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Fraternities, University and College

Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present

Caryn E. Neumann

Fraternities, University and College. 

College and university fraternities have played critical roles in the lives of many middle- and upper-class African Americans. Besides serving as sources of emotional support against a hostile white-dominated world, fraternities have fostered the development of lifelong friendships and professional skills among members. Black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) have also played a role in various political battles, including the civil rights struggle.

Creation of Greek-Letter Organizations.

Between the Civil War and the early twentieth century, numerous colleges were established specifically for blacks. In the northern cities, middle-class blacks had been attending mixed-race institutions of higher learning, but they were still discriminated against in many ways and formed a very small percentage of the student body. This discrimination and isolation had a profoundly negative impact on the social lives of black students. Additionally, like other students, African Americans wanted to form bonds that would assist them in their future professional lives. In order to socialize and associate with one another, black students had to form their own clubs, societies, fraternities, and sororities.

The first decades of the twentieth century showed a tremendous growth in the creation of Greek-letter organizations, and blacks participated in this trend. Several of the founders of the first black fraternities were working their way through college by holding jobs at white fraternities, thereby allowing them to observe the benefits of such organizations, as well as what did and did not work.

Creation of Black Greek-Letter Organizations.

Alpha Phi Alpha became the first college fraternity for African Americans when it began on 4 December 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The men who founded the fraternity sought to create a support system that would help them survive on the integrated Cornell campus with its small number of African American students. In line with subsequent black fraternities, the men of Alpha Phi Alpha stressed the importance of academics as well as the need to provide leadership for the struggles against racial segregation and the general advancement of the black race.

The second African American fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, appeared in 1911, three years after the formation of the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, at Howard University. Kappa Alpha Psi was formed at Indiana University by ten black students, the only African American students on campus. As did Alpha Phi Alpha, this fraternity served both as a source of support on a frequently hostile, overwhelmingly white campus and as a means of achieving the ideals of brotherhood. It promoted self-help as well as racial solidarity.

The next several fraternities and sororities began at one historically black college, Howard University in Washington, D.C., thereby giving Howard a reputation as the cradle of BGLOs. Three fraternities formed at Howard: Omega Psi Phi (1911), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), and the short-lived Gamma Tau (1934). Iota Phi Theta began at Morgan State University in Maryland in 1963. Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Iota Phi Theta joined with the sororities Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sigma Gamma Rho, Delta Sigma Theta, and Zeta Phi Beta to form what is often called the Divine Nine and constitute the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), the umbrella organization for BGLOs. The black fraternities were excluded from the umbrella organizations for white fraternities, the National Interfraternity Conference. Accordingly they founded the NPHC in 1930 to meet their needs. A new wave of black fraternities has been established since the 1960s, including Groove Phi Groove, begun at Morgan State in 1962, and Phi Eta Psi, begun at Mott Community College in Michigan in 1965. These black organizations are not as well-established as the old guard, nor as large.

Fraternity Practices.

To join a fraternity, pledges typically had to endure probation or “hell” week. The practice of “crossing the burning sands” at the end of the formal pledge period and the beginning of probation—the final week before admittance to full membership—has African roots in the Egyptians, who held that the deceased crossed the desert before reaching their final resting place. Activities during this period often involved isolating pledges from the outside world, putting them into pressured situations, denying them social interaction with anyone outside of the classroom or pledge class, and testing their determination and courage through hazing rituals such as paddling. This tradition of abusing pledges ended in the 1990s as a result of reforms instituted by colleges, universities, and BGLO headquarters to protect the physical and mental well-being of young adults and to avoid lawsuits. The pledge week rituals that remain are designed to bond prospective members and introduce them to the traditions of the fraternity without inflicting harm.

The rituals that BGLOs are best known for include calls and greetings such as the Omega Psi Phi barking sound and the Kappa Alpha Psi “Nupe,” as well as the enormously popular step shows. Stepping is perhaps most publicly representative of black greekdom. Originally the exclusive province of the men of Omega Psi Phi, this percussive performance with roots in West African dance was later adopted by the men and women of other BGLOs. The use of canes, pioneered by members of Kappa Alpha Psi who call them “kanes,” is also apparently rooted in African traditions. African ritual dance makes use of special objects such as sticks or staffs, with some young males carrying a cane as a symbol of manhood during tribal initiation ceremonies.

Other traditions of fraternities also had ties to racial pride. White fraternities and sororities claimed the glory of ancient Greece. Early-twentieth-century representations of African Americans—such as those seen in the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which contributed to a rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan—portrayed blacks as demonic beings. Some of the black fraternities adopted Egyptian iconography, with the founders choosing to do so to recognize Africa's contributions to the world and celebrate black pride. Egyptians believed that the deceased journeyed toward a new world led by the stars and crescent moon, a Phi Beta Sigma icon. After crossing the desert an Egyptian would see a sphinx, the symbol of Alpha Phi Alpha. Later in the journey, wisdom from the deities would be presented on a scroll, the symbol of Kappa Alpha Psi.

Egyptian color symbolism is also evident in the fraternities. The blue common to Phi Beta Sigma is said to represent the Nile River, and the crimson and cream of Kappa Alpha Psi denotes completeness. White, the color of the clothing of Egyptian priests, as well as a symbol of purity and sacredness, is also another color of Phi Beta Sigma. Omega Psi Phi's purple has traditionally been associated with royalty. The yellow-gold of Alpha Phi Alpha is associated with the transition to divinity in the afterlife, and the fraternity's black may represent the black land of Egypt or the fertile Nile soil.

Social Action.

Though the fraternities engaged in theatrical rituals, they also devoted much of their resources to social action. Most African Americans, like most of the general population of the United States prior to World War II, lacked the financial resources to attend college. College-educated blacks were a small minority, and they understood that privilege came with obligations to the race.

African American fraternities followed the prescription for racial uplift that proved enormously popular among black leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Measuring advancement by the yardstick of white values, the founders of fraternities sought to acquire education, culture, and refinement and then lift up the masses through training and personal example. In their choice of the secret and exclusive Greek model, the founders of BGLOs reflected the tendency of the black elite to define self-help largely in terms of assimilation and to seek status through the adoption and adaptation of white upper-class institutions and values. The Greek model allowed fraternity members to distance themselves from the African American masses while embracing black communal values.

The fraternities engaged with politics both individually and collectively. To help African Americans gain the right to vote, Alpha Phi Alpha created a program of citizenship schools that was later adopted by the NAACP. The fraternity saw ending Jim Crow education as second in importance only to exercising the vote and worked to advance integration through the legal system. Kappa Alpha Psi created the Guide Right Movement in 1925 to provide educational guidance to black youth of all classes. The fraternity supported antilynching efforts and supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations because of its stand against membership in labor unions along racial lines. Omega Psi Phi promoted efforts to teach blacks their own history and created a program that later became Black History Month. Phi Beta Sigma, founded just before the opening of World War I, focused on ending segregation within the military. Iota Phi Theta, identifying itself from its start as a militant black organization, strongly backed the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Sickle Cell Foundation.

Although all of the fraternities supported groups such as the NAACP, they also worked among themselves to address African American concerns. The American Council on Human Rights (ACHR), begun in 1948 to unite the BGLOs in a nonpartisan civil rights lobbying effort and help blacks fight for democracy at home, counted the fraternities Alpha Phi Alpha and Phi Beta Sigma among its founding organizations, as well as most of the black sororities. In 1949 Kappa Alpha Psi joined the ACHR. The organization developed in the wake of President Harry S. Truman's 1948 request for Congress to enact a civil rights program and the endorsement by the national Democratic Party of such a program.

The ACHR's objectives matched some of Truman's, including the abolition of segregation and the assurance of equality of training and opportunity in the various armed services; desegregation of the armed forces, public transportation, and public accommodations; passage of the antilynching and anti–poll tax bills; passage of voting rights bills; federal aid to education with protections against discrimination; revision of the cloture rule to eliminate the filibuster in the U.S. Senate; abolition of racial discrimination in immigration and naturalization; and federal appointments of African Americans.

The ACHR took credit for a number of achievements, including passage of a 1954 expansion to the Social Security Act to cover domestic workers, many of whom were African American women. In conjunction with the NAACP, the ACHR attempted to overturn the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision that ruled in favor of the principle of separate but equal. This effort led to support for the plaintiff in Henderson v. United States (1950). Henderson outlawed such segregation in dining cars, thereby helping to set the stage for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banning public school segregation. The cases argued collectively before the U.S. Supreme Court as Brown included a District of Columbia case, Bolling v. Sharpe, in which the ACHR had joined with other organizations as an amicus curiae in support of the plaintiffs. As the founders of the BGLOs had intended, black Greek support of the ACHR helped fraternities not only to take a strong stand against segregation but to lead the fight.


Brown, Tamara L., Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips. African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.Find this resource:

    Parks, Gregory S. Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-first Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.Find this resource:

      —Caryn E. Neumann