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Last updateMon, 26 Aug 2019 4am

Black Greeks Still = Black Cool: Greek Organizations at HBCUs

College campuses are rooted in the common values and customs of the young people who matriculate, come of age, and shape their personas during what, for most, is their first time away from home. Life on black college campuses is just like campus life at majority institutions—not.

Picture a student walking from class on a bright sunny afternoon when suddenly she sees a huge circular gathering of people. As she approaches, she hears smooth rhymes spoken in unison and sees the group's syncopated steps. She immediately knows that one of the frats or the sorors are holding court with a step show.

At Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the step show is a big deal. Being Greek can have a profound impact on the overall experience of any student. The decision to join a Greek letter organization can be an asset for those who choose to take that path. Being Greek is not for every student, but even those who do not join are still somehow connected, either through a roommate or friend who decides to pledge, by attending Greek parties, or even accepting a scholarship offered by a sorority or fraternity. The black Greek culture is a significant part of the HBCU tapestry. National step shows promoted by major corporations have become a cottage industry, drawing legions of fans.

The art of stepping has become like skateboarding— everybody is doing it! It is intergenerational and invokes major feelings of pride among black people. Beyond black Greeks, there are step teams in communities and churches all over the country. Think Stomp the Yard or Drumline or even go back to Spike Lee's School Daze, and you'll find that stepping has found its way into mainstream culture. Films like these are the only visual images that many of today's youth have of what black college life is like. Given the mainstream success of these films, there is reason to believe that young people across races find themselves drawn to black college culture.

The black Greek legacy, which dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, goes deeper than the social and entertainment aspects of fraternities and sororities. It is rooted in a long-standing commitment to service to others, appreciation for history and tradition, self-respect, and belief in the personal bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood.

History

There are nine recognized black Greek letter fraternities and sororities, which some refer to as the divine nine:

  • Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, founded
    1906, Cornell University
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, founded
    1908, Howard University
  • Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, founded
    1911, Indiana University
  • Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, founded
    1911, Howard University
  • Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, founded
    1913, Howard University
  • Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, founded
    1914, Howard University
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, founded
    1920, Howard University
  • Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, founded
    1922, Butler University
  • Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, founded
    1963, Morgan State University

Each organization has a national headquarters and regional offices and a chapter on most HBCU campuses. Many chapters also exist on majority campuses, as two of the fraternities were actually founded on white campuses. All exist under the umbrella of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the largest stakeholder in ensuring that the black Greek tradition continues on college campuses.

"While having their own distinct heritages, the nine member organizations of NPHC offer insight and a unique perspective into this understanding and the development of black socioeconomic and cultural life. Each of the nine NPHC organizations evolved during a period when African Americans were being denied essential rights and privileges afforded others. Racial isolation on predominantly white campuses and social barriers of class on all campuses created a need for African Americans to align themselves with other individuals sharing common goals and ideals. With the realization of such a need, the African American (black) Greek-lettered organization movement took on the personae of a haven and outlet, which could foster brotherhood and sisterhood in the pursuit to bring about social change through the development of social programs that would create positive change for blacks and the country. Today, the need remains the same."— National Pan-Hellenic Council (www.nphchq.org)

Each organization has undergraduate chapters that are the major entry point for new members, but it is not the only way to join. Each year thousands of new members join graduate or alumni chapters, which exist for those who have completed their undergraduate degrees but still want to be part of the black Greek experience.

Current Trends

Each of the black Greek letter organizations have national and international members and host regional and national events that attract thousands of members and have a substantial economic impact on major cities, as the location for national events rotate each year.

"Today, America's nine black fraternities and sororities are two-and-one-half million members strong and among the most powerful and influential groups in African American society—with chapters at major universities and colleges across the country, including Stanford University, Howard University, and University of Chicago. Many of America's most prominent business leaders, scientists, politicians, entertainers, and athletes took their first steps toward making a difference in the world in a fraternity or sorority." —Lawrence Ross, Jr., The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities

Omega Psi Phi is an international fraternity and is the first African-American national fraternal organization founded at a historically black college. Today, Omega Psi Phi has more than 700 chapters throughout the United States, Bermuda, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Korea, Japan, Liberia, Germany, and Kuwait. There are many notable Omega Men recognized as leaders, including NBA basketball players Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan, and corporate and presidential advisor Vernon Jordan. The Ice Cold Brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha see themselves as primarily a service organization and have provided leadership and service through some of the nation's greatest challenges, following a model of leadership set by their most renowned member, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

New media has taken networking and community building to a whole new level among black Greeks globally. The tradition of staying connected has always been at the core of the black Greek tradition; over decades, these groups created the institutional infrastructure that allows their members to communicate and build their message in ways that the ancestors could never have envisioned. A Google search uncovers 201,000 web sites, blogs, and social networking sites dedicated to black Greek letter organizations. Blogging and micro-blogging allow Greeks to build communities and quickly organize around key issues. The whole range of new media tools, from Facebook to Twitter and YouTube, has given these groups wider means to distribute information.

The tradition of giving back is a profound source of pride for most black Greeks, and they have launched many programs and initiatives to promote youth leadership and help address the staggering problems in communities of color. These organizations have invested innumerable hours as volunteers and mentors, have donated millions to countless causes, and are serious about making sure that the doors of opportunity remain open for future generations.

Greek Organizations At HBCUs

The benefits that one will reap from joining a black Greek letter organization are much like life in general—you will get out of it what you bring to it. Many students credit their relationships with other Greeks as a major part of their overall support system and the reason they were able to finish school. Others have had doors opened for them in their careers because of support from a frat brother or sorority sister. Many have passed on the Greek legacy to their children and grandchildren. Most will tell you that the Greek experience will bring you lifetime memories and bonds of friendship.

Black sororities and fraternities form the center of gravity for most black college campuses. It is sort of like the poise and self-assurance that media pundits attributed to President Barack Obama—something not easily put to words. Either you have it or you don't. You have to see it, you have to feel it—and the only way to truly appreciate it is to live it.


Meta Williams is the executive director of the United Negro College Fund based in Washington, D.C. She is also a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.