Alpha to Omega: The Ultimate Guide to Black Greek Culture

This January marks the founding of five of the biggest Black sororities and fraternities, including the Deltas, AKAs, and the Kappas. From step shows to social action, African-American sororities and fraternities have been one of the cornerstones of the college experience for more than 100 years. With our A to Z guide to the “Divine Nine,” Essence gives you the lowdown on Black Greek life.

Jennifer Cunningham Jan, 11, 2016

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This January marks the founding of five of the biggest Black sororities and fraternities, including the Deltas, AKAs, and the Kappas. From step shows to social action, African-American sororities and fraternities have been one of the cornerstones of the college experience for more than 100 years. With our A to Z guide to the “Divine Nine,” Essence gives you the lowdown on Black Greek life.

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Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. - Established in 1908 at Howard University, it’s the oldest sorority among the Divine Nine. Today, the organization boasts close to 300,000 members, including Gladys Knight, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Phylicia Rashad and the late Coretta Scott King. The sorority’s tenets include friendship, service and advocacy.

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Black Lives Matter-- Fraternity brothers and sorority sisters both in and out of college marched in Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide - with many rocking their Greek jackets as they took to the streets.

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Crossing Over – A clandestine ceremony where a pledge “crosses over” to become an official member of the sorority or fraternity. The process can take hours, or days, and during the process, pledges learn and participate in the group’s secret rituals. 

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Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc-- Sisterhood, scholarship and service are the tenets this sorority was founded upon back in 1913, when the group splintered with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Deltas’ have a rich history of political action - U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Rep. Shirley Chisholm and civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson are some examples. Besides politics, the group leads programs and services based around education, voting rights and health. 

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Elephant — Deltas are known to collect elephants as a tribute to one of their 22 co-founders, Florence Letcher Toms, who collected them.

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Friendship--The friendships made in a sorority or fraternity last a lifetime.  

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Green (and pink!)—Salmon pink and apple green are the signature colors of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

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Hazing--A controversial - and illegal - practice of humiliating or otherwise abusing recruits as part of initiation. Although it’s officially banned, fraternities and sororities both black and white have been cited for the practice. 

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Iota Phi Theta—Boasting the motto: “Building A Tradition, Not Resting Upon One,” Iota Phi Theta is the youngest of the “Divine Nine” organizations, founded in 1963 at Morgan State University during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The fraternity actively participated in the movement - one of it’s first coordinated actions was a successful picket line of the white-only Northwood Theater across the street from Morgan State. 

Did You Know: T.C. Carson, who played “Kyle” on 90s sitcom Living Single, is one of the fraternity’s roughly 30,000 members. 

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John Singleton—John Singleton, BET founder Robert Johnson and Johnnie Cochran are some of the more than 100,000 members of Kappa Alpha Psi. Founded in 1911 at Indiana University, the organization’s focus today includes health education and mentoring programs for young men. The group’s colors are crimson and cream, and its leaders are referred to as “polemarchs.”

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Kappa Alpha Psi —Established in 1911 at Indiana University, it’s the third oldest fraternity among the Divine Nine. The motto of the organization is decidated to "the principles of achievement through a truly democratic Fraternity."

 

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Line - a group of prospective recruits who pledge a fraternity or sorority together. 

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Mona Scott Young’s “Sorority Sisters” - a short-lived reality TV show about nine sorors, which caused an uproar among Black Greeks and the Black community because of its negative portrayal of the women and their sororities. Advertisers bailed, and many of the cast members were either expelled or suspended from their sororities. 

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Nupe - A nickname for a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

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Omega Psi Phi-- Established in 1911 at Howard University, Omega Psi Phi’s key principles are manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift. Well known members include Steve Harvey, Michael Jordan the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Shaquille O’Neal and Tom Joyner. 

Fun fact: Dr. Charles Drew, whose pioneering blood plasma research paved the way for the blood banks of today, was an Omega man, and wrote the fraternity’s official hymn, “Omega Dear” in the 1940s.

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Phi Beta Sigma-- This 102-year old fraternity was founded at Howard University on the tenets of brotherhood, scholarship and service. Since then, it’s members, known as Sigmas, have swelled to more than 100,000, and include Dr. George Washington Carver, Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia). Former President Bill Clinton and actors Blair Underwood and Malik Yoba are all honorary member. The Sigma’s motto is “Culture for service and service for humanity.”

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Que Hop - Omega Psi Phi’s signature dance move, usually to George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” 

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Rituals - each organization has its own unique rituals for crossing over, becoming a member and celebrating new members, which are all kept a secret until the intiation process begins for potential pledges.

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Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority-- A group of seven teachers founded Sigma Gamma Rho in 1922 at Butler University in Indianapolis - basing the sorority’s values on sisterhood, honesty, respect and accountability. Its mission, in part, is to “enhance the quality of life for women and their families in the U.S. and globally through community service.”

Today, the organization boasts more than 85,000 sorors in seven countries. Celebrity sisters include Kelly Price, MC Lyte, U.S. Rep. Corine Brown (D-Florida). 

Did You Know: “Gone With The Wind” actress Hattie McDaniel was also a member of Sigma Gamma Rho.

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Tattoos - or brands to be more precise - are a longstanding, yet extremely painful tradition among some black Greeks to express devotion to their sorority or fraternity. The technique involves heating a metal brand shaped into Greek letters, and then searing the skin with it. 

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University-- the epicenter of all Greek life. 

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Volunteering is a major component of Greek life. 

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Yellow Tea Rose-- The official flower of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority. 

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Zeta Phi Beta-- Five Howard University coeds started Zeta Phi Beta back in 1920 on the principles of scholarship, service, sisterhood and finer womanhood. 

Today, the more than 125,000 Zeta Phi Beta sorors head up advocacy programs like Z-HOPE, which provides community service and mentoring. Famous sorors include Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, comedian Sheryl Underwood - who also served a stint as president – and singers Syleenah Johnson and Dionne Warwick.