African American Sororities
By Greta Hendricks Johnson
Graduate Student, Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus
Sororities are commonly defined as a college social club or organization for women, with particular distinction given to African American sororities. Birthed at a time in history when the traditional roles of women were being challenged, the founders of the first Black sororities had to overcome the stereotypical views of sexism and racism as well. These young people were considered exceptional in their own considering that a college education was not easily accessible to African Americans. By contrast, within mainstream society they were subject to rejection because of the color of their skin, having to prove their capabilities in the intellectual environment of the collegiate world. The need arose to organize a support system, the horizontal ties known as sisterhood. Destined to become leaders, nine women stood strong and formed the first African American sorority in 1908.
Now over a quarter of a million women belong to Black sororities with numbers increasing yearly. These women make a lifetime commitment to continue the legacy of building social capital and uphold the strong ideals of education, integrity, public service and activism.
Black fraternal organizations were initiated during a time in history when a societal view of academic education for African American seemed impractical. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, publicly spoke against the study of classical arts and instead promoted agricultural and industrial studies. The formation of African American Greek-letter societies were in direct defiance to the view that Blacks were incapable of understanding Greek study besides their exclusion from White Greek-letter groups.
There are four major sororities, all of which were established in early twentieth century, including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (Howard University, 1908), Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Howard University, 1913), Zeta Phi Beta Sorority (Howard University, 1920), and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority (Butler University, 1922). These organizations have significantly impacted the African American community as well as civil society itself.
The first black sorority was formed on the campus of Howard University. The brainchild of Ethel Hedgeman, Hedgeman approached eight other women in the Liberal Arts School and soon Alpha Kappa Alpha was established as a Greek-letter organization in 1908. Founding members included Ethel Hedgeman Lyle, Beulah E. & Lillie Burke, Margaret Flagg Holmes, Marjorie Hill, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Marie Woolfolk Taylor, Anna Easter Brown, and Lavinia Norman. Initially seen as a source for enhancing the social and academic life of its members, it soon expanded its horizons to include enhancing the lives of those in the community. It was the second Greek-letter group established on campus, the first being Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
In 1912, the undergraduate group embarked upon a plan to take the sorority in a different direction and decided to change the name as well as the symbols associated with it. One graduate member, Nellie Quander, opposed the change. She rallied the graduates together all of whom remained firm in their commitment to Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). The AKA's were the first to incorporate in 1913, and since, the organization has evolved into an affiliation of college educated women committed to academic excellence, ethics, mentoring and public service. Today, the sorority has an impressive membership of more than 170,000 women in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa (Ross, 2000).
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority emerged on Howard University in 1913. Twenty-two college women committed to sisterhood, maintained high scholastic standards, and were compelled to become advocates in a society that was undergoing change. The founders were Osceola Macarthy Adams, Marguerite Young Alexander, Winona Cargile Alexander, Ethel Cuff Black, Bertha Pitts Campbell, Zephyr Chisom Carter, Edna Brown Coleman, Jessie McGuire Dent, Frederica Chase Dodd, Myra Davis Hemmings, Olive C. Jones, Jimmie Bugg Middleton, Pauline Oberdorfer Minor, Vashti Turley Murphy, Naomi Sewell Richardson, Mamie Reddy Rose, Eliza P. Shippen, Florence Letcher Toms, Ethel Carr Watson, Wertie Blackwell Weaver, Madree Penn White, and Edith Motte Young.
Today, the sorority continues to uphold the mission of their founders and remains a visionary of change through public service and working for the common good. With a membership of over 250,000 women, it is one of the largest African-American women's organizations in the world, with chapters in the United States, England, Germany, Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, Japan and Korea (Ross, 2000).
Howard University became the birthplace for yet another sorority. Founded in 1920 by five coeds including Viola Tyler, Pearl Neal, Fannie Pettie, Myrtle Tyler, and Arizona Cleaver, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority wanted to embark on a mission of addressing a wide range of societal issues and used progressive tactics to help remedy them. Built on the "precepts of Scholarship, Service, Sisterly Love and Finer Womanhood," the Sorority established a chapter in Africa in 1948, the first to do so. Today there are over 100,000 members in 800 chapters located in the United States, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean (Ross, 2000).
Unlike the others, Sigma Gamma Rho was founded 1922 on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana by Mary Lou Allison Little, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian White Marbury, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Hattie Mae Dulin Redford, Bessie M. Downey Martin, and Cubena McClure. Birthed in a hostile environment of a resurgence of Klan activity, seven teachers bravely envisioned an organization with the ideals of Sisterhood, Scholarship and Service. Establishing the goal to work for the betterment of others in the community, their tools include developing future leaders, educating youth and participating in public service. Currently there are over 400 chapters in the United States, Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, Bahamas and Germany. Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. is "committed to improve the quality of life for its members and the society it serves" (Ross, 2000).
In terms of civil society, women's organizations have traditionally been networks based on common experiences and common goals. They are a means in which relationships are formed, bonds are developed and roles are redefined. Some of the greatest philanthropic endeavors have been accomplished by the hands of women, particularly in the realm of the church. These African American pioneers dared to pursue the university experience and succeed with scholastic excellence. Leaders emerged armed with expertise, determination, tenacity and courage. Most significantly, they established organizations that sought to impact society by working with women who remain advocates and philanthropists dedicated to activism. Thus, these same sororities have withstood the test of time and continue to be a catalyst that positively affects all segments of society.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The common thread that unites all of these sororities is the commitment to public service. It is important to note that all of the African American sororities, as well as fraternities, make a commitment to serve beginning at the undergraduate level. However, the graduates, professionals who actively participate in the National Chapters and provide the financial backing needed for philanthropic acts, maintain it. Many of those members who are not actively involved with their perspective organizations still heed the call to service and donate their time, talent and treasure for the common good.
Each sorority has an extensive history of philanthropic achievements and impressive array of public service programs.
Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), Inc. has been instrumental in establishing programs beneficial to the African American community. From their participation in the 1913 Women Suffragette March to their tireless work in eradicating lynching, they are deeply concerned about the plight of the Black community in relation to society itself. During the Great Migration, members assisted the Travelers Aid Society, helping Southern Blacks adjust to life in North and volunteered at the Freedman's Hospital. Setting high standards of excellence, the sorority then created a fund for students in need, along with those who chose to study abroad. Those same high standards stand today as evident in their current programs.
Throughout the depression, Alpha Kappa Alpha worked with the Mississippi Health Project providing education and books to rural areas, and began a Summer School for Rural Teachers offering courses for self-improvement. The National Non-Partisan Council on Public Affairs was created as a means to lobby politicians. With the onset of World War II, these members instituted the Direct War Services/Complete Victory/Post War Reconstruction, a three- part program. Continuing the move of public service into the 1950's, they joined the American Council of Human Rights, National Health Office and implemented programs on Health, Social Action, Scholarship and Undergraduate Housing.
The turbulent eras of the 1960's and 1970's paved the path for the AKA's to sponsor job training, reading enrichment, heritage and youth programs. Staying true to the pledge to enrich the lives of others, they continue the legacy of community service and promote academic excellence by encouraging youth to improve math, science and reading skills.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Educational Advancement Foundation has the mission to promote life long learning. Staying true to its founding values, they continue to provide scholarships, fellowships and mini-grants to those who apply and meet the criteria regardless of race, creed or gender.
The Ivy AKAdemy provides programs that encourage the entire community to become involved. It serves as an educational and human resource center for programs provided by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
Working with No Child Left Behind in mind, "The Ivy Reading AKAdemy," a reading initiative, focuses on early learning and mastery of basic reading skills by the end of third grade. All chapters are requested to implement a kindergarten through third grade afterschool reading initiative. A 2.7 million dollar proposal is currently pending with the United States Department of Education to fund a three-year nationwide afterschool demonstration project in low-performing, economically deprived, inner city schools in 16 sites within the continental United States (Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc.).
Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. has stayed true to their commitment of public service. Never known to shy away from current issues facing society, they have worked diligently to right the wrongs committed against all Americans. Their dedication to activism began with the Women's Suffrage March in which the original twenty-two members took part along with 10,000 other women. Participating with the 1913 Woman's Movement was done at great risk of attack and expulsion because of their color rather than gender. Even their white counterparts were reluctant to extend a welcome hand due to the disapproval of the racists within their own ranks.
In the 1920 - 1930 era, Deltas were the forerunners in distribution of scholarships to needy students across the nation. It was also during this period that the Deltas became a power structure lobbying the government and taking a firm stand against injustice. Concerned about literacy, they initiated the National Library Project in 1937, supplementing the inferior supplies provided to the black community due to Jim Crow. They were the first in the nation to create Book Mobiles that was instrumentally in serving rural areas.
Delta Sigma Theta's participation in the Civil Rights was substantial, stepping forward to meet the financial needs of those on the forefront. Students taking part in demonstrations could depend on the National Sorority to pay bail or, if necessary, tuition.
Internationally, Black Diaspora, a Delta initiated program, unites people of color across the hemispheres subsequently creating a forum for discussing policies and issues of mutual concern.
Today, Delta Sigma Theta Members follow the same path as their founders by providing an extensive array of public service through its Five-Point Program: Thrust of Physical and Mental Health (educating the public on women health issues), Educational Development, Economic Development (forms partnerships within community and surrounding businesses), International Awareness and Involvement, and Political Awareness and Involvement.
Preparing young ladies for leadership is a 21st Century goal, the Delta Academy provides enrichment opportunities for girls ages 11-14. Local Delta chapters assist by enhancing the skills learned in classrooms throughout the country. Activities include field trips, cultural exposure, technology training and workshops. These activities may occur on weekends, after school, monthly or weekly depending on the needs of the community.
The Deltas have established a non-profit group, the Delta Research and Educational Foundation (DREF). DREF was designed to help strengthen and expand the charitable, educational, scientific programs of Delta Sigma Theta and other organizations with similar community service goals. DREF, along with the AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs, are developing and implementing a five-year Science and Everyday Experiences (SEE) Initiative, an informal science education project funded by the National Science Foundation. The SEE Initiative will help parents and caregivers of African American elementary and middle school age children (K-8) develop effective ways to support children's informal science and mathematics learning experiences (Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.).
The Deltas continue activity in social issues such as voter registration, public policies and legislation.
Zeta Pi Beta, Inc. began their community service working with a number of other organizations during the 1930's. The Zeta Housing Project of 1943 was implemented to identify and register housing vacancies for World War II workers. During this decade, the Zetas created programs to assist and prevent juvenile delinquents. As a part of their Finer Womanhood Week, sorority members nominated neighborhood women and awarded Woman of the Year Awards. The Grand Basileus during this period, Lullelia Walker Harrison, had the insight to extend an open invitation to non-Greek women in the community. This auxiliary, Amicae, or Friends of Zeta, is still in existence today. The Civil Rights Movement provoked this sorority to aggressively work towards integration. Working along with the NAACP and the American Council on Human Rights, they took a hands-on approach and in the case of one member, was instrumental in ending segregated restaurants in Oklahoma City. Zeta programs include the endowment of its National Educational Foundation, community service, scholarship assistance, collaboration with other charitable organizations as well as advocating change thru legislation.
Zeta Phi Beta Sorority joined their efforts with the March of Dimes in 1972 to prevent birth defects and infant deaths. This endeavor included educating women about the essential need to obtain prenatal care within the first trimester of pregnancy. Across the country, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. sponsors over 150 Stork's Nests, serving over 15,000 women last year.
The National Educational Foundation of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. operates for the sole purpose of providing charitable and educational services. The Foundation takes on the tasks of awarding scholarships and grants to college students and the development of educational/vocational programs (Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.).
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., an early leader in the fight for women's rights, also created programs in the1930s that provided books and career guidance to young African American students. Amid the Great Depression, the sorority established the Sigma Gamma Rho Employment Aid Bureau to assist members in bettering their lives during this meager time. Sorority members felt the call to service in aiding the country in the midst of World War II. With the motto, "Greater Service, Greater Progress," many members worked with the United Service Organizations and the Red Cross. Like the Zetas, they too established a program to prevent juvenile delinquents entitled "Sigma Teen Town."
During the 1950's, the Sigma Gamma Rhos expanded their scope by becoming a member of the American Council of Human Rights. Within this period, they created an integrated national program entitled Camp Achievement, located near Pittsburgh. An avid supporter of the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement, they also implemented Anti-Poverty programs nationally. The 1970's saw opportunity for partnership and funding through the March of Dimes in order to offer health education to young mothers and their children.
From the beginning, Sigma Gamma Rho actively participates in programs intended to benefit all people. Their objective is to "remove barriers and inequalities so that all people of America may develop their potential and exercise full citizenship."
Sigma Public Education and Research Foundation (SPEAR), established in 1995, is a springboard that provides funding for the sorority's national programs, research and citizen education.
As supporters of grassroots development for the community as well as the individual and activists for human rights legislation, this sorority has implemented and/or partners with other organizations to provide a host of services:
- Project Reassurance Prenatal care
- Mwanamugimu Project Essay contest
- Program for Africa Grain grinders are purchased to ease the workload of African women
- Project Wee Savers Children ages 6-18 learn banking and investing skills
- Operation BigBookBag A tutoring and mentoring program that supplies educational materials to high risk students
- Sigma Youth Held in March, issues that negatively impact youth are addressed (Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated)
Key Related Ideas
Philanthropy has many roles, three of which are to increase human potential, to alleviate human misery, and to improve the quality of life in communities (O'Connell, 1999).
African American sororities exist and succeed by seeking and developing strong leadership among its members, with a commitment to inspire others and share their vision.
Maximizing human potential requires the alleviation of poverty, illiteracy, and injustice. Alleviating these factors in one life can provide the means to better the community and society as a whole.
Although initially established as a support system for African American students, sororities extend their reach out into the Black community. Their members make lifetime commitments to work for the Common Good of all Americans, collectively working to improve the advantages of all individuals. The underlying theme is to provide underprivileged youth with the skills necessary to become productive citizens.
Important People Related to the Topic
The list of the four sororities and member accomplishments is too extensive to name. Therefore, here is small sampling of the names and occupations from each (Ross, 2000).
- Marian Anderson - World Famous Opera Singer (AKA)
- Maya Angelou - Author, Poet (AKA)
- Rev. Willie T. Barrow - Operations Director, Push/Rainbow Coalition (SGR)
- Daisy Bates - Civil Rights Activist (DST)
- Corrine Claiborne Boggs - First Woman U.S. Rep. Louisiana & First Woman to chair National Convention (SGR)
- Camille Cosby - Philanthropist, Activist (DST)
- Algenita Scott Davis - Past National President National Bar Assoc. (ZPB)
- Ann Fudge - President, Maxwell House Div, Kraft (SGR)
- Dr. Alyce Gullantee - First Black Psychiatrist to receive Emmy (ZPB)
- Dr. Lorraine Hale - Executive Director, Hale House Center, Inc. (SGR)
- Patricia Roberts Harris - First Black Woman Ambassador, First Black Woman Dean Howard Law School, and U.S. Cabinet Post (DST)
- Dorothy Height - Civil Rights Activist (DST)
- Dr. Mae Jemison - First Black Woman Astronaut (AKA)
- Dr. Elaine Johnson - U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (ZPB)
- Sharon Pratt Kelly First Woman Mayor, Washington, D.C. (AKA)
- Coretta Scott King - Widow, Martin L, King, Jr. (AKA)
- Clara McLaughlin - First Black Woman Television Station Owner (ZPB)
- Toni Morrison - Nobel Prize - winning Novelist (AKA)
- Hazel O' Leary - Secretary, Dept. of Energy (AKA)
- Rosa Parks - Civil Rights Activist (AKA)
- L. Marion Poe - First Black Woman admitted to the bar, Southern U.S. (SGR)
- Wilma Rudolph - Olympic Track Star (DST)
- Eleanor Roosevelt - Humanitarian (AKA)
- Mary Church Terrell - Civil Rights Activist (DST)
- Joyce Williams Warren - First Black Arkansas Judge (SGR)
- Ruth Whitehead Whaley - First Black Woman in U.S. to practice law (SGR)
- Dr. Deborah Wolfe - Former U.S. Education Chief (ZPB)
Related Nonprofit Organizations
Links, Inc., was established in 1946 in Philadelphia by seven African American women. Membership is invitation only and numbers around ten thousand. Staunch supporters of public service, members donate over one million service hours and have donated over fifteen million dollars to numerous national and international charities and programs. A membership list reveals some of the most affluent and prominent African Women from the business, medical, political and educational sectors of society (Graham, 1999) (http://www.linksinc.org).
National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. , established in 1896 with Mary Church Terrell at it's helm, involves "women meeting the challenge of social, political and economic leadership in the global society." This organization has worked diligently over the decades to secure the rights of African American women as well as promoting inter-racial unity through community service (http://www.nacwc.org).
National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, Inc., is the sister organization of the National Coalition of One Hundred Black Men. Founded in 1981, they are dedicated to empowering women of color to become leaders who will actively improve the communities in which they live (http://www.ncbw.org)
National Council of Negro Women, Inc., founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, improves opportunities for African American women. Their programs enhance the lives of women of color, their families and their communities (http://www.ncnw.org).
Related Web Sites
National Pan-Hellenic Council, Inc. Website, at http://www.nphchq.org/home.htm, focuses on the Council composed of the nine African American Fraternities and Sororities. The site provides extensive information on the tradition of African American GreekÂ - letter organizations.
Straight Black.com's Website, at http://www.straightblack.com, offers links to African American Sororities within their African American/Social Groups section.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. National Website [Accessed 15 April 2004]. http://www.aka1908.com.
Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. National Website [Accessed 15 April 2004]. http://www.deltasigmatheta.org/home.html.
Giddings, Paula. In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988.
Graham, Lawrence Otis. Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. 101-126 ISBN:0-06-018352-7.
Hammack, David C. Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 235. ISBN: 0-253-33489-6.
O'Connell, Brian. Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999. 66. ISBN:0-87451-925.
Ross, Lawrence C. The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. New York: Kensington Publishing, 2000. 163-307. ISBN:0-7582-0270-9.
Sigma Gamma Rho Inc. National Website [Accessed 15 April 2004]. http://www.sgrho1922.org/index2.html.
Zeta Phi Beta Inc. National Website [Accessed 15 April 2004]. http://www.zphib1920.org/index.html.
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