By Paul A. Holston
Brotherhood. Sisterhood. Scholarship. Service. These are among the core pillars to each of the nine black Greek letter organizations, recognized as the “Divine Nine.” And it’s the reason Calvin Pierre joined Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.
“I wanted to be a part of something bigger then myself. I wanted to take on a leadership role and give back to my community while learning the principles of Omega Psi Phi,” said Pierre, a senior economics major, who pledged with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., during Spring 2014 in college.
But not everyone is so certain of the importance of black Greek letter organizations, or BGLOs, today. While black fraternities and sororities are considered organizations that develop character, assist in gaining skillful life knowledge and develop proactive leaders, they have been tainted with stereotypes of being viewed as gangs, citied over hazing allegations and perceived as being all about partying and stepping.
According to 2013 statistics from U.S. News and World Report, at Howard University, a well-known historically black college, 3 percent of undergraduate men were members of a fraternity and 5 percent of undergraduate women were members of a sorority. With 6,974 undergraduate enrollments during that time, both percentages combined account for 558 students that were members of an organization, but does not account for the number of students in a black Greek letter organization. Are BGLOs still significant in todays challenging times of racism and bigotry?
“Without a doubt these organizations still maintain their importance, even with their differences,” said Demarquin Johnson, a Howard senior political science major and current president of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., Alpha Chapter. “When your hear things such as the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing that racist chant for example, that gives more of a reason to have these black Greek letter organizations that really appreciate black culture and diversity.”
For Adrian Black, a sophomore student at Howard University, the allure of the nine organizations is limited when little is known about them.
“I don’t really hear about them a lot unless it’s during class and something gets brought up,” said Black, a Howard sophomore film major. “The things I’ve heard the most about black Greek life lately are the parties and hazing allegations, unfortunately.”
Some members of black fraternities and sororities believe BGLOs remain significant, especially as racial tensions grow between the African-American community and law enforcement in the wake of the shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. and most recently, Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. All three victims were unarmed, black men.
“We have a common goal to change what the status quo is in America,” said Johnson.
Shannon Smith, assistant director and coordinator of Greek affairs of the Office of Student Life and Student Activities, said that organizations give great diversity and are another avenue of those seeking a place for developing leadership capabilities, relationships and community outreach.
“All of these organizations bring core culture and continue to create a strong family,” said Smith. “They are definitely still necessary.”
Jael Benjamin, a Howard junior information systems and analysis major and current president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Chapter, said that she definitely believes that BGLOs are needed on college campuses.
“Throughout the Divine Nine, while we are all working towards the same common goal, there are different avenues and unique appearances from each organization. I don’t believe it’s mandatory to be in one; however, I can’t imagine college life without them,” she said.
While there’s varying opinions on the relevance of black fraternities and sororities today, black Greek members agree on one point: They are here to stay.
“A major reason BGLOs is still important today is the infrastructure already set up. Most of these organizations are at least 50 to 100 years old, and if we got rid of these organizations that existed in the past, we wouldn’t have the lessons learned today,” Johnson said.
Pierre expressed that, “It’s more important now because during the civil rights movement, racial problems were front of their faces and it was shown that they had to do something to change it. Now, it’s still more in our face, but its more subtle…and we need these fraternities and sororities to open the minds of black individuals to let them see what’s going on and to also express the importance of education.”