The first social organization of any kind established by students at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College was the Epsilon chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, a national social fraternity, on Nov. 11, 1873. It was soon followed by the Epsilon chapter of Sigma Alpha in 1873 (name changed to Black Badge Society in 1877); the Nu chapter of Kappa Sigma and the Zeta chapter of Kappa Sigma Kappa in 1874; and the Alpha Phi chapter of Beta Theta Pi in 1877. A charter for the Southern Xi prime chapter of Kappa Alpha was issued to two students in 1877, but the chapter never initiated any other members and quickly folded.
Since neither official college publications nor student publications of the era ever reported any existence of the social fraternities, it can be assumed that there was never any official approval of the organizations by college authorities. But they did exist in town, albeit for a very short time, and it can also be assumed that the college’s refusal to supervise them led to acts of mischievousness, rowdiness, and destruction of property.
In the late 1870s the board of visitors of the college evidently placed much of the blame for an increasing lack of discipline in the student body squarely on the membership of the national social fraternities. A Committee on Reorganization studied the situation in 1879, and among many other rules and regulations it adopted was the following: “No student, during his connection with the college, shall belong to any secret college society, nor an association, except such as shall have been approved by the faculty; nor shall any assembly of students be held for any purpose whatever without the express permission of the President.” The rule became effective on Jan. 1, 1880, and, coupled with a decline in student body enrollment to 50, most of the chapters folded. Kappa Sigma Kappa continued to initiate students for several years, but in 1886 the college required all students to sign a pledge “on honor, that I will not join, or form any connection with, either directly or indirectly, any secret club or society, fraternity or other organization, composed in whole or in part of students of the college, or attend the meeting of any secret organization, or wear the badge or colors of any secret society.” The pledge had disappeared from the college catalog by 1890, and in the ensuing years several local social fraternities were organized. By 1916 the fraternity movement had grown to a point where some students asked the college administration to approve the organizations. At first the administration indicated that it would approve the fraternities, but a group of cadet officers, led by the president of the corps, opposed college approval and conducted an anti‑fraternity campaign. One of their main arguments was that secret societies fostered “internal friction” on the athletic teams and would be “against the best interest of the school from an athletic standpoint.” The cadets succeeded in convincing the officers of the Alumni Association, who announced in July 1916 that the association “as a whole” did not favor recognition of the societies. At a meeting on Sept. 14, the board of visitors once again denied official recognition to the fraternities.
The fraternity question arose again following the great increase of civilian students on campus after World War II. Seventeen students petitioned the administration in 1951, requesting approval of dormitory clubs that would “promote good fellowship and good citizenship and give expression to the social and civic interests of the members.” The petition was granted for the on-campus clubs, but the social facilities in the dormitories were woefully inadequate, and the clubs soon afterwards began to move their operations into town. One town group called Delta Kappa Sigma petitioned the administration for recognition in 1953. President Newman took the request to the board of visitors with the suggestion that the board’s policy on social fraternities be re-examined and either revised or reaffirmed, with Newman writing the board that “the administration feels that social fraternities are not desirable at VPI.”
The board reaffirmed its existing policy. Delta Kappa Sigma immediately took down its Greek letters, renamed its house the Blacksburg Sports Club, and continued business as usual. Later, they reinstalled the Greek letters.
As student body enrollment mushroomed in the 1960s, so did the local fraternities. And with the growth in numbers came renewed efforts to attain recognition. In 1964 President Hahn said that the university “could not recognize social fraternities,” but a change in social climate led to reconsideration of the question. A student preference referendum in 1967 indicated an increased desire for recognition of social fraternities, and two years later University Council proposed a recognized on-campus fraternity system.
When University Council’s proposal came to a vote by the student body in the fall 1969, the proposal was defeated primarily because of the on-campus requirement. Meanwhile, Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of the 10 largest national fraternities, decided to grant a charter to a group of Virginia Tech students, regardless of whether they would be recognized by the university. Other national groups quickly followed suit.
University Council continued to study the recognition problem, and early in the summer 1971 decided to approve the principle of recognition and supervision of off-campus fraternities and sororities and asked the Student Personnel Division to recommend by May 1, 1972, “procedures for implementing fraternity and sorority recognition.” At the meeting of the board of visitors on Aug. 16, 1971, the board also decided to approve recognition in principle “subject to the development of appropriate procedures approved by it.” On May 24, 1972, the board gave its approval to fraternity and sorority recognition, effective July 1, 1972, and to the creation of the Interfraternity Council, or Panhellenic Council. The plan approved by the board provided for an off-campus system, with the university assuming no responsibility for the organizations. On July 30, 1972, two fraternities, Phi Delta Theta and Pi Kappa Alpha, received the first official university recognition. Including those fraternities, the university officially recognized 33 fraternities and sororities, 22 of which were allied with national organizations. Approximately 1,200 students held membership in the organizations.
During the 1982-83 academic year, three fraternity and sorority houses, called special purpose houses, were completed adjacent to campus. Each had a capacity for 36 students. Today, the university has an extensive Greek system—65 are nationally affiliated—housed both on and off campus.
In the 2009-10, the university withdrew recognition of five fraternities, all for alcohol-related violations, and in spring 2010, it denied recognition for two years to one sorority, which occupied facilities in on-campus Greek housing, after several incidents over two to three years of drinking in the sorority house.
Dancing has always played a special role in the social life of students at the university, from impromptu sessions at the flip of a CD button to the elaborately planned and decorated Ring Dances.
Most of the early dances were held at the Yellow Sulphur Springs Hotel because the college had no facilities for dances. The September 1875 issue of the Gray Jacket reported that the student “Masque Ball” at Yellow Sulphur Springs was “a complete success.” The dance started at 8:30 p.m. and continued until midnight. Twenty students and their dates were dressed in costumes resembling nuns, clowns, paupers, and other figures. The report also said that some “looked more like hyenas and the devil than anything else.” A more romantic report on a dance the following spring said, “We continued to trip the light fantastic toe until late evening. Many were the aching hearts that the Blacksburg cadets carried off beneath their ‘gray jackets’.”
In 1887 students formed the Cadet Dancing Club, and its “germans” (a type of formal dancing) became established social features for the students. The club, which operated with a casual executive body, reorganized into a more formal structure to raise the quality of its dances. By about 1891 students were calling the organization the Cadet German Club, so the organization renamed itself the V.A.M.C. German Club. It obtained a charter in October 1893. Membership was restricted to any male student who had the “anxiety to dance” and who could “acquit himself creditably on the ballroom floor.” Although membership officially was by application, in practice it was by invitation. Membership was limited in number and was not easily attained.
The club held its first german on Nov. 30, 1893, in Library Hall on the second floor of the Second Academic Building with 15 couples and 15 stags attending. Starting time for the dances was usually 9:30 p.m. with a break at midnight for supper. After supper, the dance would continue until about 3 a.m. A dance usually began with a figure, led by one of the club members. The Viennese waltz, german, cotillion, polka, schottische, and two-step were the dances of the day; any new dance had to be demonstrated for, and approved by, faculty wives before it would be allowed.
In 1908 several students from Richmond formed an Omicron Club to present dances in Richmond during the winter holiday breaks and summer vacations, later adding Cotillion (after a type of dancing) to its name and becoming the Omicron Cotillion Club. In the session of 1912-13 the club split into two parts, Omicron Gamma Gamma and the Cotillion Club, whose purpose was to present dances on campus in competition with the German Club. The Cotillion Club presented its first dance in the Pavilion on campus on March 28, 1913. A year later the Cotillion “allowed some of the new dances, the one step, grapevine, and the hesitation waltz being the most prominent.”
In earlier days the dance clubs presented opening dances, Thanksgiving dances, mid-winter dances, an Easter dance, and a finals dance for seniors. In later years the schedule was changed to dances on Fridays and Saturdays one weekend each quarter. As dances became more expensive to present in the 1960s, the clubs began sponsoring concerts by popular artists and used the profits to present the dances. The Student Union assumed the sole right to present concerts in 1968 and, in return, promised to make up losses suffered by the clubs through the spring of 1970.
About the same time, the student body lost much of its interest in formal dancing, and attendance began a steady decline. In 1970 the Cotillion Club decided that its social future lay in a different area and disbanded to reactivate, in 1971, the Epsilon chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha national social fraternity.
The German Club presented formal dances each quarter during the 1970-71 session but dropped to a single set of formal dances, which were held in fall quarter, during the 1971-72 session. In the 1980s the appeal of formal dances continued to decline, and the organization began holding an annual Midwinters Dance for all students during February. The event, which continues today, features bands and decorations. In 1981 the club constructed the German Club Manor, located adjacent to the campus, to house its activities, although the Midwinters Dance continued to be held on campus. During the organization’s 100th anniversary in 1992, it added the Gordon Ballroom, named for alumnus Charles O. Gordon Sr., to the facility and adopted a motto: “Leadership for Service through Fellowship.”
Other Early Social Clubs
Another strictly social group on campus was organized by upperclassmen in 1895 and was called the Bachelor Club. Its stated purpose was “the promotion of fellowship.” The Bachelors had an erratic existence, folding at the end of the 1895-96 session, operating again in 1898-99, folding again for one year, operating again from 1900-10, folding again, and operating once again from 1925 until World War II, when it disbanded for the last time.
When women joined the student body at VPI in 1921, the cadets refused to grant them membership in their social clubs, so the women formed, by 1930, their own social organization, which met in homes on a monthly basis.
Another male social organization, the Scorpions Club, was organized by cadets in 1932 “to build corps spirit.” It folded in 1935.