Greek Life on HBCU Campuses

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Greek life is a defining feature of historically Black colleges universities (HBCUs) and Black culture on campus. Historically Black fraternities and sororities were established at HBCUs to offer Black students the opportunity to cultivate friendships and meaningful relationships, celebrate and honor Black culture, and contribute to the social and economic vitality of BIPOC communities.

What Is the History of Greek Life at HBCUs?

Black students were excluded from many predominantly white institutions (PWIs) before the civil rights movement. Consequently, for many years, these students were unable to join a variety of predominantly white student organizations, such as established fraternities and sororities.

This exclusion led Black students to form their own Greek organizations that acknowledged and affirmed Black culture. Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Black Greek fraternity, was founded at Cornell University in 1906. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek sorority, was founded two years later at Howard University in 1908.

Black Greek organizations are commonly known as the Divine Nine or D9, referring to the nine fraternities and sororities that were founded between 1906 and 1963. These organizations currently compose the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which was originally founded at Howard University on May 10, 1930.

The nine historically Black Greek letter organizations include Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity.

While each organization has its own distinct identity, all Black Greek organizations share common values, including high scholastic achievement, fictive kinship, and racial and gender empowerment through community and philanthropy. These organizations emerged to empower Black students and help them survive racial hostility.

How Greek Life Influences Student Life at HBCUs

Greek life is a major facet of student life at HBCUs. Black organizations like the D9 provide students with a safe haven, a sense of belonging, and an opportunity to seek refuge from racism.

At PWIs, many student organizations do not center or celebrate Black culture, which leaves many Black students feeling excluded and devalued. At HBCUs, Black Greek organizations provide students with the opportunity to plan events that acknowledge Black cultural traditions.

Greek life is also an avenue for students to learn valuable leadership skills and participate in civic and community engagement. During the 2020 presidential election, many Black Greek organizations planned voting drives to encourage community members to exercise their right to vote.

Greek organizations also tackle other social issues that are critical to the Black community, such as poverty, education, and food insecurity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha organized an online fundraiser with other members of the Divine Nine to help support Foodlink — a nonprofit organization in Rochester, New York, that helps combat food insecurity.

The Significance of Greek Life for Black Student Culture

Black fraternities and sororities create and perpetuate Black cultural traditions, including call and response and step performances.

Call and Response

Enslaved Africans brought the call and response to America. One person (or a group of people) say or sing a phrase, and others reply with a responding call. The call and response is a way to establish affinity, and it was used as a method of discreet communication between people who were enslaved. They used the call and response to communicate location, express emotions, and protect themselves from danger.

The Art of "Stepping"

Stepping is a form of stylized movement or dance and is commonly performed at step-shows for Black Greek organizations. Step shows are a performative act for Black Greeks that allow them to showcase the uniqueness of their fraternity or sorority.

Stepping originated in Africa, and these movements were done as a form of communication and entertainment. Stepping began in Black fraternities in the late 1940s and 1950s. Today, stepping is passed down to fraternity and sorority members as a way to show group unity and camaraderie. Stepping continues to evolve with popular Black music, and each Greek organization plays a role in helping shape and create its own steps.

While each fraternity and sorority has its own unique call and response and style of stepping, the tradition of these long enduring practices unite the Black Greek community.

In a world that has long denied Black students the opportunity for social and economic advancement, Greek life serves as a means of Black empowerment through Black culture.

HBCUs have been important institutions for helping Black students feel safe and valued, and Greek life has contributed to many students' sense of belonging and enjoyment of their experience at HBCUs.

Feature Image: Maria Taglienti-Molinari / Stockbyte / Getty Images