Colleges and universities across the United States are working to cultivate a sense of belonging for their students, especially collegians from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Like many other colleges and universities, my institution—Allegheny College—has actively sought out ways to support students of color on our predominately white campus and community. As the demographics of college students shift, proactive support is critical for all students.
According to Terrell L. Strayhorn, renowned academic on issues of equity and diversity in higher education, sense of belonging can be defined as “students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, and the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by and important to the campus community or others on campus such as faculty, staff and peers” (2019, 4).
At my institution—where one-quarter of our students identify as domestic students of color—we are proud of the strides we have made to cultivate a sense of belonging for our undergraduates while recognizing that there is still more work to be done. We are a proud, “first-gen forward” liberal arts college with several student-facing organizations on campus who regularly celebrate the cultural experiences of people of color and other underrepresented groups. We have a strong base of Black alumni who selflessly donate their time and our Black studies minor recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary. But as students have reminded us, we have also omitted diverse organizations integral to undergraduates’ cocurricular experience: historically Black fraternities and sororities.
While most colleges and universities recognize Greek letter organizations like Phi Beta Kappa, the “Divine Nine,” a term affectionately used to identify some of the oldest Greek letter organizations that actively support Black collegians and Black communities, are integral parts of various communities throughout the United States.
There organizations share some unifying characteristics. Eight of the Divine Nine were founded in the first three decades of the 1900s, while the ninth was founded during the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Three of these sororities and fraternities were created at predominately white institutions in direct response to the exclusionary practices of Greek organizations prior to the turn of the century: Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. at Cornell University, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. at Indiana University, and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. at Butler University. But the majority of the Divine Nine were created at historically Black colleges and universities: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. at Howard University and Iota Phi Theta at Morgan State University. These educational institutions in the American South were (and are) widely considered to be beacons of Black scholarship, Black excellence, and Black life.
All these fraternities and sororities have expressed a commitment to lifelong membership and sustained community engagement to explicitly support communities of color. Members of the Divine Nine, writes Marcia D. Hernandez, have “participated in social justice movements, lobbied for policy changes, create and sustained community service projects for literacy, education, and civic engagement, and promoted economic development” (2022, 71). Membership is not solely for undergraduate students; in fact, a large majority of the members joined after they received their baccalaureate degrees. As such, these fraternities and sororities create opportunities for intergenerational, interpersonal interactions between collegians and seasoned members who have maintained active memberships for most of their adulthoods. In sum, these organizations are a valuable and diverse cultural asset for all students at predominately white institutions.
Upon arriving at Allegheny in 2015, I learned that a historically Black fraternity was previously part of the campus community but became inactive due to lack of student interest. As a new member of the faculty and an active member of a Divine Nine sorority, I was intrigued by the possibilities of creating a yard (a collection of multiple historically Black Greek letter organizations) on our predominately white campus. I was excited to work closely with students and student affairs professionals to cement this opportunity for our students, especially for our students of color who had spent years organizing and protesting for the right to join historically Black Greek letter organizations. In fall 2016, three students reactivated the Nu Mu chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, and in fall 2019, seven students chartered the Pi Phi chapter of Zeta Phi Beta.
While Black Greek organizations may be a new addition to our campus community, students of color have long served as thought leaders in Allegheny’s various service-based initiatives. Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta’s unwavering commitment to service directly aligns with the college’s dedication to critical and intentional community engagement off campus. We’ve noticed that many students who have joined these Black Greek organizations are also members of other curricular and cocurricular initiatives on campus. Students who are part of these organizations are not isolated from the campus but are active participants in other service-based initiatives, such as The Bonner Program, or they may major or minor in our growing community and justice studies department.
The inclusion of a historically Black fraternity and sorority on our campus has opened up more conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion and civic engagement, and many students are eager to have more diverse Greek life options.
If your campus is interested in chartering chapters of historically Black Greek letter organizations, I would encourage you to consider the following:
- Research the histories of Black Greek letter organizations to determine which fraternity and/or sorority is most aligned with your campus mission and values. Across the Divine Nine, each organization has its own distinctive vision and purpose. Black Greek life is so much more than just social gatherings, strolling or stepping, and unique calls that can be heard across our campus during celebratory occasions. The organizations are full of famous members who have gone on to become leaders in education, law, entertainment, business, and in notable social justice movements.
When Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta were brought to our campus, it was done through a direct collaboration with students. Prospective members advocated for almost two full years before they became recognized student organizations. While there may be opportunities to add other historically Black fraternities and sororities to our campus in the near future, I regularly reflect on how best to support their success, and I work hard to determine which organizations our students would be most interested in joining.
- Do not invite Black fraternities and sororities to your campus if you avoid conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Black Greek life will not solve that racism, prejudice, and discrimination that many Black (and Brown) students face on campus. While conversations about race and identity may produce discomfort in largely white spaces, colleges must be willing to have authentic discourse about the ways that they may fall short in their support of historically underrepresented students before inviting historically Black Greek letter organizations to their campus. The inclusion of historically Black Greek letter organizations on college campuses sets the stage for more robust conversations about race, culture, and identity.
- Listen and learn from students of color on your campus. Historically Black Greek letter organizations were created by and for collegians of color who were barred from membership from other fraternal organizations. These organizations still largely serve Black and Brown students who are yearning for a college experience that listens to their perspectives, values their opinions, and centers their cultural values. Black Greek life will not fully address the totality of experiences for students of color. But predominantly white colleges and universities must be open and receptive to learning about why they struggle to recruit and retain students of color. Chartering and reactivating historically Black Greek letter organizations might be one step in the pursuit of equitable cocurricular experiences for 21st-century collegians of color.
Hernandez, Marcia. 2022. “Service, Leadership, and Sisterhood: An Overview of Black Sororities in Social Science Research.” In Black Sisterhoods: Paradigms and Praxis, edited by Tamara Bertrand Jones, Denise Davis-Maye, Sophia Rahming, and Jill Andrew, 658-673. Toronto: Demeter Press.
Strayhorn, Terrell L. 2019. College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Heather Moore Roberson, PhD, is dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and associate professor of community and justice studies and Black studies at Allegheny College. She is the 2020 recipient of the Thoburn Award for Teaching Excellence. Dr. Moore Roberson has published several book chapters on race and civic engagement, Black boys in film and television, and the impact of #BlackLivesMatter on teaching and learning. She is the coeditor of Thinking about Black Education: An Interdisciplinary Reader.