Derek Davis, former Polaris (president) of the Chicago Alumni Chapter, helps induct U.S. Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush into Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. in 1997. (Photo by Dwayne Dixon)
By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
It is near impossible to examine the advancement of Black people without discussing Black greek letter organizations (BGLOs).
Forged at a time where written law and klanned enforcers beleaguered any step on the path of Black upward mobility, the “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities are unequivocally linked to a people’s need for educated, organized leaders.
The men and women who answered the call in the early 1900s were looking for much more than camaraderie. Most were the first generation in their family to seek and gain access to higher education. Many were also the first in their families to break ties with the South, where their forefathers labored first as slaves and later as sharecroppers.
“Higher education at its inception was very exclusionary,” said Edwin T. Johnson, special assistant to the provost at Morgan State University. “You may have been welcome to attend the institution- but you couldn’t live on campus.”
Bigotry led W.E.B. Du Bois to co-found the Niagara Movement in 1905- a precursor to the NAACP. His ideas of racial equality and brotherhood quickly spread among African Americans attending institutions of higher learning. In 1906 the men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. organized on the campus of Cornell University. Some had been at DuBois’ Niagara Conference the year before.
By 1911, the men of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. had come together in Indiana, a state Johnson described as “a hotbed for the klan- especially after the release of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation.’”
Of the nine BGLOs, three were founded at predominantly White institutions and faced staunch racism. The segregated campuses naturally caused the few Black students admitted to bond and band together out of necessity.
Johnson said Black colleges of the day were encouraged to teach trades and agricultural mechanical skills that led to a living only a “half step above their previous enslavement.” That was until leaders like Du Bois sought to educate African Americans in a way “where liberal arts and the push for equality in all forms of life was the goal and mission.”
Once on these college campuses, the students began to socialize and organize around issues discussed in their communities.
The first woman to run for the presidency of the United States was Delta woman Shirley Chisholm, of the Brooklyn Chapter.
Five of the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities were founded on the campus of Howard University, including Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. in 1911, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. in 1914, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. in 1920.
According to author Paula Gidding’s history of the organization, Myra Davis Hemmings led the formation of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 1913 after dissatisfaction grew within Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., founded on the Howard campus in 1908.
Hemmings left Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. in pursuit of an organization that was more than just a social group. And she didn’t go alone. She took two Alpha Kappa Alpha secretaries, the chapter custodian, treasurer and the sergeant of arms with her. In total 22 women created Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Their first act as an organization was a bold political statement- participation in the Women’s suffrage march of 1913 in Washington, D.C.
“It was a show of strength -a show of that tenacity and fortitude that we have always had. We needed to feel empowered and we needed to empower others,” said current National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Beverly Evans Smith. “We have not stopped since then.”
“Mary McCloud Bethune was the only Black woman at the table when the United Nations was formed. Dorothy Irene Height was an advisor to several presidents over the years.”
From Senators Verda Freeman Welcome and Cora Brown to Thurgood Marshall and his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, men and women of the Divine Nine have broken down barriers and paved the way for equality in all aspects of the human experience.
All seven women of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., founded in 1922 on the campus of Butler University, were Black educators- crucial in the advancement of a people.
It was Omega man Bayard Rustin that schooled a young Martin Luther King, Jr. on the method of nonviolent civil disobedience. King joined the graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Sigma Chapter, while pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at Boston University.
He worked closely with Robert Abernathy, of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Hosea Williams, a man of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and Jesse Jackson, of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. in the fight for equality. This current of change, sparked by efforts of previous generations, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools, lunch counters, and public transportation.
Indeed we are indebted to the organizations and leaders that helped move our race forward during the 20th century.
“When you look at SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Congress of Racial Equality, and so many of those organizations that sprang up throughout the Civil Rights Movement – a lot of those folks were members of greek letter organizations,” said Johnson, who is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. “They took the training and experiences that they had in their chapters and in their districts and they brought that with them to those organizations.”
“That was their first exposure to organized activism. That was their first exposure to structures like Roberts’ Rules of Order and government and election processes.”
Members had to learn all of the processes necessary to run an organization, like how to maintain proper written correspondence with elected officials in other states.
Johnson said members of skills Black sororities and fraternities were afforded a “training ground” that allowed them to successfully “go on to do many of the activities we know and celebrate today as part of the civil rights movement.”
Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. was formed on the campus of Morgan State University as a direct result of the calls for change emanating from Morgan State University’s campus in the 1960s.
“Movements move men,” National Historian of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. Dwayne Dixon, told the AFRO. “In April of 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In June of 1963 civil rights leader Medgar Evans was assassinated in Mississippi. The March on Washington was in August of 1963, and on Sept. 15th four little girls were murdered by a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.”
“On Sept. 19th of 1963, the 12 founders of Iota Phi Theta looked at one another and said ‘we need to do something.’”
“I don’t think there would be an Iota Phi Theta without the Civil Rights Movement,” said Dixon.
The first thing the men of Iota Phi Theta did was to help desegregate Northwood Shopping Center, where Morgan State University now houses the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management and the Martin D. Jenkins Behavioral & Social Sciences Center.
Still these organizations are leading the new wave of activism.
Benjamin Crump, life member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., has highlighted injustices of America through his work as a trial lawyer.
This year the nation watched as a Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) and a host of other Black sorority women helped impeach Donald J. Trump for a second time. And Kamala Harris, a woman of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., is the first woman to hold the Office of the Vice-President in the history of the country.
Smith told the AFRO that taking on Jim Crow in it’s new iterations is of the utmost importance for Black sororities and fraternities.
“It cannot be about step shows and social life. Of course, that’s part it- that’s never going to go away. But we can’t allow social media and social life to get in the way of social action,” she said.
“It is the leadership’s responsibility to make sure that we continue that fight and pass that lineage down.”