Black fraternities are Greek-lettered organizations that cater to black populations in colleges across the nation. Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Beta Sigma, Iota Phi Theta, and Omega Psi Phi are all black Greek fraternities with their own distinct social practices, histories, and goals. Although there are many differences between fraternities, they can be thought of collectively as organizations that have historically provided African-American undergraduate and graduate students with a unique social experience. Whether at historically black colleges or universities or predominantly white college campuses, black fraternities can create an environment that nurtures lifelong relationships and a commitment to the black Greek experience.
The founding of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University in 1906 is commonly considered the beginning of black Greek college organizations. However, there is evidence of black Greek-lettered organizations prior to the Alphas. These other groups have not existed continuously since their founding, nor have they been as successful as the abovementioned fraternities in sustaining their membership. For these reasons, it is acceptable to recognize the beginning of the black Greek experience with Alpha Phi Alpha.
From the beginning, black fraternities have cultivated a certain mystique. Like other social organizations, black fraternities are selective in terms of membership. Once accepted into a fraternity, initiates are treated as members, learning the symbolic meanings behind the fraternity's distinct hand signs, calls, and apparel. Members of Kappa Alpha Psi, for example, are known to carry and perform with canes, and they display the colors red and white. Members of Omega Psi Phi, in contrast, flaunt purple and gold clothing, identify themselves with a distinctive Quedog bark, and recognize Delta Sigma Theta as a sister organization. Members of Phi Beta Sigma present themselves in blue and white and are formally allied with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. For college-age youth in particular, membership in a fraternity is appealing for primarily social reasons. Along with participation in exclusive social events, membership also means access to extensive alumni contacts and associations with black sororities, often enabling romantic relationships.
The social privileges of membership in a black fraternity continue after graduation. Alumni and graduate chapters are also active and, through the use of alumni membership dues and other contributions, provide services to the community as a whole. For example, the U.S. federal government commissioned Alpha Phi Alpha to oversee the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. After concluding a design competition in September 2000, Alpha Phi Alpha proceeded to spearhead a funding campaign to memorialize the civil rights leader.
Television and films have brought black fraternities national attention. Spike Lee's School Daze (1988) and the television programs A Different World, Moesha, and The Parkers have all presented aspects of the black fraternal experience. These fictional accounts also dramatized the procedures surrounding entrance into black Greek organizations. Such practices, commonly known as pledging, are one of the predominant characteristics of the black Greek experience.
Historically, pledging is the means by which a fraternity chapter determines who, among a number of interested individuals, will be admitted. Essentially, prospective members must prove their worth over a period of time (from two weeks to a few months) through a series of difficult tasks and rituals. These trials can be mentally challenging, such as researching and reciting obscure historical details about the fraternity. They can also be revolting, such as drinking toilet water, and even physically traumatizing. Physical violence, such as paddle beatings, is a documented aspect of pledging practices.
Following the death of a pledging student at Morehouse College, the leadership of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (comprised of the five abovementioned fraternities as well as the four major black sororities) convened in February 1990 to discuss the ramifications of pledging. They decided to officially adopt the process of membership intake to replace pledging as the method of initiating members into a fraternity or sorority. Membership intake sought to eliminate the potential physically abusive nature of pledging, which, in its extreme forms, is also known as hazing. However, membership intake did not replace pledging and hazing in any significant way. Interpreted as less demanding than, not equivalent to, pledging, membership intake is frequently understood as a less meaningful rite of passage. Interestingly, prospective initiates protested the official end of pledging, often citing a need for respect as a reason for enduring these hardships.
As fraternities attempted to implement membership-intake guidelines, the practice of pledging went underground, unrecognized officially but still very much a part of the black Greek experience. In 1994 another student died, this time at Missouri State University. In 1999 a student at the University of Louisville successfully sued Omega Psi Phi after voluntarily enduring a beating by some members of the fraternity.
Black fraternities and sororities, nonblack Greek organizations, and college sports teams all confront the issue of hazing with difficulty. Because of this persistent problem, college officials have previously initiated temporary moratoriums on all Greek activity, and considered full-scale bans of black fraternities.
The issue of hazing remains unresolved as black fraternities adapt to an American social terrain drastically different from the social world of 1906. Openly homosexual members, as well as increasing numbers of nonblack members, indicate different directions for black fraternities. As more people identify themselves as members, either as alumni or collegiate Greeks, black fraternities continue to negotiate how to preserve their traditions and prepare for the future.
Brown, Patricia Lee. "For a King Memorial, Metaphors in Stone" The New York Times (September 21, 2000).
Jones, Ricky L. Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-letter Fraternities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
Kimbrough, Walter M. Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
derek lee mcphatter (2005)