Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2013 (August 1, 2013 at 12:00 am)

They Lived Civil Rights

July 31, 2013 at 11:09 am

By Eric Hetland’12

Last Word Eric Hetland'13

Photo by Trevor Johnson'08.

I had the pleasure of sitting across from Mary Johnson Elliott’54 and Jane Karr Threinen’56 one afternoon in April. During an hour-long conversation, they helped me understand what it means to be a Beloiter, but they were not alone in teaching me. I interviewed Mary and Jane among nearly 50 other alumni as part of my honors term project on the history of inclusion within Greek life at Beloit College. As a Phi Psi, and someone who believes that we understand diversity and inclusion through our social relationships and settings, I was naturally drawn to this topic.

When Archivist Fred Burwell’86 informed me that some of these stories were sadly under-documented, I started exploring the rich history of Beloit in the 1950s and ’60s, when African-American students were first admitted into Greek groups.  

These actions were controversial and resulted in alumni withholding funding from the college, for instance, when TKE pledged Sid Shaw’63 in 1955. The Delta Gammas lost their charter in 1962 when they pledged Patricia Hamilton’63. In 1963, the Tri-Delts lost their charter when they refused to promise their national organization that they would not pledge a black woman, and Pi Kappa Alpha lost theirs in 1964, when they pledged Dexter Roger Dixon’68 and Rudy Scott’68. In 1967, the Phi Psis fought and won against a hold placed on the initiation of E. Gregory George’71. I explored the next step towards inclusion in Greek life as it relates today to admitting transgender individuals into single-sex Greek organizations. Phi Kappa Psi pledged its first transgender student at Beloit in 2012.

The Beloiters involved in these episodes learned to be leaders in the face of adversity and discrimination—a pervasive force in this country. These events, occurring within  the predominant social scene on campus at the time, also put into perspective what was happening nationally during the Civil Rights era. The alumni I researched and talked with took courageous steps of their own well before the infamous marches on Washington and Selma grabbed the nation’s attention. They embodied a crucial Beloiter trait—a firm commitment to action when their community members are the victims of bigotry or discrimination.

This spring, I enrolled in an Advanced Broadcast Production course that allowed me to learn videography skills that were imperative for these alumni interviews. However, it was not enough to simply collect these stories; they needed to be shared with the Beloit community. And that is exactly what I set out to do in the form of a documentary film titled: We Lived Civil Rights: Beloit Greeks Integrate.

At Reunion 2013, I screened portions of the film to as many as 70 alumni. A panel discussion followed, which brought to light many unknown details. The conversation was engaging, the interest was palpable, and it continued throughout the day as numerous alumni approached me about when the documentary would be done and how they could get a copy.

I am pleased to say that the college has tasked me with finishing the film and seeing that it is of the highest quality possible. It will be completed in August. If you are interested in procuring a copy, please email me at: Hetland.eric@gmail.com.

In the end, Mary and Jane and others taught me another thing about being a Beloiter—the importance of learning from those who came before me. By sharing their stories, they reconfirmed what I knew all along—I’m proud to be a Beloiter.

Eric Hetland’12, Chicago, Ill., double-majored in political science and education and youth studies at Beloit and was actively involved in the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. After he completes the documentary film, he begins a career in student affairs as a resident counselor for the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill.

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