“Atomic power–with its inevitable threat–lurks at the heels of every misstep….We can no longer look up and see our own fenced-in gardens….We see now the yellow, white and black faces of the world reflected in a sky no longer private.”

Lenny Conversi, Hillhouse student, The Sentinel, 10-4-46

Lenny was probably 15 or 16 when he wrote those words, encapsulating the ideologies that led to the secret societies’ demise. However compelling the sentiment, though, actions lagged behind. Institutions typically self-perpetuate, and these groups had been in existence for decades. So most Greek letter societies failed to heed BT-‘s call to disband.

In the summer of 1949, the Board of Education stepped in and with one wave of the hand, ended all secret societies at Hillhouse.  Several organizations went underground, just as the administration predicted in 1912. However, they continued on for a few years, only, as rush and initiation events were difficult to hold without school backing.

Moving beyond one’s “fenced-in gardens,” again, was a nice idea, but hardly one that New Haven denizens rushed towards. When I interviewed Pasquale, the respondent from Act III, I pressed him to provide “reasons” why people stayed in their own groups. I came up with a bunch of ideas, and he politely stopped me and said, “I know you are trying to come up with some academic explanation, but we stayed with our own groups because that was what was done.” Simple as that. No analysis. No reflection. Just a taken-for-granted reality.

But, let’s reflect anyway. Back in the 40s, the majority of people lived in self-contained ethnic enclaves. Everything that people needed was within walking distance. Big box stores were in their infancy. Exurban malls were unheard of. Cars were still a luxury. Respondents identified the street and even the number where the ethnic make-up of a neighborhood shifted. As Louise’s story (in Act II) illustrates, if an Italian were to move up the social class ladder, they faced discrimination, a barrier that few chose to breach.

Further, the interview data suggest that, in practice, movement out of “fenced-in gardens” meant that the “one” exception should be allowed in:  the “one” Protestant (as was the case with the Irish-Catholic sorority Epsilon Nu Sigma) or the “one” non Italian (as Teresa related in Act V). Several respondents mentioned the KIPOD dance as highlight of the high school years. But it still was the “one” dance. 

While that dance apparently paved the way for other integrated gatherings, as Teresa’s interview indicated, no one mentioned “the one” African American. While ethnic and religious barriers were growing more permeable, racial barriers remained. Another taken-for-granted reality.

The sole respondent I interviewed from Sigma Delta, the African-American sorority, gently scoffed at the “white” groups’ focus on their pins and dances. For her, sorority life centered on giving back to her community, the one that made it possible for her to thrive in New Haven’s premier academic high school.

As I noted at this blog’s outset, Hillhouse provided opportunities for students from all areas of New Haven to intermingle, despite the insularity of their home neighborhoods. So, I queried the respondents to name a person from outside their group that made an impact on the school. Nearly all graduates of the mid-to-late forties mentioned Levi Jackson, a top student/athlete who enrolled at Yale and became the first African-American captain of the football team. 

Respondents mentioned how Levi Jackson made them proud as they reveled in his success at Yale. Those who knew him personally commented upon his sterling character. As a high school student, however, Levi Jackson was barred from joining any fraternity. The only African American fraternity ended during World War II, a fate that befell several local groups as men enlisted in the US Armed Forces. 

Nick, our respondent in Act VI reflects on the incongruity of such a stance and that is where I leave you all.

The video above is also linked on YouTube. If you do mosey on over there like and subscribe.


How far have we moved away from our “fenced-in-gardens” since 1949, if we have at all? Please share your reflections on this question and on the play.

Thank you all for your attention. 

And now, I will move on to my research on the Wooster Square neighborhood at New Haven’s eastern edge.  Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter!  Press the button right below this post.

Stay tuned!



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