19: This Month in Black History – Black Sororities: Sister-Leaders, and US Elections

By Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

On November 3, 2020, California Senator Kamala Harris was elected Vice-President of the United States of America. Susan Grisbey Bates of National Public Radio, stated that Senator Harris will become the first woman and woman of color, the first woman of African descent (on her father’s side), and the first Asian American woman (on her late mother’s side) to serve as Vice President – this is a BIG deal! She is also the daughter of two immigrants, her father from Jamaica and her mother from India – they met in the United States. On January 6, 2021, the people of Georgia elected Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate. This represents the first time in Georgia’s history that a Black person and a Jewish person will represent the southern State of Georgia in the Congress – this is a BIG deal! Most people credit the Georgia Senate wins to House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly, Stacey Yvonne Abrams, who ran for governor in 2018, and because of Georgia’s voter suppression laws, she lost the election. Since then, she has been instrumental in the massive get-out-the-vote campaign in Georgia that is indeed credited with these firsts. She and other Black women leaders did this against the continued purging of hundreds of thousands of Black people from voter registration rolls by the Republican governor of Georgia.

What many people may not know is that both Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and are members of Black sororities. The first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKAs), was formed on January 15, 1908 on the campus of Howard University. The AKA mission has been “to cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards, to promote unity and friendship among college women, to study and help alleviate problems concerning girls and women in order to improve their social stature, to maintain a progressive interest in college life, and to be of Service to All Mankind.” Harris became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority while at Howard University (class of 1986). The second Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (Deltas), was formed on January 13, 1913, as members split from the AKAs who they felt, according to Ko Bragg, were too tied to male authority. The Delta’s did this partly so they could get involved in more pressing issues of their time. Abrams became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority while at Spellman College (class of 1995).

Black sororities have played important political roles for over a century, engaging many Black women in movements since their inception. Of important note, the Deltas of Howard University was formed just in time for its members to attend the women’s suffrage march in Washington D.C. on March 13, 1913. These young Black women members had been squeezed in the common vice of sexism and racism. Although the male dean of Howard University told their young women students they could not attend the march, they went anyway. Although the white women leading the march told all non-white women to march at the back of the procession, the Deltas (which included figures like Ida. B. Wells) refused to march in the back. These women bound together by their sororities, were able to effect national change. And unlike ever before, these affiliations proved important and played a key role in the recent electoral victories.

Today there are four Black Sororities and five Black Fraternities, most of which have existed for more than one hundred years, known as the Devine Nine (D9) – visit the library Black Scholars. Many Voices guide for additional information. Each of the D9 group has distinct colors, chants, and symbols that distinguish each one; together they have ~2 million members. According to Carolyn Harper there are more than 825,000 college educated women members of the D9 across 3,240 chapters around the world. Harper notes that the number of women in D9 sororities is seven times greater than the number of votes that secured Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Thus, when senator Harris’ chose to use the same advertisement colors of another famous politician and sorority sister, Shirley Chisholm, she did so with full knowledge of its potential power – and it worked. Black sororities organized efforts all over the country entitled strolling to the polls, and stroll to the polls they did. In fact, Black women-led voter registration organizations in Georgia such as Fair Fight and Black Voters Matter Fund, led by Abrams and LaTosha Brown (member of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.), respectively, pushed Biden and Harris across the finish line in Georgia in 2020, as well as flipped control of the Senate on January 6, 2021. It is estimated that more than 800,000 new people have registered to vote in Georgia since 2018, with Abrams telling NPR that 45% of these new voters are under the age of 30 and 49% are people of color.

Today, we will have a Democratic President and a Democratic-led Senate, and a lot of this is due to Black Women.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History