The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How sorority life can change politics

Why black sororities have survived challenges to their leadership and remained essential for 110 years.

One hundred ten years after its 1908 founding at Howard University, the oldest of the four most prominent black sisterhoods is still a vibrant part of campus life — in part because its mission persists. The 16 architects of AKA and the black women’s sorority movement felt isolated in the predominantly male environment at Howard. Like white women, who launched their sororities as early as 1870, they used the Greek-letter society system to combat sexism in higher education.

But like other black women’s organizations — including women’s clubs and church auxiliaries — the needs of their communities demanded that black sororities do far more than fight sexism in higher education. They became social advocacy organizations demanding change and working to improve the quality of life in black communities while also assisting sorority members by opening doors that were otherwise slammed shut for black Americans. This dual mission aroused the anger of militant black advocacy groups, which also took issue with the tactics and privilege of AKA members. In spite of this criticism, the sorority has persevered in its mission of combating the enduring challenges confronting black women in America.

In the early 20th century, at a time when black Americans were marginalized and had few institutional footholds, new sororities like AKA mobilized to fill the gap between what black communities needed and what they could receive from federal, state and local governments. They took steps to address every aspect of inequality with a special eye toward the way that gender exacerbated racial inequality.

Nearly 40 years before the establishment of the United Negro College Fund and before blacks could attend college on an equal basis, AKA began endowing scholarships and awarding high school girls with college funding. In Chicago in the 1930s, AKA women used their influence as educators and social science researchers to promote black girls studying new frontiers in the sciences, arguing these girls would become the women leaders who would bring African Americans relief from the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1941, a group of AKA doctors and public health volunteers formed the Mississippi Health project, a mobile health unit that traveled to the Deep South to conduct health screenings and teach best practices to poor black communities with limited access to health care.

Yet despite this good work, AKA women consistently confronted criticism over their vision for black women — and black America more broadly. Some worried that AKA women’s engagement in politics and community leadership threatened male authority as it confronted racist stereotypes about black women. Others criticized the way they exercised their power, using their networks and education to advance the lives of AKA members.

In doing so, AKA women took advantage of channels of professional power and wealth that most black women lacked. AKA national presidents and executives were among the first black women to desegregate graduate schools, earn doctorate degrees and complete medical schools. Their elite careers, and the exclusive nature of sorority membership, produced accusations that sororities were elitist and dangerously insular. Indeed, the social status held by AKA women created distance between them and the populations with which they worked.

In E. Franklin Frazier’s 1957 “The Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States,” the sociologist criticized African American participation in Greek-letter organizations, accusing the members of distracting students from academics and using their organizational affiliation to demonstrate that they had “escaped from working-class background and achieved middle-class status.”

As black political militancy became more appealing and visible as a strategy for gaining civil rights, the criticism against black sororities grew more intense. Black power and black feminist movements called upon students to embrace black solidarity and unity. A 1978 Washington Post report suggested that throughout the 1960s “black power advocates made black Greeks feel ‘guilty’ for joining organizations that ‘split the black community into social cliques,’ ” leading to a decline in membership.

These groups also denounced sorority women’s activism and their institutional commitments as outdated or too conservative to respond to the pressing needs of black communities. Although AKA women were participating in sit-ins, boycotts and other aspects of the civil rights movement, these activists had a more radical view of what was important for black women’s futures, including welfare rights, labor organizing and encouraging community control rather than rule by elites.

AKA women responded to these challenges and critiques by drawing upon their long history of making change from both the inside and outside. As they did in an earlier era, they used their educational and professional training to capitalize on new avenues for applying their knowledge. AKA partnered with war on poverty programs that provided block grants to community organizations to create child development centers, nutritional relief to senior citizens and job corps training, especially for black girls who did not complete high school.

In spite of these attempts to remain focused on the needs of black communities, criticisms of AKA’s tactics have persisted into the 21st century, even as the sorority’s mission has remained vital.

Most recently, AKA — with a membership of nearly 300,000 women — has had to confront what its leadership will look like in the #BlackLivesMatter era. In 2014, AKA’s headquarters issued an advisory alerting sorority members that they should refrain from wearing their sorority letters while participating in the protests that grew out of the uprising in Ferguson, Mo. The sorority reasoned that members could give the impression that they were communicating the sorority’s official position on Ferguson, and they emphasized that they could not assume liability for anything that happened as a result of the protest.

Some members, however, balked at the directive. They took to social media to bemoan that a sorority that prided itself on a history that included organizing against lynching would discourage standing up against police violence. The sorority quickly reversed course, but the momentary controversy illustrated the necessity for black organizations to remain attentive to the speed at which information travels and social movements expand. Since changing course on the 2014 protest, AKA has issued public statements expressing concern about the lack of indictments in the killing of black citizens by police officers.

While more radical activists have derided AKA’s goals and methods, the sorority has remained consistent in its vision. AKA women have fought against racism and gender disparities for 110 years, today as part of far larger networks thanks to the sorority’s many achievements. While AKA launched to fight Jim Crow, it is now fighting against its offspring — racial and gender disparities in the realization of health, wealth, education and justice.

The future of black women’s sororities will be shaped, as it always has been, by the continued barriers that black women — inside and outside of college — face. Although black women’s college attendance rates are rising, their degree attainment has not translated into significant gains economically. Black maternal health in the United States is abysmal. And black women workers — especially caregivers and domestics — are still among the most vulnerable in America.

If history is an indicator, AKA will continue to shift to respond to black America’s most pressing needs; sometimes, they will take the lead, and sometimes, they will need to conform to a changing landscape.