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The University of Mississippi unveiled the school’s first collective space recognizing the nine historically black Greek letter organizations on Sunday — the first public predominantly white university in the state to do so.

Black Greek organizations began chartering at Ole Miss in 1973, 11 years after the successful integration by James Meredith. They struggled with space and visibility on campus, while predominantly white Greek organizations owned and managed buildings on campus that allowed them ample space to conduct chapter operations, host activities and house and feed members.

“If it weren’t for outside resources, I don’t know where we could meet on campus,” said Terrye Davis, president of the Ole Miss National Pan Hellenic Council and a member of a black sorority. The nine groups compete with more than a hundred other organizations for space in campus facilities to practice, host meetings and conduct social events.

“This gives us an opportunity to feel more welcomed and recognized on campus and hopefully it’ll serve as a meeting space this upcoming semester since the (student) union is under renovation,” said Davis.

According to the plan proposed by former Chancellor Dan Jones in 2014, this student-centered area is to be a monument representing the history of historically black fraternities and sororities and the campus engagement opportunities they afford.

“This is a historical moment,” said Dr. Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs. “This is very important for prospective African-American students to know that there is a place for me at the university, but also equally as important for the African-American families who may have reservations,”  LaBanc said during the groundbreaking ceremony last spring. “They now see that their child can too carry out traditions and legacies important to the African-American experience.”

Located adjacent to the Crosby dormitory for women, the NPHC Garden isn’t the first visible presence of a black fraternity or sorority on campus. In 1988, the Eta Beta Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. moved its belongings into a house on Fraternity Row. They were the first historically black fraternity to successfully integrate fraternity row at a predominantly white university. They have since given up the property. Other organizations have had houses on campus as well, but the length of time varied depending on the membership.

Other public predominantly white universities in the state have acknowledged NPHC on their campuses.

The University of Southern Mississippi arranged nine benches, each one engraved with the Greek letters of an NPHC organization, facing a wooden stage near the Armstrong and Branch Plaza. The plaza commemorates Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch, who were the first black students to successfully integrate the university in the fall of 1965.

“In the last two weeks, we modeled the platform for any of the groups to have more informal presentations for events,” said Megan Wilkinson, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at USM.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s plot for NPHC remains under construction. Credit: Morgan Wilkinson

“Their vision is for more progress to be made, but at this point it is ready to be used,” she said.

This semester, Mississippi State University announced the goal to create a similar space “for hangouts and programs” to be used by NPHC at the university.

“NPHC students are at the table for planning purposes. The fund-raising and design, the students will be right in the middle of it,” said John Michael VanHorn, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at MSU. The date for completion has not been confirmed.

“We are excited to have that space,” he said. “We are moving in that direction and it’s a great start.”

According to VanHorn, it has been at least 10 years since black Greeks had houses off campus, and at no point were there formal houses on campus.

“We hope that alumni support will increase (with the implementation of a visible NPHC area on campus). We are excited about Ole Miss,” said VanHorn.

“I’m appreciative of the effort and recognition, but I am disappointed in the location because of the visibility of how many people would actually know to go there,” Yvon Foster, a member of the 1974 charter line of the Lambda Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at Ole Miss, said about the new campus garden.

Blueprint of the NPHC Greek Garden at Ole Miss Credit: Ole Miss

Unlike at USM, there is no significance in the garden’s location nor is it centrally located on campus.

Foster described the garden as “basic.” She says it lacks color and chapter history.

“They didn’t put the ‘Incorporated’ on Delta Sigma Theta, either,” she added. This makes her doubt if a member of the NPHC saw the blueprint and approved during the designing phases.

According to university officials, the design process has been “fairly transparent,” says Lionel Maten, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.

When LaBanc first joined the university in 2012, she said, she continued the existing discussion about designing a garden with members of the NPHC. In 2013, they moved forward with the plans of developing funds to build.

Yvon Foster, 1974 charter member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at the NPHC Garden with youngest daughter Jevonta, who was initiated in 2015. 

Foster has two daughters who have attended Ole Miss and both became members of Delta. Her youngest daughter, currently a student and active member, took her mother to the garden before the official opening.

“At the ribbon cutting, many of the organizations’ charter members returned,” said LaBanc. Conversations continued about making additions to the space, such as planting trees.

“I don’t know what the future holds. We will rely on students to help (make additions). But, this is a great beginning,” she said.

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.