Receiving Sigma Kappa's letter of apology this year prompted Terrie Williams Schachter to recall what it was like to be at the center of a stand against prejudice in 1956
The moment that put me on the front page of The New York Times in 1956 wasn’t part of a goal I had set or a crusade I was on. I had just done it to honor a friend.
Gemma Cifarelli was a junior when I was a freshman at Tufts, and she became something of my big sister. Not long into my first year, she asked if I would be willing to pledge to a sorority. She said Katherine Jeffers, dean of Jackson College, believed that sororities had secret discriminatory clauses and she wanted to test them.
Gemma came to me because I was one of two Black women in the Class of 1959. I had known I would be very much in the minority when I came to Tufts, but that didn’t bother me. When the assistant dean of students had interviewed me, she had told me they were eager to have me not only because I was a good student—I had been accepted at all the schools I applied to—but because there had not been any Black women at Tufts for years, and they wanted to change that.
While I loved Gemma, I didn’t want to have anything to do with a sorority—I thought it was just snooty girls talking about other girls. I had my academics on my mind. So I said no, thank you.
Then, about a month later, Gemma died in a car accident. I reconsidered what she had asked me, and thought, This is what I can do for her. The other Black woman in my class, Eleanor Turpin Murrell, also pledged, and we were accepted into the Omicron chapter of Sigma Kappa at Tufts.
Late that summer, the uproar happened. The national headquarters of Sigma Kappa sent a letter saying that our chapter’s charter had been withdrawn. Dean Jeffers and everyone else knew it was because of Ellie and me, but the Sigma Kappa HQ would only say they were closing the chapter “for the good of the sorority.”
It was probably my first experience with prejudice, really. In New York City where I grew up, my friends and family were all mixed. I knew about discrimination, of course. I had read about it in books. I had seen the “Colored Only” signs when I visited my grandfather in Norfolk, Virginia, as a little girl. But it just didn’t relate to me.
After Sigma Kappa’s reaction, the dean then was able to put the sorority off the campus because of its discriminatory clause. I guess that was a good thing. But what mattered to me was that it was what Gemma wanted to find out, and I did it.
The national headquarters of Sigma Kappa sent a letter saying that our chapter’s charter had been withdrawn. Dean Jeffers and everyone else knew it was because of Ellie and me, but the Sigma Kappa HQ would only say they were closing the chapter “for the good of the sorority.”
Both Ellie and I were sort of amused because such a big deal was made of it. We were called symbols in all the newspapers. And I thought, This is just ridiculous. Ellie and I used to write to each other over the summers, addressing each other as “Dear Symbol.”
My family, however, was a different story. The day the news broke, I was home over the summer, and my uncle came in with the front page of The New York Times—it had a story about what was going on with the Tufts chapter and the two Negro girls who had pledged. His first question to my family was, “Is this going to affect your education?” I think that’s all they cared about.
That was interesting, because my family had a long history of fighting discrimination, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My great-great grandmother had convinced the bishop to open a Catholic school for Black children in Norfolk. The school was called St. Joseph’s, but anyone who was around at that time referred to it as Lacey School, which was my family name.
My grandfather had tried to organize a union at the naval yard where he worked in Norfolk—and was fired for it. Many years later, his nephew served as president of a Black union at the same yard.
Did the sorority story affect my education? Yes, in that there were people who distanced themselves a little bit when I came back sophomore year. It was uncomfortable. Ellie and I used to talk about it. I guess I crossed a line or something by pledging. I think a lot of people felt that Ellie and I had destroyed something that was.
It affected my decisions in some ways. I was cast in a theater department play called “The Member of the Wedding” as Berenice Sadie Brown. She was a main character, but I almost didn’t take the part. I remember thinking, Do I want to play this Black housekeeper? Am I stereotyping myself? I don't know if I would have thought of that before the sorority incident.
But I finally decided to do the play, and it was great. Theater became a very important part of my Tufts experience.
After graduation, I earned my master’s in social work and education. My first job was in a hospital, where I met my husband, a medical student. He was white. His parents didn’t want us to get married; they didn’t want me to think they were prejudiced so they just said we would have all these problems if we married. None of his family came to the wedding. They didn’t have anything to do with my kids for a long time.
Most of my family approved, but there were some who did not. Here we were, a family who had done so much for Black America, and I was going to marry someone who was white?
We moved to Montclair, New Jersey, a town that has a reputation for being interracial and interreligious in every way you can think of. This seemed to be a place for us to come and rear our kids. We have five children—two biological and three adopted. We decided we would only adopt mixed-race children, feeling we could offer them something that they might not get otherwise. My own heritage was mixed race from way back, to when my great-great-grandfather, an Irish lord, had children with an enslaved Black woman.
And so we have all tried to live our lives. It’s an old cliché, but we have more similarities than we do differences.
My grandchildren—I have eight of them—have different responses to what Sigma Kappa did back then. They mostly say, “God, that was mean and stupid!”
This spring, I received an unexpected letter in the mail. It was from the national council of Sigma Kappa. They acknowledged that it was our membership—Ellie’s and mine—that had prompted them to revoke Omicron’s charter and offered an apology for the “hurt, harm, and pain” it caused to all the Tufts Sigma Kappa members.
What did I think of the apology? Well, it is so divorced from my life now. I think it was nice of them to do it. I did wonder why, when my fellow Tufts alum Charlie Trantanella, E89, contacted Sigma Kappa for a book he was writing about 10 years ago, the sorority leadership claimed not to know the reasons behind the charter revocation back in 1956. But I do give credit to the present Sigma Kappa organization. They didn’t have to write such a fulsome apology.
The apology has had me thinking about the concept of membership. A few years after we moved to Montclair, someone asked me to join the Junior League. They did not have any women like me in the Junior League then, and I thought, Here we go again. But I think because of what had happened with the sorority, I didn't outright say no. And I’m so happy I joined because we did some fantastic work. We got the board of education to put seatbelts on the school buses and created a program for children at our local art museum.
I was only a member of Sigma Kappa for a couple of months, so I didn't have a chance to realize that some women join sororities for valuable and worthwhile reasons. It took me longer than it should have to admit to myself that my attitude toward sororities had been just another form of plain old prejudice. I hope the women of Sigma Kappa today know that I respect them.
I’ve also been going through material from Tufts’ Sigma Kappa archives and thinking about Dean Jeffers. On the day the news hit all the newspapers, she called me at home to tell me that the most important thing was for me to return to campus and continue to be the fine young lady I had proven to be. I learned later about all the horrible letters that alumni were sending to her, criticizing her for treating Black women as social equals. Only after many years did I truly realize how awful it must have been for her. She should really be considered the hero of all of this.
In the end, I do feel we raised the consciousness of people, and our own consciousness as well.
Terrie Williams Schachter, J59, worked as a social worker before becoming a teacher in Fort Apache, the Bronx.