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A Century of Sisterhood

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Sindya N. Bhanoo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 14, 2008

By 7:30 in the morning, nearly 1,000 ladies began their fitness walk around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Many wore pink sweat pants with a double row of green piping. Some wore dark green Converse tennis shoes with a salmon pink toe. Others went hard, head-to-toe pink with just a hint of green sparkle.

There were those so devoted to the Alpha Kappa Alpha theme -- Economics, Service and Partnerships -- in honor of the sorority's 100th anniversary that they walked with a bit of attitude, swaying and chanting. It was serious fitness-promoting. But as the sisterhood likes to say, Alpha Kappa Alpha is a serious matter.

The walk kicked off the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Centennial "Boule" Convention, which runs through Friday and is bringing nearly 25,000 "sorors," from 975 chapters around the world, and an obsession with all things pink and green to Washington. It is a time of assembly, much as it was a hundred years ago when college was new for the fewer than 1,000 African Americans just beginning to distance themselves from nearly 250 years of bondage with the equalizing promise of higher education.

Conceived as a social and service organization by undergraduate Ethel Hedgeman Lyle and founded on the campus of Howard University, AKA was the nation's first black sorority and counts the late civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, actresses Phylicia Rashad and Jada Pinkett and singer Alicia Keys among its members.

When AKA began, blacks were largely confined to a handful of black colleges, and the terrorism of lynching was on its way to claiming thousands of lives. In those days, being "on line" was a term reserved for dressing alike, learning history, and learning ritual steps and songs along with all the other "ivies" who made up your pledge class.

Some AKAs have lived to see profound changes. Ollie Miller Phillips, 98, a retired high school teacher from Baltimore, said a number of sororities rushed her 76 years ago, "but somehow I was attracted to AKA more than any others." You had to be active in the campus community. You "weren't vain, but there was a certain amount of pride and self-worth," Miller says.

Yesterday, at the anniversary luncheon, Phillips and other members who have been in the sorority 75 or more years sat together as thousands cheered them. "It's wonderful," she said, beaming. "You feel it from way down. You feel like you just want to hug everyone."

Today, AKA has more than 200,000 members, and the women who joined in the decades after Phillips benefited from an established network of professionals. The organization boasts civil rights leaders, judges, doctors, lawyers and educators, and membership has meant that there is usually another AKA close by, ready to do an extra bit of looking out.

"These are people you can call, and they will pick up," said Mary Terrell, who pledged in 1964 at Howard. Terrell, 64, a retired D.C. Superior Court judge, said her career benefited from contacts with her sister AKAs.

One of Terrell's AKA sisters at Howard was former Washington mayor Sharon Pratt. The two stayed friends, and after Pratt was elected mayor in 1990, she appointed Terrell to a position on the Employee Appeals Board. Later in her career, another AKA used her political connections and persuaded then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) to sponsor Terrell for a federal judgeship.

Standing in front of towering pictures of AKA founders, Angela Sherrod, 55, of Sacramento snapped photos with Shenika Hall and Angela D.G. Davis, two members from Georgia who joined the sorority with one of Sherrod's two daughters, both of whom are AKAs. Sherrod said she has seen women she went to high school and college with. "At the airport, I ran into someone I hadn't seen in more than a dozen years. We just hugged and screamed."

Davis, 31, said she came "just to be a part of it. Just to say we were at the celebration for 100 years."

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