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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sharon Rose Powell, June 20, 1989. Interview L-0041. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Experiences of antisemitism and discrimination in the South and at UNC

Powell recalls how she was not accepted into a sorority at the University of North Carolina solely because she was Jewish. Arguing that this was not the first time she had experienced antisemitism, Powell concedes that "discrimination was a way of life in the South." Powell concludes by drawing connections between her experiences and African Americans, recalling how some of her dormmates reacted when her friend invited two African American women to visit for the weekend.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sharon Rose Powell, June 20, 1989. Interview L-0041. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

As freshmen, we really didn't know anything at all about sorority living, but as a sophomore, I was invited, as were all my peers, to go through the Rush system, and it was an opportunity to meet the women from—there must have been seven or eight sororities at that time. I had never thought about being in a sorority before that, but all of my friends talked as if that was what you do, you join a sorority. So I decided that that must be what I should do too.
PAMELA DEAN:
It was prestigious.
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
It was. The sororities, they were quite nice. You could have your meals there, and I knew that I wasn't probably going to stay at Spencer Dorm all four years, which really was the ideal sorority. It was a larger mix and a more diverse mix of girls, and it had all the wonderful qualities that a sorority would have plus. But most juniors and seniors did not live in Spencer; they lived in the other dorms. Faced with that for the future, I thought, "Well, for a living situation, I might like a more intimate situation." There were older girls that I had met that I really admired and liked, so I joined my friends, and we all went through Rush. I remember Dean Carmichael saying to me quite early in that whole process, "You really ought to look at Kappa Kappa Gamma." I said, "Well, Dean Carmichael, I'm going to look at all the sororities. I haven't made up my mind." She kept saying over and over, "But Sharon, you really you ought to look at Kappa Kappa Gamma." That's all she would say to me, and I started meeting the girls from the different sororities, and I didn't know. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
I didn't know girls from Kappa Kappa Gamma, but I did know some from ADPi and Tri Delt and that was where I really thought I would be more comfortable. There was a policy where you went to Graham Memorial, and we all went, and you would receive an envelope. On the third night, you would write down the three sororities you wanted to be asked back to, and if those sororities wanted to have you come back, they would extend an invitation back to you. You knew if you got through that round, which was not the last round, but the second to the last round, that you would be guaranteed of getting in at least one of the three, and everyone, everyone, would get through that round. It was just not something, everybody would get into one sorority or another, it just may not be their first choice, but at least you're going to get into your third choice. I will never forget, it was probably something that changed my life in more ways than one, the experience of going with my friends to Graham Memorial and receiving our envelopes with the invitations and receiving an empty envelope. I knew as soon as it was handed to me that it had nothing in it, and as I walked through the line past Kitty Carmichael, she was ashen, and she looked at me and said, "I told you to look at Kappa Kappa Gamma." What I learned later was that—I'm Jewish—and that the sororities, at that particular time, were not inducted Jewish girls, except for Kappa Kappa Gamma. They were the only sorority that had alumni who had given permission for Jewish girls to be in the sorority, and I had two strikes against me. I was not only Jewish, I had divorced parents, and that was another, at that time, in the mid-60's
PAMELA DEAN:
These sorts of things would come out during your meetings when you went to get to know these girls. These things would become known.
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
Yes, that's right. Well, the girls who had made the recommendations for their sororities and had recommended that I be in the sorority were told by the alumni, by their parents, that they absolutely could not consider me. It was just not acceptable, and they had veto power, so I learned this later and, of course, realized later what Kitty Carmichael was trying to tell me. It was fortunate for me that I had started going out, just that fall, with a young man who is now my husband, and he was waiting for me after we had found out where we were going to be asked back. He said, "Well, who are the lucky sororities?" And I said, "None of them because I didn't get asked back." I just felt mortified and embarrassed, and he said "That's their loss. Let's go to lunch." And that was sort of the end of that. He just had this way of saying, "Too bad for them."
PAMELA DEAN:
That's why you married him?
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
Yes, one of the reasons. Of course, what that did for me is give me the time and the interest to continue to live in the dormitories, rather than move away from that into a sorority, and to devote my time and energy to the majority of women who were not in sororities, and pay more attention to their needs—and our needs—and our living situation within the dorm.
PAMELA DEAN:
Let me ask you, had you encountered, previously, before coming to Chapel Hill, anti-semitism in any overt way? Was this something that was totally unexpected?
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
We were living in Charlotte. We had applied to join the country club, the Myers Park Country Club, which was a few blocks from our house, and were denied an invitation because we were Jewish, and we discovered that Jews were not allowed, and so we had to go across town to the Jewish country club. So certainly, on that level, it was a less personal level, I was younger, but I was aware that, it was not a shock that Jews were not allowed into certain places. I knew, from a very early age, that not only were Jews not allowed, but even more so, blacks were not allowed into restaurants, into bus stations, and it was something I grew up with and always abhorred, but discrimination was a way of life in the South.
PAMELA DEAN:
Chapel Hill, just prior to your arrival, had gone through about a year and a half of major Civil Rights demonstrations.
SHARON ROSE POWELL:
Yes, I remember quite well my friend, Mary King, had been involved with Girls State, and she had met some lovely girls who were black from the all-black high school, and she'd remained friends with them, and she had invited them to come to Chapel Hill and spend a weekend. When she did, the shock that she received, so many of the girls in our dorm just really didn't know what to do with it, and one of the girls stayed in our room and one stayed in Mary's room, but she had a hard time convincing the girls in our dorm that this was O.K.