Members of Black Sorority at Odds Over Leader's Expenditures

Barbara A. McKinzie, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, stands between wax figures of herself and the late Nellie Quander, left, the sorority's first president, at a sorority function in June. The cost for the two figures totaled $45,000.
Barbara A. McKinzie, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, stands between wax figures of herself and the late Nellie Quander, left, the sorority's first president, at a sorority function in June. The cost for the two figures totaled $45,000. (By Rob Roberts -- Associated Press)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

On the top floor of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, around the corner from the gift shop, stands the statue of a dignitary in a long green beaded gown. The figure of Barbara A. McKinzie, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest black sorority, might not provoke the average museum visitor, but the objet d'art -- and its disputed cost -- has emerged at the core of a dispute fracturing the historic organization.

The sorority -- which counts among its 225,000 members Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, three congresswomen and the president of Liberia -- maintains that the statue was sculpted to honor the organization's centennial. But many members are furious, viewing the glorification of the president, known within AKA as the Supreme Basileus, as a window into wider allegations of financial mismanagement and ethical lapses.

A little more than a year after members gathered in Washington in their trademark pink and green outfits to celebrate the group's 100th birthday, a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court has split the sorority, leaving some members worried about its credibility in the black community and as a charitable organization.

In June, eight members filed suit against McKinzie and AKA's board, alleging that the Supreme Basileus was improperly awarded a $375,000 stipend, the first-ever compensation for the sorority's president.

The suit also claims that McKinzie used the sorority's American Express account to purchase lingerie and designer clothing for herself and friends, racking up American Express Rewards points that she then redeemed for gym equipment and a 46-inch high-definition Toshiba television. The members want the judge to remove McKinzie as president and want unapproved payments to be returned.

Melody McDowell, AKA's spokeswoman, declined a reporter's request to interview McKinzie and AKA executive director Betty N. James. McDowell would not discuss the lawsuit in detail but said all spending was properly authorized by the sorority's board. "All of these things are done with their overwhelming approval," McDowell said.

The lawsuit has raised questions about the role of the sorority in a time of change. "People ask, 'Are they still relevant?' " said Sophia A. Nelson, an AKA sister in Loudoun County who wrote an essay posted on The Root, an online magazine on black issues, arguing that black sororities are as vital as ever.

In e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, McKinzie told sorority members this summer that the lawsuit was "frivolous," denied any wrongdoing and said allegations about "personal use of AKA funds are false." She said the lawsuit's lead plaintiff (Joy Daley of Newburgh, N.Y.) had been sued by AKA for allegedly submitting inadequate expense reports. A New York judge dismissed that suit, ruling that the sorority failed to prove its case.

McKinzie asked members to go onto Twitter, Facebook and MySpace "to defend AKA's good name." And she laid down some AKA law: "[O]ur rules dictate that the eight Sorors who filed this lawsuit be suspended, pending further resolution of their status . . ."

When Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) learned about the lawsuit, she chatted up a fellow AKA sister, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), during a break outside the House chamber.

"We both said we want to get to the bottom of it," said Johnson, 73, an AKA member for 35 years. "We were very hurt by it, actually. We have always been held to the highest standards, scholastically . . . and nothing like this has ever happened before. At most, it's embarrassing and certainly a deviation of what the sorority has been known for."

Unlike other college fraternities and sororities, black Greek letter organizations include undergraduates, graduate students and professionals who join later in life. AKA's educational foundation provides college scholarships, and chapters across the country emphasize volunteerism, advocating for foster children, hosting community meetings on domestic violence and mentoring middle school boys.

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