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Black Sororities and Fraternities Provide an Important Lens for U.S. History

Our newly appointed first African American and Asian American Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, is also the first graduate of an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) and the first member of a Black Greek-letter organization (BGLO) to serve as Vice President. She talks often about the impact her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority had on her life; it even affected her recent Vogue cover shoot.

A Timeline of Black Greek-Letter Organizations

This exciting development, along with the fact that it is Black History Month, got me interested in exploring and sharing the history of BGLOs. While many of them originated at HBCUs, the very first one, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, was formed at Cornell University in 1906. Black students at Cornell were few and far between and faced significant prejudice and discrimination. They first formed a study group that allowed them to support one another, and eventually formalized the organization into an official fraternity.

Two years later, AKA formed at Howard University. 1911 witnessed the birth of two more Black fraternities: Kappa Alpha Psi at Indiana University and Omega Psi Phi at Howard University. By this point, BGLOs were focusing not just on the well-being of their members on campus, but also on the larger issues facing Black Americans as a whole. Shortly after the Delta Sigma Theta sorority was founded at Howard University, several of its members participated in the 1913 Women’s March.

Howard University soon had two more BGLOs, Phi Beta Sigma fraternity (1914) and Zeta Phi Beta sorority (1920). In 1922, Sigma Gamma Rho sorority was established at Butler University in Indiana.

The Divine Nine

In 1930, the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) formed at Howard University to serve as a collective for the eight aforementioned BGLOs. They later added Iota Phi Theta fraternity, a fraternity formed at Morgan State University in Baltimore by twelve civil rights activists three weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Although many more BGLOs exist, these nine NPHC members continue to be referred to as The Divine Nine. Together, their members have donated millions of dollars to fund scholarships and mentorship programs, and they continue to focus on both activism and service. Divine Nine members have made a point to leverage their education, resources, and connections to improve conditions for Black Americans throughout the country as a way of promoting racial equality.

Prominent Leaders, Activists, and Authors

Vice President Harris is by no means the first BGLO alum to achieve prominence. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, was a Delta Sigma Theta, as was Hazel Johnson Brown, the first Black woman general in the U.S. Army. You can read about other notable Delta Sigma Thetas here.

On the fraternity side, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights activist, sociologist, and writer W.E.B. DuBois were Alpha Phi Alphas. Congressman John Lewis was a Phi Beta Sigma, and his induction into their “final” Omega chapter was a moving ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol.

A Cultural And Historic Impact

As an historian who is always arguing that history is everywhere, the example of Black Greek-Letter Organizations is a powerful one. The histories of these organizations are intertwined with the history of racism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, higher education, and more, making it all the more important that their stories be preserved and shared with as wide an audience as possible. They offer a wide lens through which we can examine American history and culture.

Note: To date, HistoryIT has helped many fraternities and sororities save their history and make it accessible, but we have not had the opportunity to partner with a BGLO.

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