Not Forgotten UConn: Rogers a civil rights pioneer at UConn

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)