The outdoor venue provides a designated space where fraternities and sororities can host their events.
It’s Homecoming week at the University of Arkansas where Black Greek-letter organizations are celebrating having a new place to call home. After years of work, the National Pan-Hellenic Council Gardens and plaza will be dedicated Saturday in Fayetteville.
Universities have a history of constructing NPHC plots or gardens — outdoor spaces specifically dedicated to Black fraternities and sororities, says Parice Bowser, assistant vice chancellor for Greek Life/associate dean of students. As an undergrad at Arkansas State University in the ‘90s and a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Bowser helped create such a space on the Jonesboro campus. Unity Park was originally dedicated in 1998, and then expanded and rededicated in 2015.
It’s necessary to have these types of spaces on college campuses because they provide an opportunity for NPHC organizations to show who they are, and for others to see they exist, Bowser says.
“I think it’s really important and critical for these organizations to have space that they can call their own and they can have a sense of belonging, that they definitely belong and are welcome here at the University of Arkansas,” she says.
Seeing these tributes to underrepresented students on other campuses inspired former Razorback football player Deatrich Wise, Jr. to suggest creating a similar space in Fayetteville. A member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Wise first approached Bowser with his idea about five years ago.
“As an undergraduate student, there was a lack of representation for the Black Greek culture on campus,” Wise said in a statement. “I wanted something to represent our history and culture, but also have a plot to showcase who we are as Black fraternities and sororities. This design is beautiful and well thought out. This will forever be brilliant.”
Embedded into a hillside located south of the Administration Building and overlooking Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the NPHC Gardens includes rectangular stones for seating and a lighted stage where NPHC students can host events. Other groups and students can access the space as well, but NPHC organizations will be given priority.
The new outdoor venue also has nine stones that bear the letters and brief history for each of the Divine Nine, the nine fraternities and sororities that comprise the council. The U of A is home to seven of those organizations. Only two of them, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., have houses on the Fayetteville campus.
Wise, a two-time Super Bowl champion, is now in his fifth season in the National Football League with the New England Patriots. Although he graduated before this project was completed, other students have continued working on it. Former students TJ Kitchen and Thea Winston conducted research and organized presentations for university officials. Other recent graduates who contributed to the creation of the gardens include Ahmere Albert, Khalil Buckmire, Delyane Coleman, Nik Harper, Rachel Jackson, and J’Lynn Lowery.
Current NPHC president Madison Russell, a senior and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, attended the groundbreaking for the gardens in May and is excited about this weekend’s ceremony. Without a dedicated space, her sorority has hosted events in rooms at the Arkansas Union. As a student, Russell has access to the library and other buildings on campus, but says none of those were built with the intention of Black students using them.
“So having that space and being able to say when this was built it was built for Black students, for Black Greek-letter organizations, I feel like is a big deal especially at a predominantly white institution,” she says.
Fellow AKA member Larissa Whale is also excited to be part of this moment and grateful this project could be finished during her senior year.
“Being at the University of Arkansas we are the minorities because Black Greek-letter organizations, we were founded at a time in which we would not receive the same opportunities back then…just being a part of this significant moment means a lot to me,” Whale says.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., was founded in January 1908 on the campus of Howard University. AKA was a chartering organization of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which was formed in 1930. Each of the council’s nine organizations developed at a time when racial isolation on predominantly white campuses and social barriers of class created a need for African Americans to align themselves with others who shared common goals and ideals, according to the NPHC website.
Race and class remain an issue on college campuses today. In the summer of 2020, Black students launched the #BlackAtUARK social media campaign to highlight negative encounters they experienced on campus because of their race.
Russell’s experiences as a Black student at the U of A have been a mix of “high highs” and “low lows.” She counts the NPHC Gardens as a high point, but recalls a low moment freshman year when a white classmate posted a photo of himself wearing a charcoal mask on social media. The image included the words “Wakanda Forever” and the caption read “I hope this offends someone.”
Having grown up at a “tiny private school” in Texas, Russell says this was her first experience with blatant racism. These types of incidents and the reactions to them have been disheartening.
“The hardest part has not been seeing and enduring racist actions on campus, but it’s been the sometimes lukewarm response when I feel like it should very much not be a lukewarm response because this is not something that’s like, ‘oh kids will be kids.’ It’s not,” she says.
While there’s still a long way to go in improving the environment for minority students, Whale says the creation of the NPHC Gardens and plaza is a good step.
“I feel like it’s a step in the right direction. It’s definitely not going to stop racism, not going to stop people from being disrespectful, but it gives us a safe space to just be able to congregate and have special events, and for people to come and see what our organization’s about,” Whale says.
NPHC students also have a new building to call their own this semester. Located just east of the intersection of Garland Avenue and Maple Street, Unity House provides a space where traditionally unhoused Greek chapters whose membership is primarily minority-based can meet. Both members of NPHC and the Greek United Council — Latino fraternities and Latina sororities — have access to the space.
On Aug. 1, Greek Life began managing the building, which originally served as the Delta Gamma sorority house. The building was sold to the university when the sorority left campus in 1992. The U of A’s development office occupied the facility for nearly three decades.
A few years ago, Bowser and her staff began talking about things they could do for groups without houses, particularly multicultural organizations. They discussed ideas like creating multipurpose spaces for programming and office space for each organization.
“Never in a million years did I think we were going to get a three-, four-story building where we would really be able to just take it and pretty much do whatever we want to do with it and make it home for these organizations,” she says.
Students have been using Unity House during the fall semester for office space and to host a variety of programs and events. Because the building has been used primarily for offices for years, Unity House will undergo renovations in late spring 2022 to make the space more student-friendly, Bowser says. The hope is to complete the project by the fall and host a dedication ceremony around this time next year.
“On top of them being able to use it for office space, we also want them to be able to use it for student success; we want them to be able to have study areas,” Bowser says. “We definitely want the social aspect of it to build community. We think that’s important being a part of these organizations, but it also helps to make the students more connected to the campus as well as to each other.”
An open house is scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 15 at Unity House. The university will dedicate the NPHC Gardens and plaza at 9 a.m. Oct. 16. The Razorbacks’ homecoming football game against Auburn will follow with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m.
More information about the U of A’s Greek organizations is available at www.uagreeks.uark.edu.