It’s finally probate Season at N.C. State and nearly each week since March neophytes from different organizations have been introduced to the yard in lines ranging in number from 3 to 11.
But what is a probate? Why do black Greek organizations have them? And, how do students who are not Greek respond?
According to Walter Kimbrough, the author of Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities, the word “probate” was not the original term for the presentation show.
Originally, a probate was the member of the Greek letter organization who was to be initiated. This is where the origins of the name of the show evolved.
According to Kimbrough, on many campuses, probates participated in two performances during the nine-week pledge program. In 1969, at Tennessee State University, a line performed once in the middle of the process and once at the end. By the 1980’s students began identifying “Greek Shows” as “Probate Greek Shows”.
At that time, probates were done by initiated Greek Members. Of course terms for the show differed among the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) during the early 1960s. For example, at Norfolk State, stepping was called blocking, and a Presentation show as called a “Block Show”. However, Probates eventually caught on around the East Coast.
Probates have evolved rapidly over the years, especially during the integration years of the 1960s when predominantly white institutions were beginning to actively integrate their campuses by recruitment of African Americans. For this reason, the 1970s were nearly a non entity in the development of pledging around the US; a far cry from a rapid evolution witnessed from the 1930s to the 1960s.
The 70’s was a period of mass expansion of black Greek organizations due to the prior Civil Rights Movement, and what seems to be a bout of self-awareness in the black community. For example, prior to 1969, Alpha Kappa Alpha would refuse to introduce more than 5 undergraduate chapters in a given year according to Kimbrough. However between 1969 and 1979, the organization was introducing at least 10 chapters per year; thus introducing over 100 new undergraduate chapters in a ten year period, mostly on the East Coast.
From here, it is easy to see how the pledge process became less homogeneous with time. The Probate shows were no longer all at the same time, with some in the spring, and others in the fall, where as originally, almost all probates occurred in the during the second week of November in front of the student union. Also, the length of time of the pledge process changed amongst organizations and throughout campuses. Many critics of the pledge process argue that the non-homogeneity of the process created a lack of legitimacy in the organization.
However, the argument may be hard to support due to the shear volume of Greek organizations that arose in a very small frame of time.
Jennifer Udom, a sophomore in Biological Sciences commented on the probate process of NC State, stating that “Probates are a right of passage for the people who experience them, but can be truly nothing more than an entertainment experience for others because they are not a part of [the organization].”
This may be the thoughts of many students at NC State, however it is unclear due to the fact that more than ten non-Greek students refused to comment about Greek life at NC State, and anonymous quotes were not accepted.
Through all of the changes, many things about the probate show have remained the same over the years. For example, in the study of probate shows, it is evident that the pledges are usually masked in some fashion and are dressed the same, often doing music routines of popular groups. Dating as far back as the 1930s, they are usually ordered numerically and recite the history of the organization.
It is not certain of the direction of probates for black Greek organizations as time goes on. Will they return to the roots of Greek shows witnessed in the 1930s, or will time continue to evolve the process in a new direction? Time will only tell.