Can you ReL8 to this?
Have you ever been in the midst of company and an “ah-ha” moment hits you. That’s what happened to me recently. I was sitting with some of my sorority sisters and we were reminiscing about our pledge processes, community services and our founders. We began talking about the volatility of the early 1900’s and what THEY must have experienced in order for US to have an organization to identify with. It was overwhelming. A light-bulb went on. I thought, when I crossed the burning sands in the Spring of 1989, I didn’t really understand the degree of trouble that my 7 lovely founders of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated endured. I mean, I knew of the drama simply because we were still living it, but just to think of the hell these men and women experienced just so we could have something special…an organization…a choice…something that fit OUR personalities with people that looked like US. I mean think about it, these were men and women who may have been a second generation freed slave and they risked their lives for us. What an honor! What a privilege to be a part of such a rich history.
I wanted to take the time to pay homage to all of my fellow sisters and brothers in Black Greek letter organizations. If you don’t fully understand what it means to be a part of these organizations (even if you are a part), take a minute to reflect on our history. In the early 1900’s, it was almost illegal for Blacks to convene in secret but it was what we were most familiar. It was how we learned, how we coped. It had only been 39 years prior that slavery was abolished in the United States – December 18, 1865 to be exact. So MANY of our founders were either children of or had been enslaved themselves. The formation of these illustrious organizations had to be constructed with such precision in an effort to spare the lives of its members and those to come.
Interestingly enough, the construction of Kappa Alpha Nu (1903) was attempted on the campus of Indiana University without the commitments of more than a few. I can imagine these men must have been pretty nervous to think they could possibly pioneer a group to contend with the immense hatred that was so obviously present on their predominantly White campus.
The following year, another cluster of people tried their hand at organizing themselves, Sigma Pi Phi (1904). Their aim was to extend membership to professionals: doctors, lawyers, dentists…men and women with positions of prominence. When Sigma Pi Phi was founded, black professionals were not offered participation in the professional and cultural associations organized by the White community. Side note…what I love so much about our people is that we are constantly taking the bull by the horns when rejected by the masses. I’m encouraged that these men and women didn’t allow a “NO” to stop them. What can that teach us today? They had far more to endure than we and they persevered. What’s our excuse?
On December 4, 1906, a group of guys at Cornell University decided to try their hand at organizing a collegiate fellowship. After assessing the lack of return for fellow students due to their murders, the seven gentlemen saw the importance of banding together on campus to protect one another. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated is THE oldest organization to grow successfully to the depths we see today.
I have to say, these were some brave men. In the span of 3 years, they managed to pave the way for what we know today as Black Greek life and have given us opportunities that cannot be misunderstood. I now have a greater appreciation for “locking up,” which was a term used during my pledge process when I would connect arms with my line sisters. The goal was NEVER to let anyone break our line. I’m just thinking about the fact that there may have been an even greater need to lock up back then…not just for pledgees but for safety. WOW!
A couple of years later, not too far from Cornell University in Ithaca NY, a group of ladies at Howard University in Washington DC must have caught wind of what had taken place with the gentleman. It seems the banding together concept in an effort to survive the racial tension and abuse worked well and the ladies quickly established our oldest sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated. It had to have been a cold day that January 15, 1908 but the necessity of sisterhood far outweighed the weather. This was a matter of life or death and just like their parents and grandparents, it was far more dangerous traveling alone.
Across town at Indiana University Bloomington, Kappa Alpha Nu was able to secure enough men, 10 to be exact, to create yet another all male group who’s mission was to defend themselves against the wiles of White Supremacists and form educational bonds that would spawn into decades of legacy. On January 5, 1911, Kappa Alpha Nu fraternity was established but they later changed their name to Kappa Alpha Psi after one of the Founder’s, Elder Watson Diggs, overheard fans at a track meet referring to the member as a “kappa alpha nig.” Not long after a campaign to rename the fraternity ensued. The resolution to rename the group was adopted in December 1914, and the fraternity states, “the name acquired a distinctive Greek letter symbol and KAPPA ALPHA PSI thereby became a Greek letter Fraternity in every sense of the designation.” Kappa Alpha Psi has been the official name ever since.
Back on the campus of Howard University, it seems the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha were left to fend for themselves until the brothers of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated (Ques) came along on November 17, 1911. Even though there were only 4 founding members, they appeared pretty determined to make a name for themselves and take their cause to other Universities as quickly as they could. Being the first male organization to be founded on a historically Black University is more than notable. And I’m sure they had their work cut out for them in the height of public scrutiny.
A year after the Ques came on campus, there was a little bit of discord with the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha. They appeared to be a dominant force on campus but some of the members began to express concern over a variety of issues and later decided in order to see the growth and political involvement they wanted, they would have to change their name and mission. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated was born on January 13, 1913. They immediately went to work with the 1913 “Women’s Suffrage March.” Their 22 founders felt that Black women needed the right to vote to protect themselves against sexual exploitation, promote quality education, assist in the work force, and racial empowerment. These sisters were not playing. They meant business!
The year after on January 9, 1914, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated joined the Ques on the campus of Howard University. Just like the Ques, they began with just a handful – 3, but that proved to be more than enough. By now, the campus was deep with Black men and women on a mission to protect and serve the community. Some years later, two men of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Charles R. Taylor and A. Langston Taylor, assisted the establishment of yet another sorority on the all Black campus, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated. They came onto the scene January 16, 1920 with 5 founding members. This became THE most unique affiliation within the Black Greek letter community because the Zetas and Sigmas were the first to be officially recognized as a brother/sister unit. Keeping all things in perspective about the climate of the community at large, developing as many alliances as possible was best.
Back on the other side of the East coast, in Indianapolis Indiana, 7 school teachers decided to establish a sorority that would cater to those in the educational field. They all attended Butler University and they all had a mission that we would no longer be enslaved nor limited to what Massa says we can have or not. Through hard work and discipline, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated was established in the late fall, November 12, 1922.
Members of Kappa Alpha Psi got wind of the SG Rhos and decided to travel the 50 miles to befriend them. It is said that the Kappas used to bring their “canes” onto Butlers campus to help escort the ladies to class. Although it was JUST a cane, it symbolized a readiness to protect their sisters. The SG Rho’s created a “call out” to pay homage to their Kappa friends for helping make sure no one attacked them on this all White campus. The call has changed courses over the years but I get it now…it will forever be “EeeeYo” to me.
Let me add this piece too…I had the distinct privilege to come to know one of our last living founders, Vivian White Marbury. I can’t tell you for the life of me how it is that I got her phone number but I did…and I called. We would talk regularly for hours and she would share countless stories of the struggles that they endured just so that we could call Sigma Gamma Rho our own. I would ask her, “Soror Marbury are you tired of me yet?” She would reply, “No baby! Are you tired of me?” When she died, I felt like I lost a friend. I also had the rare opportunity to attend the funeral of our founder Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little. She was the mastermind behind the organization. I can remember walking into Angeles Funeral Home bewildered. I couldn’t believe I was there at her funeral. Those memories I will cherish forever. It was as if I had somehow befriended Harriet Tubman and learned a little about the measures taken to provide freedom for the masses.
In the height of the civil rights movement came yet another Black Greek letter organization, Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Incorporated. There were 12 brave men who came together on the campus of Morgan State University on September 19, 1963 and decided that they too needed an outlet of brotherhood – one different than the 4 established. Together they created a unified front that again provided a means to survival. Through community involvement and social interaction, these brothers did whatever was necessary to stay alive and relevant to the needs of Black men/people during this time. With the assassination of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent Black or Black supporters, the 60’s was rough. The Iota’s formed alliances with the Black Panther Party, SNCC, participated in sit-ins and whatever else they could in order to make an imprint in history.
I had always known our stories were well woven, but this paints the picture pretty nicely. We were all on the same mission with different names, colors, call outs, mascots and campuses. We were all trying to survive the hell of racial tension and murderous backlash. We all wanted to graduate. We all wanted to live. We were survivors. We spread the mission of Black unity through the world in the span of 19 years despite Jim Crow, despite the civil rights movements, despite segregation and imprisonment, despite death and lies. We endured til the end. Our founders gave us the richness of every last one of these experiences to be remembered and used to bring glory…not to ourselves…but to God. If I had to do it all over again, the only thing I would change is the maturity of my perspective. I would have loved to know what I know now so that I could have lived with more substantive value during my college years.