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Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century

Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun

Edited by Gregory S. Parks
With a Foreword by Julianne Malveaux
an Afterword by Marc H. Morial
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 508
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  • Book Info
    Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century
    Book Description:

    During the twentieth century, black Greek-Letter organizations (BGLOs) united college students dedicated to excellence, fostered kinship, and uplifted African Americans. Members of these organizations include remarkable and influential individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, novelist Toni Morrison, and Wall Street pioneer Reginald F. Lewis. Despite the profound influence of these groups, many now question the continuing relevance of BGLOs, arguing that their golden age has passed. Partly because of their perceived link to hip-hop culture, black fraternities and sororities have been unfairly reduced to a media stereotype -- a world of hazing without any real substance. The general public knows very little about BGLOs, and surprisingly the members themselves often do not have a thorough understanding of their history and culture or of the issues currently facing their organizations. To foster a greater engagement with the history and contributions of BGLOs, Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-first Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun brings together an impressive group of authors to explore the contributions and continuing possibilities of BGLOs and their members. Editor Gregory S. Parks and the contributing authors provide historical context for the development of BGLOs, exploring their service activities as well as their relationships with other prominent African American institutions. The book examines BGLOs' responses to a number of contemporary issues, including non-black membership, homosexuality within BGLOs, and the perception of BGLOs as educated gangs. As illustrated by the organized response of BGLO members to the racial injustice they observed in Jena, Louisiana, these organizations still have a vital mission. Both internally and externally, BGLOs struggle to forge a relevant identity for the new century. Internally, these groups wrestle with many issues, including hazing, homophobia, petty intergroup competition, and the difficulty of bridging the divide between college and alumni members. Externally, BGLOs face the challenge of rededicating themselves to their communities and leading an aggressive campaign against modern forms of racism, sexism, and other types of fear-driven behavior. By embracing the history of these organizations and exploring their continuing viability and relevance, Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-first Century demonstrates that BGLOs can create a positive and enduring future and that their most important work lies ahead.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7295-8
    Subjects: Education, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Julianne Malveaux

    If you were to call the roll of prominent African American people, the prevalence of sorority or fraternity affiliations would underscore the importance of black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) in African American life. The father of African American intellectuals, W. E. B. DuBois, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, as was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first African American woman to earn a PhD in economics was also the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Delta’s political footprint is well documented, what with the civil rights work of its tenth president, Dorothy Irene Height; the...

    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Introduction: Toward a Critical Scholarship
    (pp. 1-16)
    Gregory S. Parks

    Here we are, approximately 100 years from the time black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) began. During much of the twentieth century, these groups loomed large and cast a long shadow across the American landscape. They brought together a cadre of men and women dedicated to uplifting blacks and provided them a space to pool their individual efforts, resources, and ideals. Their work in the last century (and continuing in this one) comprised various philanthropic, civic, and community service activities. Moreover, BGLOs taught college-educated black men and women how to commit themselves to personal excellence and achievement as well as to one...


    • 1 The First and Finest: The Founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity
      (pp. 19-40)
      Stefan Bradley

      In creating a fraternity at a starkly white Ivy League university (Cornell), Alpha Phi Alpha’s founders (affectionately known as the Jewels) were part of a black intelligentsia that created opportunities for black people in the United States. Established in 1906 as the first incorporated collegiate fraternity created explicitly for African Americans, Alpha was the offspring of two important historical movements that contested Jim Crow in America: the Niagara movement and the “uplift” movement.

      The Niagara movement was led by some of black America’s brightest minds. Men such as W. E. B. DuBois used their intellect to fight Jim Crow in...

    • 2 The Vision of Virtuous Women: The Twenty Pearls of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
      (pp. 41-66)
      Stephanie Y. Evans

      This chapter traces the lives of the founders, original members, and incorporators of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority: the twenty “Pearls.” The sorority brought together like-minded women from disparate paths to celebrate scholarship and provide dedicated “service to all mankind.” On January 15, 1908, nine women, led by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle and advised by Ethel Esther Maria Tremain Robinson and Elizabeth Appo Cook at Howard University, brought forth an organization dedicated in sisterhood to live and work “by culture and by merit.” The motto, translated into Greek, becameAskosis Kai Axiosis,and the letters AKA, the ivy leaf, and pink...

    • 3 The Last Shall Be First: The Founders of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity
      (pp. 67-74)
      Judson L. Jeffries

      Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. has the distinction of being the first black fraternity founded at a historically black college. Within its ranks are some of the most highly regarded men in the fields of education, science, medicine, music, architecture, and civil rights. The men of Omega include Clifford Alexander, the first black secretary of the army; L. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor elected in U.S. history; Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first black to successfully perform open-heart surgery; Dr. Robert Lawrence, the first black astronaut; Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro...

    • 4 Women of Vision, Catalysts for Change: The Founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
      (pp. 75-94)
      Jessica Harris

      This chapter traces the lives of the twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. In 1913, these twenty-two Howard University students embarked on a journey that forever changed the trajectory of the black sorority movement. Together, they formed an organization dedicated to service and committed to the bonds of sisterhood and the achievement of academic excellence. Taking a stand at a time and in an era marred by legalized racial and gender inequality, the visionary twenty-two set forth to challenge and upset the white patriarchal order of their day. Memorialized most pointedly through their participation in the March 1913...

    • 5 Constitutionally Bound: The Founders of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
      (pp. 95-114)
      Matthew W. Hughey

      Of all the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations,¹ only two can claim an authentic brother-sister association: Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. Seven years after the founding of Phi Beta Sigma, its sister sorority was organized and set into motion. Almost a century later, with Sigma now boasting more than 125,000 members in 650 chapters all over the United States, Switzerland, and Africa, and Zeta boasting more than 125,000 members in 800 chapters in the United States, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, they work closely together as they attempt to materialize what their founders...

    • 6 The Pride of All Our Hearts: The Founders of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity
      (pp. 115-124)
      Michael E. Jennings

      Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. was founded on the campus of Indiana University on January 5, 1911. In describing the early years of the fraternity, its official history book asserts, “The Story of Kappa Alpha Psiis to a large extent the story of black students everywhere, whether organized or not, who attended predominantly white colleges or universities in America prior to World War II.”¹ With this in mind, the history of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. can best be understood if examined within the sociohistorical context of the time and place of the fraternity’s inception.

      From its recognition as...

    • 7 Seven Schoolteachers Challenge the Klan: The Founders of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority
      (pp. 125-140)
      Bernadette Pruitt, Caryn E. Neumann and Katrina Hamilton

      In the 1920s, African Americans found themselves the targets of widespread racial bigotry. Only a few years earlier, in 1918, scholar-activist W. E. B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP’sCrisismagazine, had urged blacks to “close ranks” and, at least for the time being, support the Allied forces in their effort to defeat the Central Powers of Europe.¹ Blacks did just that: 400,000 of them in uniform, almost 1 million as wartime factory personnel, and many more as loyal supporters of the war effort. Regrettably, African American patriotism did little to damper racial hatred. Faced with random acts of violence,...


    • 8 A Narrative Critique of Black Greek-Letter Organizations and Social Action
      (pp. 143-168)
      Jessica Harris and Vernon C. Mitchell Jr.

      Despite the varying colors, hailing calls, founding dates, and names, many things link black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs). Beyond the aesthetic or descriptive elements on which their petty rivalries are based, there is a prevailing commitment to racial uplift embodied through social action. The nine intercollegiate BGLOs—Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta—have worked extensively to improve the quality of life for African Americans. Through a social activist agenda, each organization has endeavored ardently to adhere to the...

    • 9 Black Feminist Thought in Black Sororities
      (pp. 169-186)
      Caryn E. Neumann

      To many people, the idea of an essay on black feminist thought in black sororities is problematic. Sororities have a reputation—not entirely deserved—for being conservative organizations that engage chiefly in social activities. Many African American women, many of whom belong or belonged to historically black sororities, refuse to identify as feminists because they define feminism as a white women’s movement that often excludes women of color. They also note that feminism seems to be anti-male, and as black women, they have more in common with black men than white women. However, feminist thought is evident in the histories...

    • 10 Giving and Getting: Philanthropic Activity among Black Greek-Letter Organizations
      (pp. 187-210)
      Marybeth Gasman, Patricia Louison and Mark Barnes

      African American giving is rooted in efforts to overcome oppression. The history of black philanthropy shows that those who gave did so to help others in the community. In response to pleas by influential community members, African Americans gave to causes that made a difference in their immediate environments. Black philanthropy has been a response to discrimination—in the past, due to slavery and segregation, and today, due to educational and workplace inequality. Among the most prominent philanthropic organizations for African Americans are sororities and fraternities—organizations that have, since their establishment, been dedicated to philanthropic service, specifically self-help and...


    • 11 Strategic Essentialism and Black Greek Identity in the Postmodern Era
      (pp. 213-232)
      Cynthia Lynne Shelton

      An organization is essentially a reflection of its members’ needs at a specific historical moment. Human needs in both the modern and postmodern eras have included a sense of belonging, self-validation, and space for self-actualization. Organizational membership facilitates the fulfillment of these needs and, in so doing, constructs identity. Historically, the black Greek-letter organization (BGLO) is a tool to achieve personal goals and professional acumen. BGLOs are also vehicles for the construction of self.

      This chapter explores black Greek identity in the postmodern era as it relates to nonmembers of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). The groups referenced in this...

    • 12 “I’ve Got All My Sisters with Me”: Black Women’s Organizations in the Twenty-first Century
      (pp. 233-250)
      Shirley A. Jackson

      This chapter explores the history and themes of black women’s organizations, in particular, social and civic organizations. Historically, the ability of black women to engage in social and civic activism has been hampered by their exclusion from those organizations founded or dominated by their white counterparts.¹ In response, black women developed their own clubs, and these groups are the basis on which many black women still organize today. Black women patterned their organizations after and were inspired by those of white women. However, there were some important differences, in that black women knew the necessity of finding the type of...


    • 13 Sisterhood beyond the Ivory Tower: An Exploration of Black Sorority Alumnae Membership
      (pp. 253-272)
      Marcia D. Hernandez

      Black sorority members share an understanding that membership is something one grows in to, not out of. Most of the active members of black sororities are in graduate chapters, not undergraduate ones.¹ In his study of the black elite, Lawrence Graham notes that members of black Greek organizations use their affiliations as social and professional networks and as an avenue for philanthropic efforts. He writes, “Black fraternities and sororities play a much more important role later in life and serve as a vehicle for black alumni to contribute money and time to civic projects, scholarships, and other programs to aid...

    • 14 Exploring Black Greek-Letter Organizations through a Positive Organizing Lens
      (pp. 273-288)
      Laura Morgan Roberts and Lynn Perry Wooten

      From their inception, black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) have provided a forum for African Americans to fulfill their personal need for affiliation and belongingness, to develop leadership abilities, and to collectively engage in social action for the betterment of the black community. This chapter draws on theory from positive organizational scholarship to analyze the enabling properties of BGLOs throughout their history. Through this lens, we view BGLOs as social movement organizations and explore how they are organized to achieve their goals. By taking this approach, we seek to understand how these organizations enable human excellence and mobilize the collective action of...


    • 15 Not on My Line: Attitudes about Homosexuality in Black Fraternities
      (pp. 291-312)
      Alan D. DeSantis and Marcus Coleman

      No issue is more controversial or taboo in black fraternities than male homosexuality. As John, a third-year brother and business major, remarked, “That shit is just wrong, you know. You can’t bring that shit anywhere near us. No, no, no, no.” For John and the other brothers we interviewed, homosexuality in their fraternal ranks challenges their fundamental ideas about brotherhood, loyalty, trustworthiness, and, most importantly, masculinity.

      Although there has been no published research on the attitudes of black fraternity members toward homosexuality, there is compelling evidence that the black community is more homophobic than its white counterpart.¹ A number of...

    • 16 “I Did It for the Brotherhood”: Nonblack Members in Black Greek-Letter Organizations
      (pp. 313-344)
      Matthew W. Hughey

      In May 1904, Philadelphia bore witness to the birth of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, the first black Greek-letter organization (BGLO). Since their genesis a century ago, BGLOs have based their ideals on a synthesis of different organizational models and traditions. BGLOs incorporate African customs, principles, and social models of exclusive membership, along with attributes that mirror whitedominated fraternities and sororities.¹ This synthesis has led to BGLOs’ iconic stature within the black community, marking themselves as institutions integral to W. E. B. DuBois’s infamous “Talented Tenth”—a moniker for the cadre of elite, upper-class, college-educated African Americans.

      In today’s era of...


    • 17 Eating Disorders within African American Sororities
      (pp. 347-364)
      Tamika C. Zapolski and Gregory T. Smith

      In mainstream American society, female beauty or attractiveness is typically defined by thinness.¹ For example, studies indicate that the body sizes of winners of the Miss America pageants and ofPlayboycenterfolds have been steadily decreasing over the years.² It is then no surprise that for many women in the United States, there is an intense perceived pressure to be thin and a strong belief that thinness is a necessary ingredient for beauty.³ For some women, the preoccupation with and the desire for thinness can lead to the development of both clinical and subclinical eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa...

    • 18 Modern Fraternities, Ancient Origins
      (pp. 365-384)
      Charles S. Finch III

      There has always been a certain tendency in modern Western culture to disparage and dismiss the values and customs of the past; to view with condescension and scorn the lifeways, practices, and cultural perspectives of ancient and traditional peoples. This attitude of derision and contempt has fueled most of the systematic and relentless destruction of traditional cultures in every part of the globe. Although the conquest and mass destruction of indigenous peoples have produced devastating consequences, there are even more subtle effects that have exerted negative repercussions on the perpetrators of such conquest. Carl Jung realized this truth early in...

    • 19 “ ’Cuz I’m Young and I’m Black and My Hat’s Real Low?”: A Critique of Black Greeks as “Educated Gangs”
      (pp. 385-418)
      Matthew W. Hughey

      On a spring day in 2006, I was walking across the campus of the University of Virginia on my way to a regular meeting with a friend of mine, a young African American professor. Our weekly conversations generally ran the gamut from critical theory to the iconography of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, from Africana philosophy to campus racism, from our take on the local political economy to the culture of black Greek life. The last was a personal topic, because he is an Alpha and I am a Sigma. We took a seat on a bench outside the campus library and...


    • 20 Black and White Greeks: A Call for Collaboration
      (pp. 421-436)
      Edward G. Whipple, Martin Crichlow and Sally Click

      Although the histories and traditions of black and white Greek-letter organizations are distinct, these organizations are also similar. Undergraduate Greek-letter groups, whether historically black or white, have enough in common that the suggestion that the two systems work together is not unrealistic. It is doubtful, however, that this convergence will come to pass on its own. To achieve a unified Greek system, it is likely that host institutions and alumni will need to commit time and resources toward this end.¹

      In considering the interaction between black and white Greek-letter organizations, a good starting point is their commonalities. Only when similarities...

    • 21 Advising Black Greek-Letter Organizations: A Student Development Approach
      (pp. 437-458)
      Ralph Johnson, Darnell Bradley, LeKeisha Bryant, Darren M. Morton and Don C. Sawyer III

      The saga of the American college fraternity and sorority is replete with triumph and tragedy. It is one that speaks of the exuberance of youth and their desire for meaningful relationships. Moreover, the saga speaks of the human need to care for others and the reciprocal need to feel cared about. This is expressed through the groups’ emphasis on brotherhood and sisterhood. Since its inception in 1776, members of the American collegiate Greek system have sought to live out the ideals embodied in their creeds and credos and have fostered a sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps. Greek membership...

  14. Afterword
    (pp. 459-460)
    Marc H. Morial

    The recent mobilization of thousands of African Americans to protest the unequal treatment of six black teens in Jena, Louisiana, illustrates the importance of black Greek-letter organizations in advancing equal rights and justice in the twenty-first century. This event helped transcend some of the current media stereotypes of black fraternities and sororities and raised awareness of their role in the black community as agents of social and political change. The Jena demonstration conjured up images of the great civil rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s rather than stepping and hazing—two practices associated with BGLOs in Hollywood movies and...

  15. List of Contributors
    (pp. 461-464)
  16. Index
    (pp. 465-490)
  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)