Black Greek-letter organizations, often referred to as BGLO's play a significant role in the lives of young African Americans in higher education. Specifically, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's), Greek life has influenced campus life, social life, surrounding communities, networking, and friendships.
The BGLO's are more often referred to as The Divine Nine, or D9, referencing the first nine fraternities and sororities founded between 1906 and 1963 catering to African American men and women. They are Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Incorporated. All nine make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) which was founded May 10, 1930, at Howard University.
The first White Greek-lettered organization was Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776 at The College of William & Mary, Virginia. The Greek collegiate system quickly developed and evolved to enhance the social atmosphere for white American males, Cilia María Ruiz-Paz states in her essay Rituals, Symbols & Non-Traditional Greek Letter Organizations.
Despite the idea that BGLO's were created to combat white Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, BGLO's were created to unite African American students with common core ideas and principles. During the early 1900s, when many of the D9 fraternities and sororities were established, African Americans were not allowed, or could not afford an education. The few African American students on college campuses bonded together to create the strong brotherhoods and sisterhoods that still stand today, 100+ years later.
While Greek-letter organizations are often looked down upon, or receive a bad name, BGLO's were created to uplift, and deny the typical 'frat boy' or 'sorority girl' stereotype. The media now dominates BGLO's as harsh and unjust for acts of hazing, social clubs, for the vibrant strolls and steps, and simply barbaric, when shouting out the infamous sounds and calls to other members completely erasing the identity and all that they stand for. These images reach for the stereotypical White Greek-letter organizations the media portrays -- parties, tattooed letters, etc. Steps, strolls, chants, and calls all have historic links dating black to slavery, a way to keep African Americans uplifted and connected.
"Their identity is largely born out of racial isolation and discrimination on predominantly White college campuses and in society, in general. As such, their goals have always been the development of personal excellence (usually high scholasticism), development of fictive kinship ties (brotherhood and sisterhood), and racial (and gender for the sororities) uplift through civic action, community service, and philanthropy." says author Gregory S. Parks in an interview about his book Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun.
The first BGL fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded in 1906, at Cornell University in New York, a predominately white institute (PWI). According to Alpha Phi Alpha's official website, the fraternity initially served as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell.
The first BGL sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington D.C., an HBCU. During this time, founder Ethel Hedgeman Lyle thought it was necessary to connect the most prominent and educated women at the university. Alpha Kappa Alpha was the first sorority that sparked a movement and paved the way for the other three sororities of the future D9.
Each fraternity and sorority has their own deep, rich history which can attest to and add to the history of BGLO's overall. While shade is often an underlying tone, BGLO's as a whole have taken one giant step in accomplishing unity throughout the black community.
Even famous and historic names have ties to these fraternities and sororities. Martin Luther King Jr. was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. Phylicia Rashad is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Tavis Smiley is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., Steve Harvey is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., Shirley Chisholm was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., George Washington Carver was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., Gwendolyn Brooks was a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., Hattie McDaniels was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., and Terrance C. Carson is a member of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc.
Protecting the name(s) and brand(s) of BGLO's is important, yet slowly diminishing. While gaining membership to these fraternities and sororities is sacred, current members should know how to maintain their letters in a positive light. With the media constantly attacking African Americans as a whole, attaching their Greek affiliation should not be done, but often is. In 2014, a show Sorority Sisters aired on VH1, and was syndicated on BET, but was abruptly canceled after the sororities of the D9 were portrayed in such a negative light. A petition was created to get the show off the air stating “Stop the spread of ignorance and stereotyping of our beloved Black Greek letter organizations. Our founders amongst EVERY organization worked extremely hard to allow us to unite and flourish not only on college campuses, but as a people well beyond our college days..."
BGLO's have played such an important role in history, and are continuing to flourish in the twenty-first century, despite some of the negative attention they receive. Each organization alone has reached hundreds of thousands of members (a combining total of members in the United States and in other countries) in several hundred chapters at colleges and universities. The work, however, does not end in college. Alumni chapters established all over the world serve a purpose of connections and service, for each fraternity and sorority. As a member, I can only hope and pray that my sorority continues to provide service, uplift, and maintain the sisterhood I know it is capable of.
Remember: do your research, and be discrete!