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A ‘crying need’: The history of Duke’s fraternity housing and its role on campus

<p>Five dorms in the Sigma Chi fraternity section were robbed during Winter Break.&nbsp;</p>

Five dorms in the Sigma Chi fraternity section were robbed during Winter Break. 

This is part one of a series about the history of selective housing at Duke. Part two will focus on sorority housing.

When selective living is phased out at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, it will have been nearly a century since the practice began—a tradition older than Duke.

Fraternities first received housing in fall 1924, a few months before Trinity College became Duke University that December. This was much earlier than sororities and notably did not include multicultural Greek organizations.

Two years prior, Trinity College fraternities approached the Board of Trustees to request housing accommodations for their organizations, something that members had been wanting for years.

"The agitation for fraternity houses at Trinity College which has been more or less prevalent for the past quarter of a century is to reach its culmination Saturday when the Board of Trustees is to vote as to whether the fraternities are to be allowed to build them,” reads a Chronicle editorial published Nov. 1, 1922. “In the opinion of The Chronicle this is a progressive step and should meet with the approval of the Trustees.”

The proposal, however, was not approved. The following week, The Chronicle reported that trustees postponed voting on the matter indefinitely, much to the disdain of students at the time. Supporters believed that having separate amenities for fraternities would relieve overcrowding in other houses, and for some fraternity members, having housing was the only way to achieve the “real fraternity ideal.”

A March 1924 editorial called fraternity housing “the crying need of fraternity life at Trinity.” It also blamed the failure of the 1922 proposal on a lack of external pressure and the fact that “most of the fraternity men themselves were not sufficiently interested themselves to forget their selfish ambitions and cooperate for the good of all concerned.”

The editorial also noted that rumors of the University’s expansion had “aroused this dormant fraternity ambition.” The University began purchasing multiple lots in Durham in late spring 1924, according to the Durham County Register of Deeds.

As a result of the rumors, campus fraternities formed a committee to advocate for housing and planned an interfraternity banquet to which faculty were invited. That banquet was held April 15, 1924, according to a Chronicle article printed the following day.

Faculty and significant individuals at the University—such as Robert Flowers and William Wannamaker—were present at the banquet and “showed marked interest in the efforts of the fraternities in securing homes,” giving fraternity members “the optimistic impression that fraternity homes were soon to be a reality at Trinity if proper plans could be presented by the fraternities.”

By September of the same year, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Chi, Chi Tau and Lambda Chi Alpha had each gained housing for 20 to 25 men. Chi Tau had an apartment above the home of a faculty member’s wife, while the other three fraternities had houses. A residential housing timeline from the University Archives says the houses were along Markham Avenue. A March 1925 Chronicle article describes the Sigma Chi house as being “in front of the small North Gate and scoreboard of the athletic field” on East Campus.

“The success of the fraternity house plan will, of course, depend largely on the manner in which the houses are run and fraternity life conducted,” a Sept. 24, 1924 Chronicle article reads. “But present indications are that the men are proud enough of their houses to want to make them an established institution at Trinity.”

Space issues

As the University continued to expand, fraternity housing remained a staple. When new dorms opened on East Campus in 1927, fraternities were given housing sections and common rooms, according to the residential housing timeline. Three years later, fraternities were granted 20-room sections on West Campus and could rent additional rooms if necessary. 

These changes carried financial implications. In 1943, the superintendent of West Campus buildings and grounds told The Chronicle that fraternity sections had higher maintenance costs than non-fraternity sections, and that the conversion of rooms that would have been otherwise occupied by students into chapter and card rooms reduced revenue for the University. 

Fraternities paid rent for the number of beds in their sections and also signed contracts with the University saying that they would be charged for unused space, which they eventually tried to relieve themselves of in 1953.

While fraternity housing was initially proposed as a way to free up space in campus housing, fraternities eventually ran into space issues of their own. In 1974, 54% of male students were in fraternities but only 48% of men’s housing was allocated to fraternities, according to a Chronicle article. As a result, fraternities started rejecting members due to space concerns and Duke’s Interfraternity Council leadership advocated for more bed space. The housing shortage was still an issue three years later, so fraternities began to advocate for off-campus housing.

The role of fraternities on campus

At multiple points in Duke’s history, residential life committees grappled with the role of fraternities on campus, only to allow fraternity housing to remain. Despite financial challenges and other changes to Duke’s housing system—including the proposed abolition of fraternities, as University Archivist Valerie Gillispie wrote in Duke Magazine—fraternity housing remained relatively constant at Duke until the 2020-21 academic year, when selective living was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fraternities’ long-lasting presence on campus had ripple effects on the community. Students in 1978 saw fraternities as having the most convenient housing, and those that weren't in fraternities either got placed in “undesirable,” crowded independent houses or moved off campus. Some thought the existence of fraternity housing and not sorority housing was unequal; in 1980, the Association of Duke Women filed a Title IX complaint against the University, alleging gender discrimination in housing among other areas. Some students of color felt unwelcome on West Campus and found it difficult to secure West Campus housing without rushing.

“Fraternities occupy most of the housing on the main quad of West Campus. Why shouldn't independent houses, coed houses, and even sorority houses have the same chance?” a student questioned in a 1979 Chronicle article. That year, approximately 70% of selective housing was occupied by fraternities.

Additionally, not all fraternities have had the same opportunities for housing—Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is the only historically Black Greek organization that has had campus housing, and Multicultural Greek Council organizations had housing from 2012 to 2020.

If you have additional information on the history of selective housing at Duke, contact Nadia Bey at managing@dukechronicle.com. 


Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.

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