Hundreds of members and alumni of UW-Madison’s historically black fraternity and sorority gathered at the East Campus Mall Saturday to witness the unveiling of the Divine Nine Garden Plaza, the first physical manifestation of the National Pan Hellenic Council’s presence in its 75-year history the flagship university of the country.
“This is extremely important, especially for representation on a predominantly white campus. Having that sense of belonging, a place where we as black people, as black sororities and fraternities can feel a sense of belonging on this campus is long, long, long overdue,” said Vanessa McDowell, Delta Sigma Theta sorority graduate and CEO of the Madison YWCA. “It’s a legendary day. This is a historic day for us.”
McDowell’s mother, Candace, the founding director of UW’s Multicultural Student Center, helped create a database of NPHC alumni to seek support for the project. The McDowell family made one of the largest donations toward the construction of the nine memorials, each about 10 feet tall and bearing the names of founding members and the organization’s motto and history.
“It was truly a pleasure to have had the opportunity to work on this project with a phenomenal group of committee members and serve only campus in this way,” said Candace McDowell.
The Divine Nine Garden Plaza arose out of demands made by the UW administration by the Student Inclusion Coalition, which was formed after a 2019 homecoming video themed “Home is Where We Are,” which completely excluded students of color, though a video by NPHC -Member students was filmed.
UW graduate and future medical student Nyla Mathis said she was told the footage of black students was “too dark” to be used in the final video — a statement that felt very much like an insult to her in her childhood had heard.
“For that it really hurt me then as an adult,” Mathis said. “And it made me feel excluded from a community that I once thought I was a part of. So instead of keeping my race away from the things that hurt me more, this time I’m using this opportunity of exclusion to invest in inclusion.”
Israel Oby, co-founder of the Fellow Student Inclusion Coalition, said students are often excited to come onto campus and use their voice to uplift the community, only to find that voice being silenced or ignored.
“To me these memorials are not just a representation of the amazing work these NPHC organizations do, although I am very grateful to finally be able to see these historical organizations properly, but these memorials to me are also a representation of the fact that our voices matter across generations of colored students on this campus trying to use their voice and walking away feeling defeated and silenced,” he said. “Let this memorial remind you that you did not speak up in vain, that your voice made an impact and that we would not be here today were it not for your courage and advocacy.”
“This is a big deal because it honors a lot of black students who are part of these Greek organizations,” said Delta Theta Sigma alum Jessica Franco-Morales. “They could find community by joining these organizations, which were originally formed to exclude people of color in a predominantly white facility. That’s just a long time coming. It bears the fruits of the labor of many people. Many people have been working on it for many years. And it’s great to see it actually come to fruition.”
She also said location is important.
“I think it’s important that on the East campus it’s small, right, it’s not hidden behind the building or somewhere nobody goes, this is a prominent, highly visible area on campus,” she said.
This visibility is important as a representation of the university, said Monte McDowell, brother of Vanessa.
“What’s being overlooked is how it makes the campus look to people who aren’t in our fraternities and sororities, people who are visiting from out of town, that it’s an inclusive campus, which isn’t the message, which the university has sent in the past. I think it’s just important to not only have a sense of belonging for us, but for other people to see that we’re here too,” said McDowell, who now owns a clinical laboratory testing service in Atlanta.
“We’ve been pretty proactive in trying to make sure we have a voice here on campus,” said Cornelius May, one of the founding members of Phi Beta Sigma, which was founded at UW in 1979. “We didn’t have the space to do what we wanted to do back then. But this one kind of gives you, even if you don’t have a house or whatever, but giving you this memorial here today gives you a place to say, hey, this is our home. We exist here. We are here.”
Payton Wade, another co-founder of the Student Inclusion Coalition, said the memorial gave her a sense of belonging she hadn’t felt before.
“I’m excited to say that I’m so proud to finally feel like a badger,” she said.