By MAYA MOORE
August 22, 2019
Special to The Chronicle
STORRS — Many of the most notable events of the Civil Rights movement were still a decade in the future.
Jim Crow laws reigned in the South and, in Connecticut and at its flagship university, racism and discrimination wasn’t as overt.
But it was still prevalent in the immediate post-World War II years.
In the book, “Red Brick in the Land of Steady Habits: Creating the University of Connecticut,” Bruce M. Stave wrote that in 1946, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Albert Waugh, fielded a student complaint about a professor who claimed the inferiority of “the Negro race” was explicit in the Bible.
In 1947, the state’s InterRacial Commission verified discrimination against African-American students was occurring at hotels and barbershops in Willimantic.
Alfred Rogers, a Manchester High School graduate and 1953 UConn graduate, was cognizant of this racial climate when he headed to the Storrs campus as a freshman.
But during the second semester of his freshman year, racial issues became personal.
He was accepted into a UConn fraternity, only to have the fraternity’s national organization move to blackball him.
Rogers told Stave in a 2003 interview, the University of Connecticut was his first, and only, choice for his higher education.
He knew there would be just a dozen or so black faces amongst a sea of white ones, but he had grown familiar with such disproportionate minority representation in high school.
The university was not officially recording minority enrollment at the time, but fewer than 10 students of color can be spotted in Rogers’ freshman yearbook.
As a football player and member of the Student Senate, Rogers was the kind of guy who knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew him.
So, it was a surprise only in the context of the era when he was elected freshman class president.
Rogers initially had no intention of joining a fraternity, he told Stave in 2003.
However, it was the kinship, forged in the fire of dormitory antics and the newfound freedom of a home away from home, with his hometown friends Daniel Blume and Marvin Lapuk, that convinced him to pledge the Upsilon Chapter of the Jewish Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity in 1949.
In January 1949, the Student Senate barred any organization from using university buildings or funds if they discriminated.
Nevertheless, the president of the Greek letter society’s national Grand Council, Louis Traurig, a Waterbury resident, felt Rogers’ initiation would create tension with chapters in the South.
The local chapter at first agreed to postpone Rogers’ initiation, but when the national chapter handed down a “blackball” that summer, according to a Hartford Courant article published on Sept. 26, 1950, university chapter members issued an ultimatum.
They wanted Rogers initiated, or they would secede from the national organization.
Rogers returned to campus as a sophomore amidst headlines in the Daily Campus and the Hartford Courant detailing the local fraternity’s pledge to stand behind him.
Numerous chapters from New York to Georgia also pledged support. Connecticut Gov. Chester Bowles threw his weight behind the cause.
U.S. Sen. William Benton congratulated the local fraternity for setting an example for the state and the nation.
Rogers, who still lives in Connecticut, later looked back on the incident, saying the experience helped prepare him for other pioneering roles such as leading one of the first integrated Army units during the Korean War and a career at Northeast Utilities.
The national leadership officially backed down in December 1950, reinstating the UConn chapter.
Rogers was initiated in 1951. The incident led other local fraternities seeking to integrate their ranks to sever ties with their segregationist national organizations.
“The experience with Phi Epsilon Pi was an example of a team of committed Americans who were determined to strike a blow against intolerance and bigotry on their watch,” Rogers was quoted by the Hartford Courant as saying at the 2006 UConn anniversary.
Editor’s Note: The writer is a University of Connecticut journalism student.
Top photo: Alfred Rogers ’53 (CLAS), ’63 JD, speaks on campus as part of the 125th Anniversary celebrations in 2006. (UConn File Photo)