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Joining the good fight
Members of Sigma Kappa weren't the only Jackson women to act against discriminatory practices in the Eisenhower era.

Members of Sigma Kappa weren’t the only Jackson women to act against discriminatory practices in the Eisenhower era. In the fall of 1956, members of the Jackson chapter of Alpha Xi Delta withdrew from their national organization to protest anti-black policies, especially after being told that no such policies existed.

Before pledging to it, Norma Pereira Atkinson, J57, asked if Alpha Xi Delta had discriminatory policies, which “would have prevented me from joining. I was very pleased to be told ‘no’ by someone at Tufts,” says Atkinson. “Only after I was initiated did I learn that Alpha Xi Delta did indeed have a clause that had the effect of keeping out blacks.” She asked why she’d been informed otherwise. “We were told that we could not know about this ‘esoteric’ clause until after we were initiated.”

Atkinson and other members of the Jackson chapter remained in Alpha Xi Delta. “Partly it was because this was the go-along 1950s,” she says. “We also hoped we could change the practice from within.” But members were troubled, especially Jewish members who “wanted to know how they could tell family members who had been in concentration camps that they now belonged to an organization that had a policy of discrimination.”

The issue came to a head in the fall of 1956, shortly after Sigma Kappa was suspended for pledging two black Jackson members. An official sent by Alpha Xi Delta to meet with its restive Medford members told them the sorority “had to have this policy,” says Atkinson, who headed the Jackson chapter at the time. “‘What if you take in a black sorority sister and you have a dance, and she has a black date, and he asks one of you to dance?’ One of our Jewish members said, ‘If I can dance with a gentile, I can dance with anyone.’”

A short time later—and without dissent—each member of the Jackson chapter put her sorority pin in a box that was mailed to the national office with a letter of withdrawal. “It was a difficult decision,” says Atkinson, who teaches history at Thayer Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. “Do you stay and try to reform the organization? Or do you disassociate yourself? What had happened with Sigma Kappa that summer was a catalyst to push us forward. We reached the conclusion that we had to leave, especially after that visit from the national. To stay in was to support discrimination."

Phil Primack, A70, is a freelance writer who lives in Medford, Massachusetts.