ΠΚΑ is a fraternity that got started in Virginia. The PIKE “A” chapter was founded in 1868 at the University of Virginia. Pi Kappa Alpha limited its membership to white men. This restriction was becoming a problem to a national fraternity in the light of civil rights concerns at American universities. In 1958, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) ΠΚΑ “GT” house, the members sent me and Bob Schulz to the ΠΚΑ national convention in Washington, DC, to overturn this restriction.
We put forward a motion on the issue of ΠKA banning black men as members. Τhe leaders of the meeting called for a vote and rolled out some oldies, …. some 80 year old guys, in wheel chairs, to vote against our motion. Our chapter was GT and these guys came from single letter chapters from all across the south. In 1964, ΠΚΑ changed the rules that Universities were starting to look at, for allowing fraternities on campus.
But it was instructive to watch that vote, for me. I knew almost nothing about slavery and the loss of the Civil War in the South. As the son of immigrants, raised in New York and having been schooled in the segregated schools of NY, I did not have it in my brain. You see, I lived at 37- 24 102nd Street and 37th Avenue was the dividing line between white and black families. But all the white kids on 102nd street played hand ball and stick ball with the black kids on 102nd street, all the time. We went to the Worlds Fair grounds, out on Flushing Bay, together and played basket ball and touch football. It never entered my mind, that they went to schools on Northern Boulevard and we went to schools on Roosevelt Avenue.
Now, thinking about it, I wonder why I never thought about it. But, you see, racism was not in my brain either. You know, Louis Armstrong lived on 107th Street, just a few blocks from my house and we sometimes rode over there on our bikes, to hear music from his back yard.
But my real education on this subject, occurred when I went through single engine jet training, on the T2J aircraft, at Meridian, Mississippi. I was a Lieutenant Junior Grade when I got there, after my time on the USS Engage. A Black 1st Lieutenant Marine Corps officer came to Meridian, just a few days after my arrival. He had grown up in Chicago and had gone to Notre Dame. Well, we two northern kids went out to eat in Meridian. This was in 1962, a year before the FBI came down to the Sip.
Of course, we could not eat in a restaurant but ended up eating in the black section of the Trailways bus stop. And when we tried to go to the movies, they wanted him to sit up in the balcony.
The next day, he went in to the CO of the Naval Air Station and got transferred to Whiting Field in Florida, to fly the T28s. He just did not want to put up with that bull in Mississippi.
I saw that same stuff, in Johannesburg, South Africa, when I first flew there, in Pan Am 707s, in 1968. Being black, makes people carry an extra burden through this thing we call life.