By Bonner, Fred A., II
Black History Bulletin , Vol. 69, No. 1
Apart from churches, fraternal and benevolent societies have long been the largest and most durable organizations in black communities. The founders and leaders of these organizations were in the vanguard of social change and made significant contributions to the widespread liberation, political, moral, temperance, and social reform movements that characterized the nineteenth century United States. (1)
African American history has been greatly influenced by the emergence and development of Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations (HBGLOs). (2) To say that the major advancements in education and civil rights were influenced by these groups is an understatement. A cursory review of the status of Black America will quickly reveal that the past contributions of HBGLOs were significant in elevating the African American condition both domestically and abroad. Consequently, it seems particularly appropriate that the 2006 centennial celebration planned by the first of these organizations, the 100 year old Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (3), took place in the summer of 2006 in Washington, DC. In keeping with its central mission, this celebration took place amid a flurry of activities planned by the organization in order to draw attention to the status of African Americans--a topic that HBGLOs have used as their platform since their inception.
To fully appreciate the impact of HBGLOs, it is important to understand the political and societal climate in the United States that prompted their development and their subsequent mission. Specifically, HBGLOs were envisioned and created in the early 1900s during a period in which the national climate upheld racial injustice, inequality, and separate but "un-equal" doctrines that marginalized the existence of the African American. During these times, those who dared to forge new boundaries and occupy spaces that had historically been occupied by whites, faced the formidable task of navigating a space that was many times hostile and unwelcoming. Additionally, for the limited numbers of African American students who were enrolled in predominantly white institutions (PWI) of higher education, the experience of being treated as the "other" or as a non-entity by their academic peers, were all too familiar. Yet, conversely, with the formation of HBGLOs, African American students had stable connections to organizations that served to provide safe havens in terms of refuge from hostile institutional climates experienced on campus. As well, students now had common ground in which they could foster meaningful relationships with their African American peers (Patton & Bonner, 2001). (4)
The students' college lives and experiences and the lives of those they serve, were enriched by HBGLOs. The Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations (HBGLOs), often referred to as The Divine Nine, include five fraternities (Alpha Phi Alpha, Phi Beta Sigma, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Iota Phi Theta) and four sororities (Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho, Zeta Phi Beta). These fraternities and sororities helped students find their place in a hostile climate and make a way for continued success.
(1.) Butler, A. S. (2005). Black fraternal and benevolent societies in Nineteenth-Century America. In T. L. Brown, G.S. Parks, & C.M. Phillips (Eds.), African American fraternities and sororities: The legacy and the vision, (pp. 67-94). Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. Quote taken from page 67.
(2.) Kimbrough, W. M. (2003). Black Greek 101: The culture, customs, and challenges of Black fraternities and sororities. New Jersey: Farleigh Dickinson University Press; Ross, L.C. (2002). The divine nine: The history of African American fraternities and sororities. Kensington Publication Corporation.
(3.) Alpha Phi Alpha was initially conceived as a study and support group to its members who were facing pressures of educational and social racial prejudice while attending Cornell University. …