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Party Life in Nashville: Fisk, Tennessee State, Meharry Medical School

November 14, 2016 in 1950s-1960s

Continuation of Townsend’s eMemoir – see past posts by clicking the previous title below or see the full listing on the project page.


Greek life at Fisk ruled, indeed!   Early mornings and  late evenings during pledge season, the campus was abuzz with fraternities getting prepared to “cross the burning sands and to make their appearances at the infamous Greek shows which included Fiskites and students from A & I or Tennessee State University, a public “Negro” college in Nashville in walking distance from Fisk. (Wilma Rudolph, famous Olympian previous polio victim, runner hailed from Tennessee State). Greek pictures of all of the sororities and fraternities, all artistically arranged, dominated the Oval.

Frat guys marched and chanted (they call it “stepping”) around various dorms every day.  Each had its particular step as a team.  The Omegas or Ques stepped to the mantra of “Dog Team, Woof” as they all undulated forward simultaneously.  Then the caller would yell “Dog, Team,” again, and they would all uniformly undulate backward.  Then they would all march forward to “Qu “or Omega Psi Phi repeatedly bellowed.  The Kappas had words that included: “I want to be a Kappa.”  “I’ve just got to be a Kappa.” “I’ve been trying, I’ve been trying, and” I’m inclined,” Just got to be a Kappa.” The Alphas had their own unique walk where they skipped and came down on a back heel.

The sororities stepped, also, but not as dramatically and memorably to me as the fraternities.  At Fisk, during my time, the Deltas were held in the highest esteem, but at Tennessee State, then, the AKA’s held as the highest respect.  That varied, again then as now, across the country depending upon the times and the campus. The Zetas have most consistently been held as the sorority with the highest GPA.  Guys from both institutions and passers by all commented upon the Deltas as being a “fine” line. And the Sigma ratings have varied.

I attended one Tennessee State Greek Show the one year that I was there and was very impressed.  Small sports cars were driven through the wide doors to be followed by the steppers of designated fraternities or sororities, some of whom were escorted by Great Danes, Afghan Hounds or bull dogs on either side by a particular fraternity.  One group featured a beautifully carved sarcophagus occupied by a pledgee who arose slowly and gracefully to the music of a piccolo or flute to the roar of the crowd.  Of course, his stepping group followed him with loud music and intricate steps. What a show! Nothing compared to that until my younger daughter’s graduation from Stanford University eons later with their famed “Wacky Walks” all over campus. There were other delicacies that I can no longer recall, but I continue to have the feeling and can emulated the steps to this day.  All of these proceedings were a novelty to me, and I am fortunate enough to this day to have rounded out my college social life by attending Fisk University for one year.  Kentucky black college students at that time and to my knowledge had never participated in such experiences, I am sure, as it was not until a few years later that their attempts at WKU to even establish those fraternities occurred. Perhaps college students, everywhere, should make exchange excursions to get a better-rounded view of how others thrive.

Meharry Medical School was located right across the street from Fisk.  It was a lighthouse to female students whose families were trying to assure that their daughters would have a future life of esteem and comfort by marrying one of the institution’s students.  Some were often involved in the party escapades of Tennessee State and Fisk Universities’ all day long parties on the weekend.  I had heard about such parties whereby the window shades were drawn and the participants partied all day long!  I am sure they had fun as I was never brave enough to attend one.  Black medical students had arrived at UK by the time I returned and I dated one who pushed for an engagement, with jewelry I still have, but I don’t recall any such parties or even hearing about them.

Culture Shock! (continued)

October 5, 2016 in 1960s-1970s

“That’s just ridiculous!” I exclaimed loudly, beginning to shed my usually shy, intimidated mantle.

I did so to my own surprise—without any statistics or the names of students that I could call to back me up. Such an outburst even jolted my “Individual Difference” teacher of psychology. He had just made the statement (while talking about I.Q.) that no “Negro” that he ever had in class had made above a C. Surprisingly to me and maybe even to him, the graduate students in class began to “get my back” about his contentions of race and I.Q. by quoting all kinds of statistics and studies that proved otherwise. The professor shut up. In the end I received a B out of the class though I strongly felt that I deserved better.

“I’ll bet that I can trace the roots of all of you back to England.”

My European History teacher, Mr. I., on the first day of class of an exceptionally large group, canvassed the class with eye scan and winked at us all as he began with, “I’ll bet that I can trace the roots of all of you back to England.” I am sure that he did that for effect at that time — or maybe not. Only one other black person was in that class, a commuting student by the name of Wanda, the first and only that landed in a class with me though there were other commuting Negro students on campus. She and I got to be the best of friends, and years later, she became my bridesmaid. As we were leaving class, I said of the professor, “Did you hear him?” She replied rather quickly: “Oh, you know they don’t consider us as people. so he wasn’t talking about us.” That was a common belief among many blacks — and rightly so — considering what had happened during slavery. But I intuitively liked the man then, and after my watching televised Roots, and studying intensely Louis Lomax’s Freedomways, I felt more assured that Dr. I. must have been on the level.

Then as now, students at all levels tend to clump together by race in large settings.

The next semester there was a small influx of more out-of town, and some out of state off campus black students for some reason or other. The few from the North seemed to exhibit an air of superiority over those of us Kentuckians as we shared the same break table—dining for some—at the student union building. Then as now, students at all levels tend to clump together by race in large settings. The uppity ones from out of town who dressed differently, danced better, spoke with a northern twang, and won at card games that they played all day long were soon on their way back home after a semester or two and were the last ones to register the immediately following semester.

They had students register by GPA.

I have been to other colleges and universities and have seen registration processes, but never have I seen what the University did one year I was enrolled. They had students register by GPA. What an embarrassment to all students—white and black– who did not have decent grades!! No more secrets, no more lies, no more pretenses. The students, parents, and others probably howled so much about that experiment until I don’t think the University ever tried that again. Probably to all who didn’t realize as I did (having had access as a honest and trusted student worker to all grades from the Registrar’s office) that some of those students did not even garner a point! Hard to imagine. So nosy Wanda and I walked by and viewed their comeuppance–so to speak—We saw those black students who played cards all day long as well as whites who tried to sound ultra intelligent in classroom discussions in those low GPA lines. I thought that was an awful thing for them to experience.

White music, white dancers, basically a white event.

Another element of culture shock for me involved the street dances where very few blacks danced, giving the scarcity of match mates. At that time students of color didn’t dare dance with those out of their culture. Large segments of the street were blocked off around Memorial Coliseum where whites danced and blacks for the most part looked on. The experience was an intriguing first for me though I did not participate in that activity. White music, white dancers, basically a white event.

A Smoking Campus

UK was one smoking campus culture as almost everyone smoked. I don’t imagine that I should have been surprised, Kentucky being a tobacco state and all, but it was shocking to see some pied female professors break out a cigarette when walking across campus, light up and begin to puff. I didn’t begin that terrible habit until I was older and transferred to a college in Tennessee for a couple of semesters for the explicit reason of having fun that I could not have at UK with dances, sorority and fraternity events governed by overarching remnants of grandfather clauses, etc.

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