Section: Features

Black Greek Life: Revisiting Kenyon’s forgotten community

Black Greek Life: Revisiting Kenyon’s forgotten community

BU poses for 1996 Reveille photo. | Greenslade Special Collections and Archieves

While some student organizations come and go, some remain preserved in Kenyon’s institutional memory. Among those unpreserved are Nu Iota Alpha (NIA) and Brothers United (BU), the two predominantly Black Greek organizations that once existed at Kenyon. The little information that does exist fails to tell their stories in their entirety. 

In the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other unarmed Black citizens, the U.S. is grappling with questions of institutional racism and oppression. Many have also drawn attention to Black Americans’ years of unrecognized contributions to American culture. Similarly overlooked contributions can be found in Kenyon’s history as well. Although BU and NIA were welcomed at Kenyon in their prime, neither school records nor Kenyon’s collective memory capture the extent of their impact on the College’s history.

Though Brothers United began its tenure on campus in September 1994, founders Robert “Butch” King ’97 and Levon Sutton ’97 started discussing the possibility of establishing a black Greek organization even before they were accepted to the College. From the moment the two then-Cleveland high schoolers returned from a visit to Kenyon in the School College Articulation Program (SCAP, now known as KAP). As they began to envision a Black fraternity at Kenyon, they knew they had discovered something special that had the potential to benefit not only them, but other Black students as well.

“After getting off the bus the first time we went to SCAP, [King and I] walked past this basketball court, and it seemed like everybody stopped to watch these two skinny, young 14, 15 year old kids walking up Harvard [Avenue] in Cleveland,” Sutton recalled. “We just looked at each other, and we knew we were tight, and we were going to be locked at the hip. If anything were to happen, we were going to protect one another. And those were just the seeds that have become something that’s long standing.”

Within days of beginning their first year at Kenyon, King, Sutton and eight of their new friends, including Jamion Berry ’97, Kenyon Warren ’97, Terry West ’97 and Wayne Albertyn ’97, sat together in a dorm room in Mather Residence Hall and worked to solidify King and Sutton’s early vision into reality. By September of 1994 — their sophomore year — their intentions to start Brothers United were well-known among their peers, as documented in a Sept. 1994 Collegian article. 

BU’s founders intended for their organization to provide a welcoming environment for Black men, while at the same time embracing diversity, all while embodying the group’s core values of brotherhood, unity, integrity, leadership and discipline. They also aimed to increase the Kenyon community’s knowledge of Blackness, racism and race.

“[Brothers United] sought to enrich the diversity in the Kenyon community by providing alternative social outlets and new cultural activities that were sorely needed,” the group later wrote to the Collegian. “Rooted on our observations/conversations with other men of color that came before us, we wanted to add a certain ‘flavor’ to Kenyon that it had never had before.” 

BU received ample support from members of the faculty, including Professor of American Studies Peter M. Rutkoff, Professor of Sociology & Legal Studies Ric Sheffield and then-Professor of English Ted Mason, among many others. Students, too, were supportive of the new organization.

These same faculty were also instrumental in helping Colette “Coco” Battle ’97 and 11 of her peers, including Meida McNeal ’97, Joy Hammond ’98 and Melonie Nance ’97, take the first steps towards forming NIA. They brought their proposal to Campus Senate only two months after BU’s founding. 

“When we came [to Kenyon], our class was one of the most Black classes that Kenyon had had,” Nance explained. “We recognized that we needed our own space and gathering beyond just the [Black Student Union].”

Though NIA had initially sought to become a chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a national Black sorority originally founded at Howard University, they ultimately chose to remain an exclusively Kenyon-affiliated Greek organization. The group shared a similar ideology to BU, and committed themselves to service that would better the Black community at Kenyon and at large. In these early stages, Battle emphasized the importance of having a support system for Black students at Kenyon, especially considering the increase in the Black student population that year. Much the same as BU, this support system became central to NIA’s identity as it continued to grow.

“When I was on campus, NIA simply meant support… [be it] something organized or just going to one of your sisters and venting,” Kelly Denson ’00 said. 

Chonda Williams, née Mitchell, ’99 echoed this sentiment, asserting that having not just a women’s group, but a Black women’s group, was, as Hammond put it, necessary.

“To know that you have [a women’s organization] that you belong to, belongs to you and was in support of you that was separate from those other [organizations]… was quite important,” Williams said. “There was something different about saying, ‘I’m a NIA woman.’”

However, the Collegian’s coverage of NIA and BU at the time did not focus on the individual organizations and how they supported its members on campus. Instead, the Collegian notes that these early months of Black Greek life at Kenyon coincided with campus-wide discussions regarding inclusivity in Greek organizations. In 1987, the College decided that groups formed from then on had to be inclusive organizations, meaning that they could not deny membership to any interested students. Pre-existing organizations, all of which were fraternities, did not need to conform to this rule. 

As a result, only the newly formed Greek organizations, NIA, BU and Theta Delta Phi (then called Theta Alpha Kappa) were subject to this policy. According to a February 1995 Collegian article, the Student Council President said that the policy put “those [organizations which] arise as a result of increased diversity at a disadvantage.” 

Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, on the other hand, was adamant that Greek organizations should not be exclusive. 

“Social exclusivity has been used to hide discrimination of all sorts,” she told the Collegian at the time. 

By the spring semester, Campus Senate ultimately decided that all Greek organizations had the right to be exclusive groups. 

In their members’ eyes, the founding of these two groups marked the origin of two support systems for Black students at Kenyon — systems which are still in place today. Reflecting only on the College’s records of these events, however, one views the foundings of these two organizations as a moment of contestation of what Greek life at Kenyon truly was. 

“Individually, we were all rockstars on campus,” said Warren. “So when we started BU, it was a resounding ‘yes’ from the community.”

Phillip A. Stevenson ’02 agreed, and emphasized that BU’s involvement across campus allowed them to build racial bridges. “The thing that was important was that people could see us as a unit,” he explained. “They may only know two or three of us… But when they have that friend from their soccer team, when we have that friend from the Student Council, it really allowed us to try to change what their presumptions were.” 

According to Nance, NIA was similarly well-connected. “We balanced between supporting ourselves, and then also kind of doing some things to educate the people on campus and then outreach outside,” she said. 

While on campus, NIA and BU organized a variety of activities, all of which reflected their mission statements. 

In 2005, members of NIA traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide relief for hard-hit communities, especially predominantly Black ones. During the fall of 2009, NIA worked as part of an effort to create sorority division housing, as documented in the Collegian. When Campus Senate ultimately made this change the following spring, though, NIA was not among those organizations granted housing. The reason is still unknown. 

Like NIA, BU sought to educate their peers on what it meant to be Black in America, particularly in predominantly white spaces like Kenyon. As such, they often sponsored or co-sponsored events that fostered room for discussions of race and racism. They also cooked soul-food dinners, held basketball tournaments and — in 1999 — played a significant role in bringing rap group De La Soul to campus for Summer Sendoff, where comedian Dave Chappelle made a surprise appearance. (The group even hung out with Chappelle after the show.) Despite BU’s efforts and community engagement, their involvement in Summer Sendoff was not documented in the Collegian

But above all, NIA and BU fundamentally changed their members’ experiences of Kenyon and beyond. 

“The best decision that somebody did for me was putting my name in the hat and say, ‘Hey, I wanted to be part of that fraternity,’” said Shangwe Parker ’99. “[BU gave me] lifelong brothers that I’m going to have.”

West agreed, and underscored the unique  nature of the brothers’ bond. “People on the outside looking in, they just don’t get it, that you could really be that close to someone that’s not actually your blood,” he said. “I try not to take that for granted.”

NIA last appeared in the Reveille, Kenyon’s yearbook, in 2011, with a sorority photo that included only two members. Although there is no known reason for the group’s end, the photo suggests that a lack of interest may have played a role. 

The reason for BU’s disbandment is undocumented by the College. However, a Collegian issue from Oct. 2001 — one of the most recent mentions of BU — referred to its members’ involvement in sexual assault allegations. 

When asked, BU neither confirmed nor denied the allegations. The group emphasized that those individuals’ alleged actions did not reflect BU as an organization.

 “It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, those allegations and Brothers United are not linked,” Sutton said. “They’re just unfortunate realities of college, experiences that… you take BU out of it, you put another fraternity in it … is that in their culture? I don’t know if that would be the case or not, but it definitely has not and never been the case with Brothers United.”

Given the United States’ long history of sexualizing and vilifying Black men, members of BU wondered if the significant backlash that the entire fraternity faced as a result of the allegations was racially charged.  

“It did feel at the time as though a stigma descended upon other members of the fraternity, quicker than it would have been if we were the darts team or something,” Stevenson recalled. “I do think  — were we a different organization, perhaps a predominantly white organization — you wouldn’t have gotten that impression.” 

According to Sutton, though, these allegations were not what caused them to stop recruiting. Rather, the group made a conscious decision to stop inducting new members in 2001, in hopes of preserving the spirit of BU’s early years.

“We realized that BU was something that was special to us, and we didn’t want to put it in a position where it became something that was watered down, or something that deviated from what we are,” Sutton explained. “As difficult as it may have been to no longer recruit… We decided it was in our best interest not to take that risk, because there will be a certain perception about the fraternity that will evolve over years.”

But members were careful to make clear that, although BU ceased its recruiting efforts, BU did not end; to this day, the Brothers are among each others’ closest friends, and talk weekly. 

“BU is alive and well,” Warren said. “We decided to stop recruiting on campus, but that organization that started in 1994… I think it’s as strong as it has ever been.”

Even though BU and NIA are no longer physical presences on campus, they were and still are an indispensable part of Kenyon’s story. 

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