Every month I will highlight a Black artist, form of entertainment, business, or social media personality to help to spread awareness of Black Excellence. Be sure to check here on the 2nd of every month!
As probate season draws to a close and the D9 world prepares for the Atlanta Greek Picnic, this is the time of year that the nine predominately Black Greek-lettered organizations are most popular. Most folks get excited because now is the time that they get to see their friends with their new letters and enjoy all the cool Greek parties, but very few, even the neophyte members, truly understand exactly what they have walked into. Each of these organizations has at least a fifty year history of service, scholarship and activism that each new member we initiate now has to live up to. This month I've decided to talk a little bit about the nine organizations and give some brief history on the major things each of these organizations have done and continue to do for the Black community and the world at large. So direct your neos (and some of your prophytes) to this page and get them to learn something they (probably) didn't know.
I resist the urge to start with the best organization and go instead in founding date order. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was originally founded as a social club to compete with many of the white organizations that had hands in creating presidents, large business owners, and even the schools like Cornell where Alpha was founded. Alpha's history is painted by later organizations as one rooted in classism since, as a social club, you had to have some "clout" to be an Alpha originally. The prominence of being the first predomintely Black collegiate Greek lettered organization cannot be understated however, as without the foundation Alpha laid none of the future orgs would have anything to build from.
Notable Members: Martin Luther King Jr., Omari Hardwick, Cornel West, Donald Driver, Eric Jerome Dickey
Prominent Initiatives: March of Dimes, Boy Scouts of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
Notable Service: What is regarded as probably Alpha's biggest recent achievement is erecting a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. Alpha Phi Alpha is also very well known for nationwide "Sleep Out for the Homeless" events, which show the fraternity's dedication to eradicating homelessness.
Right after Alpha came Alpha Kappa Alpha. It should be noted that while Alpha Phi Alpha has a much more specific title, the AKAs were simply the first Greek organization created for Black women. Everyone knows the drama between the AKAs and the Deltas, but very few understand the way that both organizations perpetuated colorism. It is interesting to look at how so many look at the AKAs as just pretty girls, but they are quite possibly one of the most historically revolutionary sororities, what with having backed the Million Woman March and all. The AKAs are much more than just swinging their hair, and it's always important to remember that.
Notable Members: Brandy, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Althea Gibson
Prominent Initiatives: Educational Enrichment, Health Promotion, Family Strengthening, Environmental Ownership, Global Impact
Notable Service: AKA is currently the ONLY Black Greek-lettered organization with a specific program to highlight and financially support HBCUs through their Think HBCU program. Since many of the prominent members of the org are also still living authors there will be scholarship from AKA authors continuing to be published.
Known as the fraternity so nice they named it twice, Kappa Alpha Psi, originally Kappa Alpha Nu is another organization with an interesting founding. Though many would argue about some elements of its history (such as the real reason why it has two names and who had the canes first), some things cannot be disputed, like its dealings with racism. The fraternity was originally founded at Indiana University, and like the Alphas the org was founded to give Black students some sense of community. When the org's original name was turned into a racial slur the fraternity became Kappa Alpha Psi.
Notable Members: Marc Lamont Hill, John Singleton, Lee Thompson Young, Johnnie Cochran, Wilt Chamberlain
Prominent Initiatives: Kappa League, Guide Right
Notable Service: The Kappa League, one of the two most well known and prominent youth mentorship organizations by a Black Greek-lettered fraternity, continues to mold young men into higher positions and motivates much of the fraternity's service.
Now we start to really get into the Howard family with Omega Psi Phi. The Ques a lot of times have the same problem that the AKAs run into with people thinking they are only for show (in their case encouraging unprotected sex and eating...well nevermind). Many members come into the organization with the same thought process, not realizing that by becoming Omega men they step into the rich legacy of the first Black fraternity founded at Howard University, as well as one of the founding members of our governing body: the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
Notable Members: Michael Jordan, Langston Hughes, Jesse Jackson Sr., Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Terrance J
Prominent Initiatives: Partnerships with the United Way, American Diabetes Association, and Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation
Notable Service: Omega Men have been combining their trademark energy with a sharp sense of business for over one hundred years. Perhaps the most recent examples of this is how members of the frat welcomed presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders to speak at the AUC. Never let it be said that Omega Men are not about education as well though, as the Ronald E. McNair program constantly provides avenues for young people of color and first generation college students to get graduate degrees.
It goes without saying that the women of fortitude, the ladies of Delta Sigma Theta are major contributors to society. As the sorority (and Black Greek-lettered organization in general) with the largest membership, it should come as no surprise that the Deltas have had their hands all throughout history. While they, like the sorority that preceded them, had some issues with membership in the early days, now Deltas are seen as women unafraid to take a stance and make a change (most of the time).
Notable Members: Aunjanue Elllis, K. Michelle, Melissa Harris Perry, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Shirley Chisholm, Nikki Giovanni, Sheryl Lee Ralph
Prominent Initiatives: Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academy, EMBODI, The Total Woman: Mind, Body, and Spirit Lifestyle Change
Notable Service: Deltas have been women of service literally since their inception, since in 1913 they were the only organization for Black women to participate in the Women's Suffrage March. Now, Deltas continue to be political with events like the Delta Days at the (nation's) capital and its home ownership and Habitat for Humanity partnerships (Delta was the first org to have the latter partnership).
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. was the second fraternity founded at Howard but the first recognized by the institution. The organization went on to be the first one whose membership was not built on skin color, class or financial status, or any other sort of cohesive "look" (even Omega Psi Phi, though they didn't fall into some of the same pratfalls as Alpha and Kappa, could still be discriminatory towards certain individuals). Sigma has a powerful and storied history of rebellion against norms and revolutionary thinking, even if some members or prospective members don't see it (can you tell this is my organization yet?) Sigma's founding began a new trend of inclusion among its members; one that is constant in all of the four last members of the NPHC.
Notable Members: Huey P. Newton, George Washington Carver, James Wheldon Johnson, A. Phillip Randolph, Terrance Howard, Richard Sherman
Prominent Initiatives: Bigger and Better Business, Education, Social Action, Sigma Beta Club.
Notable Service: Sigma takes great pride in being quick responders to issues that plague America. Sigma and Omega were among the first to respond to the Flint Water Crisis, and Sigma also stood (and stands) with Black Lives Matter when several organizations founded before it were fearful of what such a stance could do to their brand. It should also be noted that Jonathan Butler, the Mizzou student who sparked the football team boycott, is a man of Sigma.
Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. brought in a new age for sororities for Black women. While AKA and Delta definitely left their mark, Zeta sought out to take a different path. A partnership constitutionally binding it to a fraternity (Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity) gave both organizations a relationship that strengthened the ideas of brotherhood and sisterhood. It should not be misunderstood however, that this just makes the Zetas "Lady Sigmas" (that distinction goes elsewhere anyway). Zeta has its own identity and it is one that builds on the historic legacy of Black Greek lettered organizations worldwide.
Notable Members: Sheryl Underwood, Syleena Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Towanda Braxton, Kimberly Morgan, Minnie Ripperton
Prominent Initiatives: Z-Hope, Stork's Nest, ZOL, Auxillary groups (Amicae, Archonettes, Amicettes, Pearlettes)
Notable Service: The Zetas were another org who didn't stop its members from supporting Black Lives Matter, in fact, the organization outright encouraged it and hinted that its sisters who had careers in law would be looking into legal action to support it. It is actions like this that make Zeta Phi Beta an organization truly dedicated to social change.
Sigma Gamma Rho was the organization to break the string of five organizations being founded at Howard University, and holds the distinction of being the only NPHC sorority founded on a PWI campus. This is notable because the seven schoolteachers who founded the organization did so with the mindset that an organization for Black women built around service and scholarship needed to be present even in the PWI community. It is this mindset that makes SGRhos stand out among the crowd as, in their words, the "last created but best designed" sorority.
Notable Members: Hattie McDaniel, MC Lyte, Kelly Price, Gwendelyn Sawyer Cherry, Alice Childress, Joyce Carol Thomas
Prominent Initiatives: ACT Against AIDS, Operation BigBookBag, National Marrow Donor Program, Project Wee Savers
Notable Service: The SGRhos were thrown into the spotlight following the murder of their soror Sandra Bland. This act of injustice brought SGRho into the spotlight as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and their actions, though sometimes critiqued, led to the naming of a highway after the fallen activist and her mother becoming a member of the sorority.
And now we come to the newest of the D9 organizations, Iota Phi Theta. The Iotas were founded on the campus of Morgan State University (another HBCU), by twelve non-traditional students. This distinction, combined with the fact that Iota was founded at the height of the civil rights movement, makes their very existence an act of resistance. While the other organizations were founded during the formative years of the Black community we know today, Iota stands out as the one with the freshest outlook and some of the most radical views. Iota, in a sense, represents what the other organizations were created to do: establish oneself by building their own tradition, not resting upon one.
Notable Members: T.C. Carson, Jason Manuel Olazabal, Cory Hill-Crudup, Bobby Rush, Jermaine Taylor, Mike City, Spencer Christian
Prominent Initiatives: The I.O.T.A. Youth Alliance, Cultural Education Movement, The Digital Heritage Initiative, The Afya Njema Program
Notable Service: Being founded during such a turbulent time in U.S. History makes Iota even more revolutionary than organizations like Sigma and Zeta, and the organization is seen as the one with the most decidedly African (and African American) ideology. With the org's founders leading the way Iota seeks to education the African American community on history in a way that is necessary for ANY of the D9's survival.