In some chapters, pledging perpetuates itself because the men and women who won’t tolerate abuse as an expression of love simply refuse to join. The joiners are true believers who reinforce the notion that the real problem isn’t pledging, but Greek-hating administrators and lawsuits by rapacious attorneys. BGLOs are now left with a growing internal conflict. A bifurcation is occurring between those who came over the old way and those who opted out of the abuse— either through the MIP or simply by waiting and joining alumni chapters. There are, of course, many people who came over the old way who also believe that it is destructive.
According to Hill, the Howard Kappa chapter has demonstrated that underground pledging can damage a chapter even without injuries or lawsuits. In 1992, the chapter was suspended for hazing. In 1998, Hill personally decided to bring over the first line since then: 22 young men with high GPAs. The line-brothers named themselves the Diamond Krooks, which stood for Kappa Rules Over Our Kollective Souls. And, even though the chapter had been inactive for six years, Hill discovered that 14 of the 22 members had already “pre-pledged” underground before going through the MIP, in a process run by alumni or Kappas who had transferred in from other campuses. Only eight had respected Kappa’s new intake process.
The antagonism between the two groups was clearly visible on the chapter’s Web site. “It was a beautiful site,” Hill explains, “containing the history of all the lines going back to the ’70s.” But, according to Hill, the Web page listed only the 14 members who had pledged underground and snubbed the other eight. Even worse, Hill says, two of the underground brothers cornered one of the MIP members recently and ripped his Kappa shirt right off his back. Hill expelled the attackers from the fraternity. “They [believe they’re] upholding our traditions,” he says, “but they violated our first commandment, which is to never, ever disrespect another Kappa in public. Underground pledging is a damn cancer. We’ve got to end it before it kills all the rest of us.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.