A SHORT HISTORY OF A SMALL BEGINNING
In the early dawn of the civil rights movement, about 1949, the confluence of two rivers of action joined at the University of Connecticut to create the first intercultural college fraternity in New England.
The University was set to open a quadrangle of dormitory buildings for the many national fraternities who had chapters at UCONN. About the same time Gerry Brown and Donny Conn, two local boys who came back to attend UCONN after attending separate colleges in Ohio where they enjoyed the experience of interracial-interreligious fraternities.
They joined forces to start a similar group at UCONN and went to the University Housing officials with their idea. The University had uncommitted buildings in the quadrangle and agreed to give the boys a chance.
This was how, in the fall of 1950, Beta Gamma Sigma was brought to life. It started with a small group of UCONN students recruited by Brown and Conn who believed that equality and unity were the right measure of association rather than race, creed or national origin.
The dorm had about 40 double rooms and had a kitchen and dining room serving breakfast and dinner. The new fraternity was responsible to run the meal service as well as furnish the first floor lounge. The new dorm rooms not occupied by fraternity members were rented to other students.
The administration decided that each dormitory grouping should have a governing council to regulate the activities and behavior of that grouping. The inter-fraternity council requested that it be the governing body for the fraternity quadrangle. Beta Sig had no representation. The administration agreed and notified the council that it must recognize every fraternity dormitory in its quadrangle or else a separate governing body would have to be formed. The inter-fraternity council subsequently acceded to Bet Sig’s membership.
The fraternities’ initial coup was the confrontation with the inter-fraternity council. Having applied for membership, the council requested an evaluation of Beta Sig’s constitutions. The application was rejected as the council concluded that the basic tenets of a democratic system of accepting members made it more of a club than a fraternity. The interracial/religious element, they concluded, would not create a cohesive group, therefore a brotherhood spirit would have difficulty existing. In their eyes, Beta Sig did not exist as a fraternity.
There were skeptics and naysayers of every ilk. Some thought everyone was segregated by floors or rooms and could not believe everyone lived together and randomly could be roommates, all religions – all races.
Now on the offensive, Beta Sig asked to examine the constitution of the fraternities and the inter-fraternity council to decide whether it wished to be allied with such a group. Finding discriminatory clauses in most constitutions, Beta Sig notified the University they considered that such organizations had no right to occupy state-owned property. The inter-fraternity council also had a blackball system of accepting members and Beta Sig could not be allied with such a group that was so undemocratic unless they changed its constitution. The University gave the fraternities one year to erase discriminatory clauses. If their national organization refused, they would have to become independent fraternities or abandon their dormitories. The inter-fraternity council changed its constitution to accommodate Beta Sig’s request.
The other fraternities gradually came to accept Beta Sig mainly because a lot of the Beta Sig members were musicians and athletes. The athletes helped Beta Sig win intramural championships in basketball and track. The musicians had a corner on supplying bands for any frat that wanted to host a party.
To raise money to furnish the Beta Sig lounge, Donny Conn arranged to sponsor a George Shearing (modern jazz) concert. This was the first time a popular recording artist appeared on an American college campus. The concert was a great success, but a lesson in naiveté was learned from the experience. The sponsor royalty to help finance the lounge never came through.
The Beta Sig credo and constitution were actually revolutionary for Greek letter society in its time. New members were voted in by majority vote. There was to blackball and no hazing of pledges. But things changed on campuses in the early 60’s and almost all fraternities had their token “liberalism” and some became extremely radical toward the end of the decade.
So Beta Sig’s uniqueness was gone. Beta Sig assimilated to the norm for other campus fraternities—less fun and craziness, more “social graces,” more serious about school and academics in general. The fraternity was a place to live.
By the late 60’s college campuses all over the country were the leading elements in the counterculture, anti-war, anti-establishment feeling. The UCONN president decided that fraternities should no longer be houses on State property. He felt that they (the fraternities) were counterproductive, elitists, undemocratic, and unnecessary (he may have been right). They all had short notice to move from the north campus dorms. Only a handful of the fraternities were able to survive. Beta Sig was one of the few who bought a big red house off campus.
About 560 men and, later, even a few women, carried the banner of Beta Sig over its 30-year lifespan.
There was a special feeling among the members of Beta Sigma Gamma. We shared a common cause and a unique experience. It all seems pretty tame now, but starting an intercultural fraternity back in 1950 without a blackball system, hazing, or many of the other trappings of Greek life really was quite an adventure in human relations. Looking back at it now, it was sort of a “anti-fraternity” fraternity.
We survived the outside skeptics and even overcame our own naiveté. We had a great debate over a quota system which fortunately went nowhere—and the comic drama that was created for a pledge induction ceremony was a total hoot.
It was more than just living with a bunch of guys at college—it was a rich and rewarding adventure and perhaps the greatest learning experience of our lives.
We’ll never relive—or bring back those days—but we often rekindle some very fond memories and light the spark of renewed friendships. We shared a great deal at a very vital and formative part of our lives.
We were at the forefront of a movement we thought and hoped would spread to all the colleges as well as the adult communities across America. It’s disappointing to note that it didn’t happen and today the whole trend on college campuses seems to be in reverse. There appears to be much more selective choice and segregation at the colleges by race and ethnicity. The status today is anti-diversity and will not help to foster understanding or bring people together.
“Some people strengthen the society just by being the kind of people they are.” I hope in a small way we did too.