Greek life does not exist on the Maryville College campus. Any student knows that, but most students probably also know that MC’s relationship to Greek life is a bit more complicated than that.
As the child of two MC alums, I knew coming into the College about the existence of secret societies. Before fully understanding that these societies were essentially underground versions of Greek life, I always thought they seemed so mysterious. After four years, I have a better grasp on who the societies are and how they work, but I’ve never known much about how they began.
Though no member will ever willingly divulge their society’s history to an outsider, I decided to turn to Maryville College archives to find out about Maryville College’s history regarding Greek life and secret societies.
The College has always made clear its stance on Greek life. From freshman orientation, students are made aware of this opposition. In 2002, the College met to determine its official stance on fraternities, sororities and secret societies for the MC handbook. The stance is that they are strictly prohibited.
“Students involved in activities related to such organizations, including, but not limited to, rushing, pledging, perpetuating and initiating, are subject to disciplinary action,” states the current MC handbook.
The earliest clubs resembling Greek life at MC were groups called “literary societies.” Evidence of their existence and their traditions can be found in many MC handbooks as well as yearbooks dating back to the early 1900’s.
Consisting of two sets of brother-sister societies, these literary societies began as societies that conducted debates and honed literary skills, but they later developed into purely social societies that closely resembled fraternities and sororities. The existence of these societies was no secret, and they were a part of the MC culture for nearly a century.
The Athenian society, the oldest society, was formed in 1868. A piece written by the group in the 1913 Chilhowean yearbook boasts their old age.
“To wine and song the years bring a rarer flavor and a dearer melody. The poet concluded, as men still conclude every day that: ‘After all old things are best,’ and he who dwells in storied castle or amid a mist of old fantastic legends, breaths with disdain the dust of modern commotion, and senses with scorn the hurry-scurry bustle of the crowded street.”
The other male society was Alpha Sigma. This society formed later than the Athenian society and their piece in the 1913 yearbook proudly claims their youth.
“The fire of youth is ours and no power can snatch it away. It has tempered and hardened the weakest and most pliable, and has burned out the flaws and defects of the more fully developed. Who is there that dares to deny us the heritage and blessing of youth? And this is the key to success.”
Each had a sister society as well. The Athenian’s sister society was a society called Bainonian and Alpha Sigma’s was Theta Epsilon. In the College’s early years, nearly everyone was a member of at least one of the societies. Handbooks even encouraged joining and participation in “Rush week.” Like sororities and fraternities, they held a rush week, wore Greek letters, hosted campus social events, and were separated by gender, but they were never seen as a form of Greek life.
Another group appeared at the college around the 1930’s. Originally, the group was formed as a hiking club but evolved into a social club. The group was called B.G. and consisted of only eight girls. They refused to tell anyone what their initials meant, a simple fact that is stated multiple times in handbooks and yearbooks. Though advertised as a club, it was exclusive in that they elected only two freshmen and one sophomore a year.
Despite a long-standing history at MC, these clubs all died out, for the most part, in the late 1970’s. With their demise, their rich histories were also lost, and most students today are unaware of their existence. Some speculate that a few went on to transform into secret societies. Though I’d like to think this is true, it is difficult to know with any certainty.
Even with the existence of these Greek-like societies, records indicate that administration has always opposed exclusive groups on campus. On the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity website, anyone can see that a chapter opened at MC in 1852 but closed a few months later “in the face of faculty opposition to secret societies.” A book entitled “The Life and Writings of Rufus C. Burleson” contains MC’s official response to an 1874 request for the stances of colleges on secret societies.
“We believe that secret societies are fraught with mischief and should be discouraged in our institutions of learning,” MC responded.
While I found the existence of the literary societies to be fascinating, I wanted to know more about when secret societies first came into the picture. I thought it was possible that they only came about after the literary societies died out, but this was not the case. A friend sent me to the MC library in search of a book called “By Faith Endowed.”
It was in this book that I found secret societies have been a part of the MC community for almost a century. The DUDs were the first secret society to have formed, founded in 1924. The SPADEs were formed later as a sister society to the DUDs. At the time, another society known as the Dukes also existed.
Many speculate that the original female societies have since shifted names to become part of what is now known at MC as “the colors.”
Within the past 15 years, newer societies have formed, including additional “colors” as well as societies known by Greek letters, including a chartered fraternity that remains unaffiliated with the college. While it is hard to say whether the newer societies will last for years, decades or centuries, they have already created even more footprints in MC’s long history of secret societies.
For me, unearthing these histories was thrilling, but a part of me is saddened that such a rich part of the College’s history is kept hidden. Despite how much I wish that the true histories of our societies were information open to all, I know to never expect it.
After the long tradition of secret societies, the students have grown accustomed to that culture, and it seems the societies are happy to live in secret. These societies have become, to say the least, a unique part of MC’s history and atmosphere.
In an age when Greek life dominates college campuses, there is something novel about a campus full of secret societies. Like the societies before them, they will likely evolve over the years and maybe even change names. But even with histories as unclear as theirs, it seems that they are here to stay.