Amid the pandemic and a host of Martin Luther King Jr. commemorations nearly two years ago, a small group of students, alumni, faculty and administrators attended a ceremony to celebrate the legacy of Black fraternities and sororities at the University of Florida.
The focus of the event, on Jan. 14, 2021, was the unveiling of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) Garden, on the Reitz Union North Lawn near the Field and Fork Pantry, as a tribute to the nine international Black Greek-letter organizations and their history on campus.
The garden features a brick-based historical marker for each of the five fraternities (Alpha Phi Alpha, Iota Phi Theta, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma) and four sororities (Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho) comprising the council. The organizations are also known as the “Divine Nine.”
“I am glad that the University of Florida has taken the long overdue steps to make sure the legacy of the NPHC will never be forgotten,” Camille Okonkwo, a member of Delta Sigma Theta and then a senior advertising major, said during the ribbon cutting ceremony. “I hope this garden will serve as a safe community gathering space for members of the NPHC.”
UF President Kent Fuchs also attended and said the garden would honor the organizations “for their immense contributions to their members and also to our university” – and “create a permanent and enduring place for everyone to share in this acknowledgement.”
Recently, however, that celebration has turned to dismay and outrage.
On Oct. 31, one or more people damaged four of the nine markers by removing Greek letters from their plaques, the UF branch of NPHC said in a statement on Nov. 4 that aimed to bring attention to what it said was the third such act of vandalism at the garden.
NPHC said in its statement that while UF “condemns the action” – “as a council we feel ignored by the lack of urgency and awareness of one of our few places on campus.”
In a brief statement posted on social media after the council went public with its sentiments, the university said that “a law enforcement investigation continues” into the matter, and that “additional security measures” were being put into place to prevent further damage.
While calling the garden “a cherished tribute to the heritage and legacies of the Divine Nine” and “their role in representing and supporting Black students,” UF also pledged to “work for the perpetrators to be found and swiftly brought to justice.”
Other Greek-letter organizations on campus also released statements in support of NHPC.
Calling the garden “one of the very few spaces on campus dedicated towards the Black community,” the Multicultural Greek Council “strongly denounces these acts of disrespect” and urged UF to “bring forth justice urgently and diligently to those who violate such spaces.”
The UF Panhellenic Council, the local branch of an umbrella organization for 26 predominately white sororities across North America, said it stands with NPHC “against these acts of blatant disrespect and ignorance.” The UF Interfraternity Council also called the vandalism “unacceptable” and said, “It is all of our responsibility to protect this honored space.”
The garden was intended as an outdoor space where NHPC students and alumni can gather, hold special events and take pride in their respective organizations and celebrate their heritage, according to webpage posted by the UF Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.
A task force including NHPC student leaders suggested the garden as a visual campus representation for the council similar to those at other colleges and universities nationally.
Vandalism to spaces set aside at UF for groups that have a history of suffering prejudice and racism. The former space for the Institute of Black Culture building was targeted once in 1991; so was its current facility in 2021. A sign outside Walker Hall, then a space for the African American Studies program and the Center for Jewish Studies, was knocked over in 2017.
The vandalism has left alumni of NHPC groups at UF disappointed.
“I thought we would be past this,” said Renee Sterling, who joined Alpha Kappa Alpha in 2002.
“It’s really sad, on the back of so many events that have been unfolding across the world, that a university that strives for inclusivity has not made any real comments or done anything about it,” said Sterling, who graduated from the UF Fischer School of Accounting with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and now works as an accountant based in London.
Ran Carthon, the leading rusher for the Gators football team in 2003 and who joined Phi Sigma Beta at UF in 2000, also bemoaned the garden vandalism.
“It is disheartening because it feels like this is an extension of what is going on in society,” said Carthon, who is now director of player personnel for the San Francisco 49ers. “You do not have to hate my organization to show love for yours.”
Carthon remembers a time when all fraternities and sororities on campus – Black and white – had mutual respect and even enjoyed social events together.
“I think it would do the university well to bring all of the fraternities and sororities together and just have a better relationship built,” he said. “A space where everyone could learn more about each other. It would help in bridging the gap. We are all Gators.”