When Black collegiate women meet for the first time, one of their first inquiries is often: Are you Greek? Membership in one of the four historically Black sororities is an immediate bond, no matter the age of the women or when they graduated.
“Our membership is a lifelong commitment,” says Jennifer Richardson, 57, Athens resident and president of the Delta Sigma Theta alumnae chapter. “We were leaders in Women’s Suffrage and we have continued to do service and civic work.”
The Deltas were formed in 1913 at Howard University, a historically Black school in Washington, DC, as a breakaway from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which began in 1908 and at that time was considered a social club. The 22 founding members of the Deltas wanted to respond to the social and political issues of the day. The Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913 immediately gave them a cause. The march had been organized on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to draw his attention to the issue, although white leadership insisted the Black Suffrage supporters march at the rear.
That was the beginning of over a century of activism that has encompassed voting rights, civil rights, the Black Power movement, Black Lives Matter, even COVID-19. In July, an Atlanta alumnae chapter organized a protest at the Georgia capitol to support their sorority sister, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was in a stand-off with the governor over her executive order for mandatory mask wearing in the city.
Athens native and retired educator, Shelia Norman, 72, helped form a Delta Chapter in 1970 as a student at Paine College, a historically Black college in Augusta. What inspired her?
“Many of the Black teachers in Athens were sorority or fraternity members—they were the leaders that the community looked up to. I was impressed,” she recalls. In particular, she says she remembers Founders Day at her church when all the fraternity and sorority members would come dressed in their colors. The ceremony would include a hymn, candle lighting and all the members standing.
“When I interviewed for my first job with Head Start, the interviewer, who had graduated from Spelman, another historically Black school in Atlanta, said ‘You have another plus.’” She was a Delta, too.
Richardson and Norman are both active in the local alumnae chapter and advise the UGA campus chapter Zeta Psi, which was founded in 1969 by eight women. Today it has over 600 alumnae. Nationwide, the Deltas now count over 200,000 members.
Support from a sea of sisters
Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, is a member of AKA, which she joined during her undergraduate years at Howard University in the 1980s.
After she became Joe Biden’s running mate, the DNC began receiving thousands of donations in the exact amount of $19.08. It turned out the donations were from AKA members, saluting the founding of the sorority in 1908. By early October, the DNC had received 14,408 donations in that amount, totaling almost $275,000. And Harris, herself, speaks of her sorority network in emotional terms.
“Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” Harris said in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida told The Washington Post, “It’s amazing how to the forefront Senator Harris has brought the Divine Nine. White people knew nothing of this. It was almost as if this were a secret organization.”
The National Pan-Hellenic Council, a collaborative of nine black fraternities and sororities, was founded in 1930 at Howard University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). This organization is also known as the “Divine Nine.”
While AKA, like other sororities, doesn’t officially endorse candidates, individual members do show up at rallies, donate money and organize get-out-the-vote efforts. With 1,026 chapters and nearly 300,000 members, AKA is no small army. In fact, both sororities have regional and national meetings each year that are so large that only a few cities have the facilities to host them.
Michelle Cook, University of Georgia Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives, is also proud to be an AKA sister, having been initiated as an undergraduate at Princeton. She says the sorority has a huge focus on history.
“The history of the ‘Divine Nine’ is considered a part of our Black history. It’s all about service to the community and uplift of the race. It’s how you present yourself—how you dress and act reflects on the community. We are required to know about the founders of historically Black colleges, our history and our obligation. We are part of the lineage.”
Over the decades, the sorority has championed everything from anti-lynching legislation to advocating for MLK Day as a national holiday.
Cook explains that even those college graduates who were not members during their undergraduate time, can apply for membership in a graduate chapter. And it’s those chapters that are “huge,” and where the service piece “ramps up through fundraising, mentoring, and social engagement.” The expectation is that membership is a lifelong commitment.
“You’ll see a 75-year-old with a license plate cover denoting her affiliation. My own daughters, 7 and 12, are keen on joining the AKAs. Their bedrooms are in sorority colors—one is pink and the other is green.”
- Read about the role Delta Sigma Theta played in the suffrage movement in this Washington Post story: Battle for the Ballot – The Black sorority that faced racism in the suffrage movement but refused to walk away
- See Vintage Images of Alpha Kappa Alpha