Bernice Greene: AKA for 77 years
She was a junior at Florida A&M College – FAMCEE, as it was called – walking about the campus in the school’s uniform of white blouse and blue skirt, dating a young man whom she would likely marry some day.
Bernice Matilda Gordon’s grades weren’t the best and she wasn’t the most popular. In fact, she was one of those who didn’t mind being alone. So it was a mystery to her when, one day in 1932, her white French teacher tapped her of all people to join this new group called Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. That teacher saw something in her, she says, that she had yet to see in herself.
Today, Bernice Greene is one of the sorority’s oldest members, at soon-to-be 97, living her life healthy and well in Camden, N.J. She’s a charter member of Beta Alpha Chapter and has been a member of Omega Omega Chapter since 1951. Veteran Sorors like her are some of the most respected and revered in black Greek-letter organizations.
In this interview, she tells the story of her life, joining the sorority and more, in her own voice:
I was (at Florida A&M College), 1929 through 1933, the president said no fraternities, no sororities on that campus as long as he was president. The guys from the fraternities defied him. So when they did that, the French teacher said if they defied him we can defy him. So this French teacher chose five of her French students. We knew each other because we were all on the same campus and happen to be in the same class. That was in May (1932).
She had to tell us what it was all about. She trained us for six weeks in sorority information. We were kinda role models because it was something new, and everybody said, “hmm, how did they get selected and how can we.” Funny thing about it, my college boyfriend was a charter member of Beta Nu Alpha (Beta Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity) and I was a charter member of Beta Alpha.
I think God has taken care of me. Even back there in West Palm Beach when the superintendent selected me to (be first supervisor of Negro Education at 23 years old), they thought I was getting preferential treatment. But I must’ve been doing something in the education world that impressed them because I was the first black then that they did that for.
And I got that car. They asked me if I could drive and I said yes. I didn’t even know how to drive. I had to take a young man with me ‘cause I had to go out on the ‘Glades (Everglades) and those canals. They say can you drive, and I said yes. I couldn’t drive. … Somebody reported it about the young man going out with me. By that time, he had taught me enough.
I remember (as a child) I used to walk from my house to the church. I would go around and pick up children and take them to Sunday school. I guess I was always (a leader). I don’t know if I was a good leader but I was always leading. These were children whose parents were not going to church. I remember way back there I was teaching one little boy the Lord’s Prayer. He had a speech impediment.
(My dad) was the one who encouraged (me to be a leader). My mother was a laidback person. My mother did not finish high school but she sat with me at that dining room table every night for homework. She couldn’t help me, but way back then she sat at that table.
I was adopted at three days old. They said Jo when that baby is born, give (her to) us. Three days old, she says, ‘Here,’ to that minister and his wife. And I say Lord, thank you. I’m sure my unwed mother would have been the best mother she could have, but I don’t think she would have given me the training and the atmosphere the minister and his wife gave me. Wasn’t that so nice of her to give me up at three days old?
I tell young people now if you want to do something and it’s a good something and you put your mind to it you can do it. I didn’t tell you how you can do it or what you had to do. Right now, if they want something out there they go get it. That’s the same way with education. If you really want that education, you go get it.
My poor mother I don’t even know how far she went in the grades, but she preached you got to get an education. That poor uneducated woman knew what an education was and she gave me her moral support.
My mother grew tomatoes. In college, the mothers used to send their children pies, cakes, fried chicken. I never got anything. Guess what I got? A basket of tomatoes, and they laughed at me back there. But my mother knew that if I had a tomato that I could make a meal with the other stuff I may not have liked. They laughed at me when I got my basket of tomatoes. I didn’t mind them laughing. Some children are so conscious they get upset. Laugh. I don’t care.
I eat an apple a day. When my husband was living, I said I eat an apple to keep my doctor home (her husband Douglas was a urologist).
Douglas was my college sweetheart and he wanted to get married while we were in college but I said no, I haven’t been anywhere, I haven’t seen anything. And I do believe until death do us part. And we stayed together in college and we both came out and worked before we got married. Douglas said, ‘Bernice, I don’t want to teach.’ I said, ‘What you want to do?’ and he said, ‘I want to be a doctor’. So I said, ‘Get off your duff and go.’
So we were married when he went to medical school, and when he finished his first four years’ training as a med student to become a doctor, he said, ‘Bernice, I don’t want to do general practice.’ I said, ‘Don’t come out.’ He spent eight years in training: four years medical training, four years special training. He was a urologist. I guess I was inborn to support, to give help.
I guess God put his hand on me way back there when he gave me three days old to this minister and his wife. It was just in me to reach out to others. I just automatically do it.
(As a teacher) when I went to school I went to do my work. Teachers used to give their children busy work and I don’t believe in busy work. What I give you ain’t busy work; it’s work. I don’t mean I was goody-goody but I just believe I had a job to do.
I remember a young man, I was in there one day and he said, ‘We ran all the others away.’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to run me away.’ I said, ‘I came here to do some work.’ And when I left he said, ‘Best teacher we ever had.’ They said that boy had given everybody a fit and they had to send him to the principal’s office. And I told him, ‘I’m not going to send you to the principal’s office ‘cause you can’t learn anything down there.’ I said if you stay in here with me you might learn something.
When you put some people down, even what they can do, they don’t try. They needed attention but in the meantime they needed to be taught something. What can they learn down there outside the principal’s office in a chair. I told him I’m not going to send you down there. I guess he say this woman is crazy. But when I left he said, ‘Best teacher we ever had.’
I have friends now I say I’ve got to make you laugh. And sometimes we just laugh. You can feel a little down, and if you laugh, it breaks that heavy feeling. Of course some of my friends say we want to be like you. No you don’t. I say you want to be a devil? They say a devil like you, yes. That’s what I tell them.
I’m an old one but I don’t sit there (and say), Do this for me, come here, give me this. I don’t mean that my way is the best way. But the Bible says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And if you do, it’s a better world.