A half-century later, John Zongrone still
wonders where he got the precocious gumption to rise
before his fraternity's national convention and declare
his chapter could not remain part of an organization
that admitted only those who were Christian and white.
"I look back, I'm thinking, 'I was 19 years old,'"
Zongrone said Friday.
This kid from the State Teacher's College in Albany
stood his ground as the 1952 gathering of Kappa Delta
Rho erupted into boos and jeers. He would describe the
moment as "kind of scary."
"It was uncomfortable, let's put it that way,"
Zongrone would say.
That fall, Zongrone's chapter had initiated five
pledges who had written "Jewish" in the space marked
"religion" on their applications. The five included a
concentration camp survivor named Kurt Rosenbaum.
"He had tattoos on his arm," Zongrone would recall.
The applications had been duly submitted to national
headquarters. All five were rejected.
"They said, 'We can't do this,'" Zongrone would
remember. "We said, 'What do you mean we can't do
The national organization proved to have an unwritten
gentlemen's agreement barring all save white Christians.
"It could have been blacks, it could have been
whatever," Zongrone would later say.
Zongrone had grown up happily in the demographic
jumble of the lower East Side, and he was repulsed by
such an agreement. The rest of the Albany chapter joined
him in a unanimous agreement of their own, one befitting
On June 21, 1952, Zongrone stood before the
convention at the Theta chapter house at Purdue
University in Indiana. He declared that his chapter
would secede unless the convention passed a
constitutional amendment admitting members "without
discrimination for race, creed or color."
In the ensuing tumult, Zongrone was ruled out of
order because he was making a threat. His reply was pure
"We're not threatening you," Zongrone would recall
saying. "It's just what we're going to do."
The amendment was defeated by a vote of 84 to 47. The
convention did pass a "suggestion" that membership be
explicitly restricted to "those who believe in the
Christian faith and whose social and cultural background
is that of the white race."
After Zongrone returned home, Kappa Delta Rho's
national president flew to Albany in a chartered plane.
The pledge with the tattooed forearm and three other
Jewish pledges waited outside the frat house as the
national president sought to persuade the chapter not to
"We heard this hullabaloo from inside, a lot of
noise, a lot of shouting," one of the pledges, Stuart
Macnofsky, would remember. "I recall two suitcases being
thrown out on the lawn. They were followed shortly after
by this guy."
On Sept. 29, 1952, the 62 members of the Albany
chapter voted unanimously to resign from the national
"At the time, I didn't think we were making history,"
Zongrone was later quoted as saying. "We were just doing
what we thought was right."
That same day, Zongrone and his comrades founded a
new fraternity, Alpha Pi Alpha, open to those of all
races and religions. The State University of New York
was inspired to order all fraternities on its 33
campuses to sever ties to any discriminatory
Setting the stage
Nine years later, the Northern chapters of another
fraternity sought to open membership to all. The
Northerners of Sigma Nu were defeated at its national
convention by segregationists who prominently included
the head of the Ole Miss chapter, Trent Lott.
Lott went on to become the Senate majority leader, a
height that only measured his fall after he spoke at
retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party as
if he were addressing the 1961 convention of Sigma Nu.
Zongrone went into the insurance business. He reached
in October a higher height from which there is no
falling when he attended a 50th reunion of Alpha Pi
Alpha at what is now called the University at Albany. He
was joined by 18 of 61 who had joined him in the stand
"You have no idea of the feeling of these guys,"
Zongrone would recall. "They were in tears. Just
thinking about it makes me well up. The young people
kept saying, 'You led the way. You did this for us.' You
couldn't buy that feeling."
This weekend, as Lott sits in shame in Mississippi,
Zongrone is attending a holiday family gathering in
upstate New York, able to look back to when he was 19
with the quiet, unassuming pride of the truly great
"It was the right thing to do," he said.
Originally published on December 22,