UF is creating a garden that will be placed in the Reitz Union North Lawn to honor the campus’ Black Greek organizations.
The project has been in the planning stages for the past four years and is expected to be completed in late September or early October. An opening celebration has not yet been planned due to COVID-19 delays, said Reginald Lane, director of the UF Office of Sorority and Fraternity Affairs.
All nine campus members of National Pan-Hellenic Council, or NPHC, the conglomerate of historically Black sororities and fraternities, will receive plots, per the design decided upon by NPHC members and architect firms. The design features a circular garden with a tree in the center and three groups of plaques devoted to each organization circling around it.
The Divine Nine are the nine historically Black sororities and fraternities in the NPHC and will be honored in the garden.
Though there are places like the Black Student Union, Institute of Black Culture and the Black Cultural Living Learning Community, there has not specifically been a place for Black Greek life plots until now.
Jasmine Simmons, a 22-year-old UF linguistics major who graduated this summer, was the 2019-20 school year president of The Lambda Rho Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority. She said Lambda Rho and members of each NPHC group worked over the last few years with Student Activities and Involvement, Sorority and Fraternity Affairs and architect firms to design the garden.
“This moment of recognition feels different and long overdue but we are happy that it has happened,” Simmons said. “We finally feel as if we have a space to celebrate and highlight our council.”
Lane said the planning process for the garden has been several years in the making. The project is funded through the Capital Improvement Trust Fund, a state level fund generated by student fees for use on nonacademic student life buildings on campus, will cost close to $350,000, Lane wrote in an email.
Construction on a grassy area that will hold a physical space honoring the Divine Nine on the Northern Lawn near Marston Science Library is now underway.
Simmons said the journey to the garden has been difficult due to conflicts over design and construction start delays.
“Nonetheless, knowing that we will have the garden placed on campus soon makes it all worth it,” she said.
Plots become a space of celebration and recognition for Black students on campus and NPHC gardens exist on campuses around the country.
There are limited physical places of gathering for Black Greek letter organizations, as they do not have campus houses like members of the other fraternities and sororities on campus. The UFNPHC uses the Reitz as a meeting place.
The garden comes as a recommendation from a 2016 report compiled by the campus Black Student Affairs Task Force, a group on campus that worked to explore the campus climate for Black students and identity steps for change. The task force recommended, among other things like town hall events, creating physical plots for Black Greek letter organizations as part of addressing racial disparities.
There are years of increasing tensions on campus as a result of incidents like the Walker Hall sign, home of the African American Studies department, being uprooted. There is also the fact of UF’s low racial equity rating. In a 2019 incident, Black students were called racial slurs in a SNAP.
All of these realities have created a situation where Black students have long voiced feeling unsafe, unwanted or unheard at UF, where they make up about 7% of the student population according to UF enrollment numbers. That is compared to about 57% white students, about 15% Hispanic or Latino students and about 7.4% Asian students.
UF Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Will Atkins posted a video on Twitter July 28 announcing plans to build a garden at the Reitz Student Union to honor the UF National Panhellenic Council.
The garden joins other implemented task force recommendations like a Black student transition program, a Black Cultural Living Learning Community and the naming of a chief diversity officer, Atkins said.
In a Facebook video on the UF Greeks Facebook page, NPHC president Samuel Nelzy said the garden will be a place for NPHC students and alumni to gather and celebrate their organization’s heritage.
Isaac Ricks, a 20-year-old UF construction management senior, and a new member of UF’s Omicron Zeta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, said the garden is a great opportunity for campus.
“It would feel wonderful to have a place to go to for spirit and pride,” Ricks said.