Greek Life on HBCU Campuses
Editor, Reviewer & Writer
Reviewer & Writer
Editor, Reviewer & Writer
Reviewer & Writer
Greek life is a defining feature of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Black culture on campus. Black students established HBCU fraternities and sororities to cultivate lifelong friendships, meaningful relationships, and public service.
Black fraternities and sororities also celebrate and honor Black culture and contribute to the social and economic vitality of Black communities. Membership in these organizations is for life.
What Is the History of Greek Life at HBCUs?
Before the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson — the so-called separate but equal law — Black students were denied admission to many predominantly white institutions (PWIs)
It was not until after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and pressure from the federal government that more PWIs opened their doors to Black students. These students could not join or had little interest in seeking membership in white fraternities and sororities.
Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was among the early PWIs to admit Black students. In 1906, six young Black men at Cornell came together in a study group and decided to form the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which became the first Black fraternity.
However, it was at Howard University, one of the nation’s premier HBCUs, where six historically Black fraternities and sororities were established. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek sorority, was founded at Howard University in 1908.
What Are the Divine Nine?
The Divine Nine, or D9, refers to nine historically Black fraternities and sororities that were founded between 1906 and 1963. These organizations currently compose the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which was founded at Howard University on May 10, 1930.
- Alpha Phi Alpha (December 4, 1906)
- Kappa Alpha Psi (January 5, 1911)
- Omega Psi Phi (November 17, 1911)
- Phi Beta Sigma (January 9, 1914)
- Iota Phi Theta (September 19, 1963)
- Alpha Kappa Alpha (January 15, 1908)
- Delta Sigma Theta (January 13, 1913)
- Zeta Phi Beta (January 16, 1920)
- Sigma Gamma Rho (November 12, 1922)
While each organization has a distinct identity, all Black Greek organizations share common values, including high scholastic achievement, kinship, and racial and gender empowerment through community service and philanthropy. These organizations emerged to empower college-educated Black students and, for those members attending PWIs, help them combat racial hostility.
How Greek Life Influences Student Life
Greek life is a major facet of student life at HBCUs. Black fraternities and sororities provide students with a sense of belonging and an opportunity to give back to their local communities while embracing Black culture.
Greek life allows students to learn valuable leadership skills and participate in civic and community engagement. Black Greek organizations regularly plan and promote voter education and registration drives to encourage community members to exercise their right to vote.
Black Greek organizations also tackle other social issues that are critical to the Black community, such as poverty, education, and food insecurity. Each D9 organization has a specific national initiative that local chapters host to address community and international concerns.
Throughout the year, members organize fundraisers to support charities. For example, the Delta Sigma Theta chapter at Savannah State University combats food insecurity by donating food and toiletries.
The African Influence on HBCU Fraternities and Sororities
Black fraternities and sororities create and perpetuate Black cultural traditions, including call and response, step performances, and strolling.
Call and Response
Enslaved Africans brought the call and response to America. One person (or a group of people) says or sings a phrase, and others reply with a responding call. People who were enslaved used it as a method of discreet communication. They used the call and response to communicate location, express emotions, and protect themselves from danger. It is also prominent in the Black church.
The Art of "Stepping"
Stepping is a form of stylized syncopated movement or dance and is commonly performed at step-shows by Black Greek organizations. Step shows are a performative act that allows members to showcase the uniqueness and creativity of their fraternity or sorority.
Stepping originated in Africa, where these movements were done as a form of communication and traditional customs. 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 organization plays a role in helping shape and create its own steps. Strolling is also a prominent tradition of D9 organizations, which involves performing specific dance steps to a song while moving in a singular line.
In a world that has long denied Black students the opportunity for social and economic advancement, Black Greek life is a means of empowerment through Black culture.
Unmatched Experience at HBCUs
Black Greek organizations are selective, and those interested in membership must meet certain qualifications, including a minimum grade point average and proof of public service. They must also receive the majority of the chapter vote in order to be admitted.
Many D9 chapters have been established at both PWIs and HBCUs. However, at PWIs, chapters are often small, with just 7-10 students. In some instances, the members graduate, and the chapter cannot be sustained.
HBCUs typically have larger memberships and are more likely to continue to thrive. Additionally, members at HBCUs are more connected to alumni who support their programs and donate funds to their events.
Greek life at HBCUs is unique in that administrators, faculty, and staff are often members of Black fraternities and sororities; therefore, undergraduate members benefit from their guidance. D9 organizations on Black campuses also maintain traditional songs that are passed down through the years.
HBCUs have been important institutions for helping Black students feel seen and valued. The Greek life experience has contributed to many students' sense of belonging and enjoyment of their experience at HBCUs.