Last fall, I had the privilege of becoming a sister of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc., the first Latina Sorority in the nation. My sorority was a product of the unification of Latinas during times of segregation and discrimination. During the Civil Rights movement, Latinos in the United States were fighting a struggle of their own. In the Southwest, many Mexican Americans were facing discrimination as well as Puerto Ricans in the Northeast. In 1975, seventeen Latina women created a sorority to support Latina women in the U.S. as well as help our people advance through service. Since then, Lambda Theta Alpha continues to give back and has influenced others to start Latino/a sororities and fraternities of their own.
Through my participation in a multicultural Greek organization, I have learned about the rich histories and legacies of our organizations. As pioneers of multicultural Greeks, Black sororities and fraternities are in a sense also a product of the segregation, discrimination, and racism Blacks had to face during the Jim Crown Era and even today.
On December 5th, 1776, at the college of William and Mary, the first fraternity was founded. They called themselves Phi Beta Kappa. The fraternity was a secret society for white males at the collegiate level (Greek Life). Throughout the years, more fraternities were founded as well as sororities. At the time that the first Black fraternity was founded, also known as the Jim Crow era, Black students were still not allowed to attend most universities, let alone join secret societies, including fraternities and sororities. As a result, in 1906, seven men at Cornell University founded the first ever Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Initially, the organization served as a support group for Black students who faced racial prejudice. Since their formation, Alpha Phi Alpha has also served as space where students can celebrate Black culture while expressing themselves through various forms of art, such as saluting and stepping. The fraternity was founded from the principles of scholarship, fellowship, good character, and the uplifting of humanity. After their establishment, the Alphas also recognized the need to help correct the educational, economic, political, and social injustices faced by African Americans. Even today, they continue to be socially and politically involved within their community and beyond (The Founding of Alpha Phi Alpha).
Alpha Phi Alpha ties closely to the Prince Hall Masons, as they were also a secret society. In class, we discussed the role of Prince Hall Masons in a segregated and prejudice society against Black people (Pittman, African Americans & Reconstruction Era). The first Masons were an exclusive secret society who’s membership consisted of wealthy white men. In 1784, Prince Hall established the first lodge of African American Masons in North America known as African Lodge No. 459 (Prince Hall Masons). Initially, Black men were not allowed to join such organizations and societies which led to the creation of all Black chapters and charters. Similar to the Prince Hall Masons, Alpha Phi Alpha brothers are pioneers in regards to Greek life since most were not allowed to join other fraternities so instead resisted by creating their own.
The creation of a Black fraternity and the Alpha’s work to advance their community during the Civil Rights Movement and mainly during the Jim Crow era played a huge role in their ability to cultivate a strong African American identity. By unifying and confronting disparities within their community and developing their own societies, the Alphas show us how African Americans during this time resisted against white exclusivity, white violence, and white privilege (Pittman, African Americans & Reconstruction Era).
I chose Alpha Phi Alpha as my cultural artifact because the organization incorporates various aspects of African and Black culture as well as the slave era into their organization’s traditions. Apart from their ties to the Jim Crow era, Alpha Phi Alpha also has a lot of ties to their ancestors’ traditions who lived through the slave era. For example, when pledges officially become brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, the chapter hosts a probate, where they showcase their new members to the rest of the Greek community. Back in the day, they used salutes and formations that resembled those from the slave era.
In the picture above, students pledging Alpha Phi Alpha are standing on line (term used when line brothers stand together in line in order). This is similar to the way Africans were taken to forts and ports before they were branded and shipped to the Americas and other parts of the world. Although this is not included in the picture above, in some probates, neophytes (new brothers) were chained together from the neck and feet, which resembled the way slaves were chained when they were kidnapped and trasnported.
Another way the Alphas embrace their African roots is by stepping. Stepping is an art form where the body is used as an instrument to create rhythms and sounds through footsteps and claps. Stepping is unique to Black Greek lettered organizations because they were the first to step and even today, they are the main organizations that step. For example, my Latina sorority does not step out of respect. Since stepping derives from African culture, slavery, and Black culture, we would be appropriating a culture that is not ours. Instead, many multicultural Greeks stroll.
According to history, stepping derives from various eras and places. When the fraternity was first founded, they did not step. It was not until later in the mid 1900’s that fraternities began stepping. Part of the tradition of stepping comes from South African culture. Some of the movements are drawn from African foot dances such as Gumboot, a South African dance. Other parts of stepping also derive from slave chants and songs as well as from military formations. For instance, when they step, they are in line formation and step in sync, again similar to the way slaves were transported or the way slave owners sometimes made them stand. Stepping continues to be a big part of Black Greek life with step shows all over the country where Greeks are able to compete against each other, often for scholarships (History of Art of Stepping).
Even today, the Alphas continue to play an important role in the advancement of the Black community. Their legacy inspired others to start new Greek lettered organizations, such as Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, and many others. Alpha Phi Alpha survived the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, as well as other periods of racism and segregation. Time has proven that they are here to stay and to continue to advocate for their community through scholarship and the uplifting of humanity (The Founding of Alpha Phi Alpha).
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Pi Rho Chapter (Fast forward to 3:20)
Spring Fling Step Show 2011
History of Art of Stepping. 2015. <http://www.artofstepping.com/about-a-o-s/history-of-art-of-stepping/>
The Founding of Alpha Phi Alpha. 2015.<http://www.apa1906.net/history>
Swanson, Abigail. Prince Hall Masons. Black Past Blog. 2007. <http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/prince-hall-masons-1784>
Katica, Mary. Greek Life. Carnegie Mellon University. 2007. <https://www.studentaffairs.cmu.edu/student-life/greek/about/history/>
Pittman, LaShawnDa. African Americans & Reconstruction Era. 4 Nov. 2015.