The Divine 9: A History Of Black Sororities & Fraternities

By Cherranda Smith

September 9, 2021

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HBCU Week calls for a history lesson on the Divine Nine!

Black Greek letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council are woven into the fabric of HBCUs across the country. They were founded by students and faculty members who were just one to two generations removed from slavery, during a tumultuous period of American history, underscoring the tenacity and fortitude of their founders.  

These organizations, also known as the Divine Nine, have served communities globally, fostered sister and brotherhood, and are a cornerstone of Black culture. They have showcased Black academic prowess across all fields and continue to serve as a beacon of Black excellence. Here’s a brief look at the origins of these illustrious organizations. 

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated 

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Founded on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for Black men. In 1907, the organization’s first chapter on an HBCU campus was formed at Howard University. Alpha Phi Alpha boasts membership from prominent historical leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, and renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. The fraternity’s “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People” initiative started in the 1930s in response to voter suppression African Americans faced when trying to exercise their right to vote and has continued to raise political awareness and conduct voter outreach through forums. 

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated

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Founded in 1908 in Miner Hall of Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. was the first Greek-letter sorority established for Black women. The organization served as a way to foster growth among students and in the larger community. Today, Alpha Kappa Alpha works to highlight the pride of its HBCU roots through the “HBCU for Life” initiative that uses the power of its more than one thousand chapters to encourage enrollment at HBCUs, as a sustainability measure for these schools. It boasts notable members including Vice President Kamala Harris, Coretta Scott King, and Poet Laureate Maya Angelou

Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated

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Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated was founded in 1911 on the campus of Indiana University. The organization formed as a way to unite Black students at the University who experienced extreme isolation given the arduous segregation of Bloomington, Indiana in the early 1900s. With its formation, the organization provided a way to inspire others through achievement, while forming bonds. Today, Kappa Alpha Psi boasts its “Guide Right” program initiatives that promote mentorship and leadership development in youth across the country. Prominent members of the fraternity include film pioneer John Singleton, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick.

Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated 

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True to its motto “friendship is essential to the soul,” Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated was founded in 1911 at Howard University by a group of students and their faculty adviser. The organization was established under the principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance, and uplift. Its founding members went on to serve during the First World War and continues to honor prominent member Dr. Charles Drew through its blood drive program and partnership with the American Diabetes Association. Other notable members include Reverend Jesse Jackson, poet Langston Hughes, and mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated

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Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated was founded in 1913 on the campus of Howard University by 22 visionary collegiate women. The organization was founded with the purpose of primarily serving the Black community and promoting the development of its members. Within its first year of existence, the sorority blazed its trail of political activism by participating in the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913 and continues to serve communities around the world through its signature Five-Point Pragmatic Thrust that includes initiatives in educational and economic development, international awareness and involvement, physical and mental health, and political awareness and involvement. Notable members of the organization include Poet Laureate Nikki Giovanni, legendary entertainer and activist Lena Horne, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated 

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The founders of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated conceived the idea of an organization with deep, authentic connections to its community through brotherhood, scholarship, and service. This idea came to fruition in 1914 on the campus of Howard University. The fraternity’s guiding principles of giving back to the community were actualized in 1934 with the establishment of the Social Action Program. Today, members of Sigma raise awareness of relevant health concerns through partnerships with the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, and Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. Notable members of Sigma include the late Representative John Lewis, iconic activist and film pioneer Harry Belafonte, and legendary television personality Al Roker. 

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated 

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Bound by its constitution, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated is the official sister organization of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. It was founded on January 16, 1920, by five women on the campus of Howard University who adopted the concept of Finer Womanhood in addition to its core principles of sisterhood, scholarship, and service. The Sorority marked the centennial of its founding this year and continues to serve through its Elder Care Initiative and National Educational Foundation. Notable members of Zeta Phi Beta include legendary singer Dionne Warwick, comedian and former International President Sheryl Underwood, and canonical anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston.

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated

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In 1922 at Butler University in Indiana, seven women founded Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated. The educators envisioned an organization that created greater progress for women and their families to reach their full potential. Living up to the original vision and mission, Sigma Gamma Rho boasts numerous service initiatives including OPERATION BigBookBag, that seeks to alleviate the challenges faced by homeless school-aged children. Some of its most notable members include rap icon MC Lyte, actress, and pioneer Hattie McDaniel, and Grammy-nominated singer Kelly Price.

Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Incorporated

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Morgan State University in Maryland is the home of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Incorporated which was founded in 1963. The fraternity’s founders saw an opportunity to use their unique student experiences to create a service organization for men. They executed this mission initially by joining the protests of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. They continue in the tradition of activism and service with its “I-S.H.I.E.L.D.” program that seeks to address human trafficking, domestic, child, elder, and sexual abuse, and bullying. Well-known members of Iota Phi Theta include actor Terrence C. Carson, music producer Kendrick Jevon Dean, and television broadcaster Spencer Christian.

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Together, these nine organizations make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council and serve as cultural catalysts through their service and pride. These organizations represent a piece of Black history in America that demonstrates the bold vision with which the community and campuses of Historical Black Colleges and Universities continue to foster, uplift, and implement Black excellence.

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