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Few college pledges are as enduring as the ones members of Black sororities and fraternities take as young adults.
Consider Frances Webb of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who died of complications from COVID-19 on May 9, eight months shy of her 100th birthday. Webb joined Delta Sigma Theta at West Virginia State University during World War II, and remained an active “soror” throughout her life, mentoring younger members even in her later years.
Webb monitored Deltas’ careers, penned notes of encouragement and sent care packages, noted Kim Trent, 51, a Delta who was a beneficiary of Webb's friendship. “She never wrote the words ‘I'm proud of you,’ but she didn't have to,” Trent wrote in an obituary tribute to Webb. “I knew."
For many members of Black Greek life, bonds formed at fraternities and sororities in college span generations, geographies, professions and personal lives. Alums take their roles to heart, supporting each other in ways that in other spheres only the closest of friends would take on.
The strength of these relationships was on full display last year, after Kamala Harris, a Howard University alum and Alpha Kappa Alpha member, was elected U.S. vice president. The AKA sisterhood took a vocal and strong role in supporting and cheering Harris. Individual members raised money for her campaign, and used their collective power to get out the vote. The New York Times called the sorority — which Harris has indicated is a major influence in her life — Harris’ “secret weapon.”
Harris’ feelings about her sorority aren't unique. Trent's continued relationship with the Delta sisterhood, even after graduation, “gave me one of my life's greatest blessings,” through “the lasting bonds I formed with older women that have endured throughout my adult life.”
The ‘Divine Nine'
Black Greek-lettered organizations belong to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), whose mission, in part, is to “foster cooperative actions of its members in dealing with matters of mutual concern.”
Black sororities and fraternities provide college activities and opportunities similar to those offered by white Greek organizations—friendships, parties, networking opportunities and community service. Black Greek members take great pride in identifying with their organization's colors, which are worn like calling cards. But the ties that bind are well-known for remaining intertwined beyond graduation, says Lawrence Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities.
"One of the threads within our organizations is that we continue,” Ross says. “You don't just get your college degree and leave."
Ross, 54, joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity while a student at the University of California, Berkeley. He first noticed the fraternity during student protests targeting apartheid and aimed at getting corporations to divest from South Africa.
While the fraternity has some notable members, “I was less impressed by the famous names,” Ross says. “I was more interested in how I could see myself in the organization and what it could do for me and what I could do for it.”
A sense of belonging to an evolving extended family radiates through those who pledge.
Darlena Ricks, 52, joined the AKAs in 1989 when she pledged at James Madison University.
Every summer, Ricks travels with five or six of her line sisters (people who pledged with her in college) who live in the mid-Atlantic region. They go to beaches or casino resorts and always leave husbands, boyfriends and children behind.
"We've been with each other through marriages, divorces, remarriages, babies, high school graduations, college graduations,” says Ricks, who teaches marketing at a high school in Reston, Virginia. “I have sorority sisters that I'm closer to than members of my own family."
As a member of the AKAs, Ricks felt pride when Harris was elected vice president. Support for Harris transcended the AKAs, as Deltas, Zetas and Sigma Gamma Rhos all honored Harris by wearing pearls and the vice president's favorite Chuck Taylor sneakers on Inauguration Day. Rivalries between Black Greek organizations, like those depicted in Spike Lee's iconic 1988 film “School Daze,” are often left on campus.
"I have friends who are Zetas, Deltas,” said Ricks. “The colors might be different but at the end of the day, for the sisterhood and the betterment of the race we are all in sync."
Career advice and mentoring
Lasting bonds don't just apply when it comes to families and friendships. Black Greek organizations are known for the way they bring people together in business, provide mentorship and career advice to young professionals, and highlight opportunities.
Ross stays in touch with his line brothers and with other frat brothers recently opened a business, the Metaphor Club, a Los Angeles-based coworking space aimed at Black creatives. The coowners are all members of his Alpha alumni chapter, though they pledged and attended colleges ranging from Stanford University on the West Coast to Temple University on the East.
For Trent, who is the deputy director of the State of Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity in Detroit, her sorority gave her the opportunity to hold leadership positions at a young age, providing valuable experience. When she was in her 20s and just starting in her work, sorors in their 50s and 60s provided some of her most valuable mentorship.
"Because I was just beginning my career and my life as an alumnae chapter soror, they gave me wise counsel and took a very active interest in my success,” she says.
Trent considers her sorors part of an unbreakable chain, and she is a link. “Now I know that it's my turn to be someone's Delta mentor,” she says. “I hope that I can be a blessing to them the way Mrs. Webb and others have been to me."
Notable Members of Black Fraternities and Sororities
Nine Black fraternities or sororities are members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the umbrella organization for what is often called the “Divine Nine.” Here's a sampling of notable members:
Alpha Phi Alpha (Alphas)
- Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Kappa Alpha Psi (Kappas)
- Colin Kaepernick, civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback
Omega Psi Phi (Ques)
- Comedian Steve Harvey
Phi Beta Sigma (Sigmas)
- The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia
Iota Phi Theta (Iotas)
- Spencer Christian, former weatherman for ABC's Good Morning America
Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKAs)
- Vice President Kamala Harris
Delta Sigma Theta (Deltas)
- Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman in Congress
Zeta Phi Beta (Zetas)
- Comedian Sheryl Underwood, who served as the sorority's international president
Sigma Gamma Rho (SGRhos)
- Hattie McDaniel, first African American to win an Academy Award