HBCU-esday: Greek Life

Greek life is a defining feature of Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and Black culture on campus. Historically Black fraternities and sororities were established at HBCUs to offer Black students the opportunity to cultivate friendships and meaningful relationships, celebrate and honor Black culture, and contribute to the social and economic vitality of BIPOC communities.

History of Greek Life

Black students were excluded from many predominantly white institutions (PWIs) before the civil rights movement. Consequently, for many years, these students were unable to join a variety of predominantly white student organizations, such as established fraternities and sororities.
This exclusion led Black students to form their own Greek organizations that acknowledged and affirmed Black culture. Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Black Greek fraternity, was founded at Cornell University in 1906. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek sorority, was founded two years later at Howard University in 1908.
Black Greek organizations are commonly known as the Divine Nine or D9, referring to the nine fraternities and sororities that were founded between 1906 and 1963. These organizations currently compose the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which was originally founded at Howard University on May 10, 1930.
The nine historically Black Greek letter organizations include Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity.
While each organization has its own distinct identity, all Black Greek organizations share common values, including high scholastic achievement, fictive kinship, and racial and gender empowerment through community and philanthropy. These organizations emerged to empower Black students and help them survive racial hostility.

Significance of Greek Life for Black Student Culture

Black fraternities and sororities create and perpetuate Black cultural traditions, including call and response and step performances.

Call and Response
Enslaved Africans brought the call and response to America. One person (or a group of people) say or sing a phrase, and others reply with a responding call. The call and response is a way to establish affinity, and it was used as a method of discreet communication between people who were enslaved. They used the call and response to communicate location, express emotions, and protect themselves from danger.

The Art of “Stepping”
Stepping is a form of stylized movement or dance and is commonly performed at step-shows for Black Greek organizations. Step shows are a performative act for Black Greeks that allow them to showcase the uniqueness of their fraternity or sorority. Stepping originated in Africa, and these movements were done as a form of communication and entertainment. Stepping began in Black fraternities in the late 1940s and 1950s. Today, stepping is passed down to fraternity and sorority members as a way to show group unity and camaraderie. Stepping continues to evolve with popular Black music, and each Greek organization plays a role in helping shape and create its own steps. While each fraternity and sorority has its own unique call and response and style of stepping, the tradition of these long enduring practices unite the Black Greek community.

The Divine Nine

In a world that has long denied Black students the opportunity for social and economic advancement, Greek life serves as a means of Black empowerment through Black culture. HBCUs have been important institutions for helping Black students feel safe and valued, and Greek life has contributed to many students’ sense of belonging and enjoyment of their experience at HBCUs Black Greek letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council are woven into the fabric of HBCUs across the country. They were founded by students and faculty members who were just one to two generations removed from slavery, during a tumultuous period of American history, underscoring the tenacity and fortitude of their founders.

These organizations, also known as the Divine Nine, have served communities globally, fostered sister and brotherhood, and are a cornerstone of Black culture. They have showcased Black academic prowess across all fields and continue to serve as a beacon of Black excellence. Here’s a brief look at the origins of these illustrious organizations.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated
Founded on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for Black men. In 1907, the organization’s first chapter on an HBCU campus was formed at Howard University. Alpha Phi Alpha boasts membership from prominent historical leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, and renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. The fraternity’s “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People” initiative started in the 1930s in response to voter suppression African Americans faced when trying to exercise their right to vote and has continued to raise political awareness and conduct voter outreach through forums.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated
Founded in 1908 in Miner Hall of Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. was the first Greek-letter sorority established for Black women. The organization served as a way to foster growth among students and in the larger community. Today, Alpha Kappa Alpha works to highlight the pride of its HBCU roots through the “HBCU for Life” initiative that uses the power of its more than one thousand chapters to encourage enrollment at HBCUs, as a sustainability measure for these schools. It boasts notable members including Vice President Kamala Harris, Coretta Scott King, and Poet Laureate Maya Angelou.

Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated
Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated was founded in 1911 on the campus of Indiana University. The organization formed as a way to unite Black students at the University who experienced extreme isolation given the arduous segregation of Bloomington, Indiana in the early 1900s. With its formation, the organization provided a way to inspire others through achievement, while forming bonds. Today, Kappa Alpha Psi boasts its “Guide Right” program initiatives that promote mentorship and leadership development in youth across the country. Prominent members of the fraternity include film pioneer John Singleton, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick.

Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated
True to its motto “friendship is essential to the soul,” Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated was founded in 1911 at Howard University by a group of students and their faculty adviser. The organization was established under the principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance, and uplift. Its founding members went on to serve during the First World War and continues to honor prominent member Dr. Charles Drew through its blood drive program and partnership with the American Diabetes Association. Other notable members include Reverend Jesse Jackson, poet Langston Hughes, and mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin E. Mays.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated was founded in 1913 on the campus of Howard University by 22 visionary collegiate women. The organization was founded with the purpose of primarily serving the Black community and promoting the development of its members. Within its first year of existence, the sorority blazed its trail of political activism by participating in the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913 and continues to serve communities around the world through its signature Five-Point Pragmatic Thrust that includes initiatives in educational and economic development, international awareness and involvement, physical and mental health, and political awareness and involvement. Notable members of the organization include Poet Laureate Nikki Giovanni, legendary entertainer and activist Lena Horne, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated
The founders of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated conceived the idea of an organization with deep, authentic connections to its community through brotherhood, scholarship, and service. This idea came to fruition in 1914 on the campus of Howard University. The fraternity’s guiding principles of giving back to the community were actualized in 1934 with the establishment of the Social Action Program. Today, members of Sigma raise awareness of relevant health concerns through partnerships with the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, and Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. Notable members of Sigma include the late Representative John Lewis, iconic activist and film pioneer Harry Belafonte, and legendary television personality Al Roker.

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated
Bound by its constitution, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated is the official sister organization of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. It was founded on January 16, 1920, by five women on the campus of Howard University who adopted the concept of Finer Womanhood in addition to its core principles of sisterhood, scholarship, and service. The Sorority marked the centennial of its founding this year and continues to serve through its Elder Care Initiative and National Educational Foundation. Notable members of Zeta Phi Beta include legendary singer Dionne Warwick, comedian and former International President Sheryl Underwood, and canonical anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston.

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated
In 1922 at Butler University in Indiana, seven women founded Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated. The educators envisioned an organization that created greater progress for women and their families to reach their full potential. Living up to the original vision and mission, Sigma Gamma Rho boasts numerous service initiatives including OPERATION BigBookBag, that seeks to alleviate the challenges faced by homeless school-aged children. Some of its most notable members include rap icon MC Lyte, actress, and pioneer Hattie McDaniel, and Grammy-nominated singer Kelly Price.

Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Incorporated
Morgan State University in Maryland is the home of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Incorporated which was founded in 1963. The fraternity’s founders saw an opportunity to use their unique student experiences to create a service organization for men. They executed this mission initially by joining the protests of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. They continue in the tradition of activism and service with its “I-S.H.I.E.L.D.” program that seeks to address human trafficking, domestic, child, elder, and sexual abuse, and bullying. Well-known members of Iota Phi Theta include actor Terrence C. Carson, music producer Kendrick Jevon Dean, and television broadcaster Spencer Christian.

Together, these nine organizations make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council and serve as cultural catalysts through their service and pride. These organizations represent a piece of Black history in America that demonstrates the bold vision with which the community and campuses of Historical Black Colleges and Universities continue to foster, uplift, and implement Black excellence.

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