According to the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the governing body of black Greek-lettered organizations, there are nine major black fraternities and sororities. Out of the "Divine Nine," four are sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. They were all founded in the first half of the twentieth century, with a growing, cumulative membership of over 500,000 worldwide. Black sororities place a high emphasis on academic excellence and sisterly unity, and they tend not to "rush" (a Greek term for recruitment). Instead, members are invited by current sisters (soros), and they often learn about these organizations through their churches and high school. Alumni, famous or not, reflect each sorority's commitment to social change through community involvement.
The nation's first sorority was established in 1851 at Wesleyan College but it was not until 1956 that a black woman (Barbara Collier Delany) was invited to join a white sorority. (The Cornell chapter of Sigma Kappa was ordered to rescind Delany's membership; they refused, and headquarters shut down the sorority.) Despite the end of slavery and the guarantee of certain rights, racism continued in the form of Jim Crow. The Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote in 1870; it would be another fifty years until any woman could do the same. Even then, the remnants of Victorianism and its tenants of "true womanhood"—virtue, piety, domesticity, and obedience—continued to restrict women, particularly black women. Just as black women formed clubs to counter white racist suffragettes, they also formed sororities to combat similar exclusions faced on college campuses. Black women sought to gain equality not behind black men or white women, but beside them, and social work through sororities afforded them that opportunity.
Inspired by the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha (founded in 1906 at Cornell), the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), was founded at Howard University by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle, Beulah E. and Lillie Burke, Margaret Flagg Holmes, Marjorie Hill, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Marie Woolfolk Taylor, Anna Easter Brown, and Lavinia Norman. With their motto, "Service to All Mankind," and their colors of salmon pink and apple green, AKA became official on January 15, 1908. While AKA is considered the oldest black sorority, they are sometimes also seen as the most elite, with accusations ranging from intra-racism (accepting light-skinned blacks only) to classicism (choosing members from the wealthy, professional classes). However, their commitment to social issues affecting the black community, as well as a roster of famous sisters cutting across class and color hues, disputes such criticisms. With chapters in the United States, as well as in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, the sorority has continued to stay true to its motto with various education and after-school and weekend projects, such as the Ivy AKAdemy, the On-TRACK Program, and Putting Black Families First, a citizen-awareness program.
Delta Sigma Theta, galvanized by the political atmosphere at the time, was established at Howard on January 13, 1913, by twenty-two former AKA's who sought a name dissimilar to the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. The Delta's were ordered by AKA to change their name and come back to the fold. Declining, Delta Sigma Theta created their own colors (crimson and cream), along with a new motto ("Greater Service, Greater Progress") and accompanying song, "The Delta Hymn," penned by Alice Dunbar Nelson and Florence Cole Talbert. Defying their families and Howard University officials, they participated in the 1913 Women's Suffragette March. During the Depression, they were at the forefront of providing various types of academic aid to blacks across the country. Other early projects included the National Library Project, which brought books to a black population hampered by the separate and unequal policies of Jim Crow, and going on record against injustices such as the Scottsboro Boys trial, U.S. involvement in Haiti, and lynching laws. Their commitment to social justice and issues continues with projects such as the Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academy, named after their soror and designed for preteen girls to supplement the public-school curriculum; the Delta-funded Thika Memorial Hospital/Mary Sick of the Mission Hospital maternity wing in Kenya; and the "Summit V: Health and Healing—Let It Continue" initiative, which focuses on HIV/AIDS education.
The first official sister organization (to the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, founded in 1914 at Howard), Zeta Phi Beta, Inc., became the third official black sorority on January 16, 1920, nine months before all women received the right to vote. Founded by Arizona Cleaver, Viola Tyler, Pearl Neal, and Fannie Pettie, Zeta Phi Beta was not only first in being officially and constitutionally bound to a fraternity, but it was also the first black sorority to charter international chapters in West Africa, Germany, the Bahamas, and St. Croix. Among their many highlights is the Finer Womanhood Week, begun in the 1930s, during which each chapter holds a celebration to promote the ideals of "finer womanhood." Stressing community involvement over social background and high grades, the Zetas continue the founders' motto "Scholarship, Service, Sisterhood, and Finer Womanhood," with programs such as: Stork's Nest, which encourages women to seek pre- and postnatal care; the National Education Foundation, which provides scholarships, fellowships, and research grants to eligible women; and the Human Genome Project, whose goal is to raise awareness of genetics among people of color.
While the previously mentioned sororities were founded at Howard, an all-black college located in political and cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., blacks at the predominantly white Butler University in Indiana faced other obstacles. During the 1920s, Indiana was referred to as "Klandania" because it was the Ku Klux Klan's main and strongest base of operation; nearly 30 percent of Indiana's white male population were members. It was not until November 12, 1922, that an all-black sorority was to be established at a white university. Sigma Gamma Rho was founded by Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little, Bessie Mae Downey Rhodes Martin, Hattie Mai Annette Dulin Redford, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Cubena McClure, and Vivan White Marbury, women committed to helping other black women, on campus as well as off, to help other black women. Their motto, "Greater Service, Greater Progress," reflected the political climate for women of the period. During the Depression, they sponsored literacy programs that provided books to young black students; created a National Vocational Guidance
Program; and established the Sigma Gamma Rho Employment Aid Bureau, an early networking system that provided Sigma sisters with life-improving jobs. Continuing the tradition are programs such as Wee Savers, which teaches children six to eighteen years of age about various banking facilities and their services, like investing; Program for Africa, which provides African women with the tools to produce grain more efficiently; and BigBookBag, which provides children in need with school supplies.
Although founded for black women by black women, black sororities accept women from various ethnicities, reflecting the growing diaspora of nonwhite women on American campuses. White membership, however slight, is also increasing, with white soros citing the emphasis of social work over socializing that prompted them to join a black, rather than white, sorority. Black sororities continue to provide a space for black collegians to congregate and network, both socially and professionally, long after members graduate. A brief roster of famous sorors include Mary McLeod Bethune, Johnetta Cole, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, Mae Jemison, Barbara Jordan, Hattie McDaniel, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks, and Mary Church Terrell.
Ridley, Teresa L., and Carolyn M. Brown. "Black Sororities: Champions of Sisterhood and Good Works." NIA online. Available from <http://www.niaonline.com>.
Ross, Lawrence C. The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. New York: Kensington, 2000.
lise esdaile (2005)