That moment was an initiation, a coming out, a homecoming celebration that reached past the yard to envelope the whole country. You saw it all so clearly, if you knew what to look for: White is the color of choice for most official ceremonies of Black Greek-letter sororities. Pearls represent the sororities’ founders, young Black women whose names are committed to the memories of every member and who in the early 20th century carved out space for themselves.
“We are in some ways force-feeding Black culture to the predominant culture,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first Black Greek-letter fraternity, founded on the campus of Cornell University in 1906. Over the next six decades, eight organizations would follow: Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho sorority and Iota Phi Theta fraternity.
Cleaver said that the founders of those organizations would see Harris’s election as the “culmination of the dream” they had. Their collective goal, the congressman said, was “to get the cream of the crop and shape them into a form that was going to change America.”
Harris, who immediately recognized the organizing power of Black Greeks, has said becoming an AKA changed her life. She pledged the sorority in the spring of her senior year at Howard University in 1986 with 37 other women whom Harris has repeatedly referred to as her “family.”
Like Harris, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, said that her steps, and those of every member of a Black Greek organization, have been shaped by the young men and women who established these groups.
“The fact that we have weathered the storm for 100 years? That just illustrates the masterful tenets of our founders, and we have to give them credit,” Wilson said. “They knew what they were doing when they created and founded these organizations for these millions of black people, for generations unborn. And look what we have created.”
Much has been made about Harris’s connections to her sorority and her line sisters, the women who pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha with her at Howard. The country writ large now knows how tight their bond remains some three decades after their initiation, how membership to every Divine Nine organization is a lifetime commitment, how Black Greeks organized during the 2020 election and flooded fundraising efforts for their fellow brothers and sisters with amounts commemorating the years their organizations were founded — $19.06 for the Alphas giving to their fraternity brother Raphael Warnock’s campaign to become the first Black senator from Georgia.
There are certain tenets you’ll hear over and over again from members of the Divine Nine, no matter the Greek letters they wear: scholarship, service, responsibility and uplift chief among them. But these organizations are not simply undergraduate community-service networks. There is a difference between a Tri Delt and a member of Delta Sigma Theta, between a Sigma Xi member and a member of Omega Psi Phi. And the bonds formed in Black Greek organizations are not just skin deep. They are lifelong, merely beginning in college.
“It’s real, it’s genuine, and it really started back in 1986,” said Lorri Saddler, one of Harris’s line sisters. “It has transcended miles and years. We are closer now than we were then. We were just learning each other then, but we are part of each other’s lives now.”
Reflecting on the choice they made to pledge AKA nearly 35 years ago, Saddler said they didn’t truly know what they were in for. How could they? Sure, all initiates learn their organizations’ histories, they learn of the achievements of men and women who formed the groups barely a generation after chattel slavery was ended.
“We’re 18, 19 years old,” Saddler said. “At that time we didn’t have the full perspective of what it meant. But we took the step forward, and in doing so it really prepared us for life. Our experience has in many ways served as a major thread in the fabric of who we are today.”
Wilson said the sorority takes on a outsize role in each member’s life, not only providing a network, a purpose and role models but creating bonds that are as immutable as DNA.
“What we call sisterhood is something that you can’t really measure or touch. But before I knew Kamala Harris, I believe I knew Kamala Harris,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), who served as the national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority from 1996 to 2000.
“No matter what affiliation you are right now, we are all on Team Kamala,” added Fudge, who President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But what is it? What is that immeasurable, intangible thread that knits together these organizations that are more than organizations.
“We’re institutions,” Fudge said. The Divine Nine, made up of hundreds of thousands of active members collectively, is like bedrock supporting solid bonds through brotherhood, sisterhood and service.
“There is nowhere in this country and most other countries that I can go and not encounter a Delta, and that network buoys you — but it also supports you, so you’re never really alone,” Fudge said. “I’ve worked most of my life in environments that were not particularly full of people of color. But I always knew I had that foundation and I had that community, that sisterhood to fall back on. No matter where I went, I never left this group that was my foundation.”
As Harris ascends to the White House, shattering glass ceilings along the way, the protective cover of the Divine Nine will be at the ready.
“You cannot get any more male or White fraternity than the White House, and it’s a lonely place. When you rise, it is lonely,” said April Ryan, White House correspondent for the Grio and a new initiate of Delta Sigma Theta. “But to come back to that connection is something, and you understand, ‘I see you and I know what you’ve been through.’”
Ashley Etienne, a Delta and Harris’s communications director, echoed that sentiment.
“You need perspective, and as you go higher up, the organization is a reminder of why we’re here and why we do this work,” said Etienne, a Washington veteran who has worked for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Barack Obama.
A door has been opened at the White House, Etienne said, but it remains to be seen whether the “immeasurable pride” — as Cleaver called the Divine Nine’s collective support of Harris — also translates into a unified political agenda.
“Now that people know who we are,” Fudge said, “I think we have even more responsibility to do the things that all of our organizations have always believed that we should do.”
Wilson agreed that the Divine Nine have been emboldened over the past year. “They’re saying, ‘Here we are. You didn’t know it, you didn’t know us, but now you do. Here we are. And we’re not going anywhere. This is just the beginning.’”
You’ll probably hear them before you see them. A symphony of “skee-wees,” “oo-oops” and “ee-yips” mixed with “a-phis” and “roos” signifying their Greek-letter affiliations. And then when you see them be ready for the bold colors — pink, green, royal blue, crimson, rich golds. The sights, the sounds, the rhythm, the work. They have been in Washington for decades in the halls of Congress, in the Supreme Court, memorialized a short walk from the Washington Monument, and now they are settling into the White House.