When Laurel “Johnnie” Fisher ‘72 was looking for colleges, she went to the Internet of her time—the incredibly thick and heavy 1967 version of Barron’s List of American Colleges and Universities. Her only criteria: that she experience another part of the country. So, she closed her eyes, opened the book, and pointed her finger right at Northland College.
Then, she convinced her best friend Beverly Harris ’72 to join her. Together, in the fall of 1968, the two African-American women and their mothers rode the bus thirty-three hours from New York City to remote Ashland, Wisconsin. They arrived at midnight on a Saturday night. “I had never seen so many stars,” Fisher said.
When Fisher’s mom was boarding the bus to return to New York City, she hugged her daughter and said: “you must know I love you having spent thirty-three hours on a bus and about to repeat the experience.” Harris’ mom said to her daughter, “call if you need anything and make us proud.”
“Perspectives of two loving moms,” Fisher laughed.
The next morning Fisher and Harris left the dorm with other new freshman and began introducing themselves around the campus. “There was and still is an intimacy on the campus which makes it very easy to meet fellow students and make new friends,” Fisher said.
She and Harris didn’t feel pressure to join a particular organization, but they took in the choices, including three local sororities and three national fraternities. Harris pledged and joined Gamma Nu Omega sorority and Fisher pledged and joined Alpha Sigma which was in the process of becoming a chapter of the national Delta Zeta sorority.
“We had paid their dues, gotten our pins, and been inducted with the ceremonies,” said Jan Witthuhn ‘70, who was incoming president of Alpha Sigma at the time.
The Delta Zetas were hosting a statewide gathering and invited the new Northland College Iota Chi chapter. And, so, all the women—included Fisher and another African American student, Alberta “Bert” Kennedy ’72, piled into three cars and drove to St. Norbert College near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Fisher most remembers the Delta Zeta women all wearing navy blue dresses and matching jackets. “It impressed us to no end, and our welcome to the event appeared to be genuine.”
One of the conditions of belonging to a national chapter was that all new recruits had to be approved by the national office. But time passed and no approvals came.
“This went on and on,” Witthuhn said.
Finally, Witthuhn and JoAnn Vogel ’69, who was the outgoing Alpha Sigma president, phoned and spoke with the national president and demanded an answer for the delay.
“I’ll never forget her response,” Witthuhn said. “The woman said something like, ‘Well, my dear, none of us has anything against Blacks in general or these two girls in particular, but you must understand that anyone we accept into one of our chapters must be acceptable to all of our members.’”
Witthuhn did not flinch. “That told us what we needed to know,” she said.
After bringing this news to Fisher and Kennedy in Memorial Hall, Witthuhn and Vogel brought all the Alphas, including Patricia E. Ortman ’71, together to break the news. “The news stung and was a deep reminder of what was going on in this country—and continues to plague this country,” Fisher said.
Witthuhn and Vogel reported the outcome of the phone call to the Student Affairs Office who supported Alpha Sigma’s unanimous vote to de-pledge Delta Zeta and return to being Alpha Sigma.
“I am proud to this day that our group stood up for what we believed in,” Witthuhn said.
“Jan’s response showed an understanding and maturity level beyond her years,” Fisher said. “Jan took the bull by the horns in telling this national organization where to take their rule and where to put it—in the most professional, and courteous manner.”
The moment remains a positive point in Fisher’s life. “Because Jan stood strong and Northland College, without hesitation, backed her up,” Fisher said. “I have never forgotten what this young woman showed me in how she handled herself in an extremely difficult situation. I am most grateful.”