Cool Like That: Exploring the World of Historically Black Fraternities and Sororities

Timothy L. Wilson

Martin Luther King, Jr. Mary McLoed-Bethune. Lena Horne. Jackie Robinson. Mae Jemison. Michael Jordan. Leontyne Price. Jesse Jackson. Thurgood Marshall. Shirley Chisolm. Coretta Scott-King. Aside from being prominent figures in the Black community, what else do these people have in common? They are all members of historically Black fraternities and sororities, commonly referred to as National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations.

This manuscript explains the rationale behind their founding, and expolores their impact their constituents, colleges, and communities at large. The author compares the NPHC experience to the experiences of members of National Panhellenic Council (NPC) and National Interfraternity Council (NIC) organizations. Finally, this paper examines trends and challenges for the future as well the implications they pose for student affairs professionals.

A Brief History of Fraternities and Sororities

In the early portion of the nineteenth century, the only real alternative to academics was the debating club, or literary society. These organizations were most likely extensions of "the general atmosphere of colonial political debate that surrounded their birth" (Rudolph, 1990, p. 138). As time went on, the fraternity came into being, and eventually eclipsed the literary society. The fraternity was intended to fill an emotional and social interest, rather than a curricular vacuum

. . . . Greek-letter fraternities were intended to bring together the most urbane young men on the campus into small groups that would fill the vacuum left by removal from the family and the home community, but they served a further purpose too. The fraternities offered an escape from the monotony, dreariness, and unpleasantness of the collegiate regimen. (Rudolph, 1990, p. 146)

Despite resistance from administrators and students alike (Rudolph, 1990) the fraternity movement spread and is with us today. When women began to attend previously all male colleges, they were systematically excluded from campus activities. As a response they created their own fraternity system. By the turn of the century, ten women's fraternities had established themselves as national organizations, and in 1902, they organized themselves into what is now known as the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC). Today, the NPC has 26 member organizations (Association of Fraternity Advisors Manual, 1985, p. 5). The word "sorority" comes from the Latin word soror, meaning "sister" (Association of Fraternity Advisors Manual, 1985). Gamma Phi Beta was the first group to label themselves as a "sorority" in 1874 at Syracuse University. The term was used because the group's advisor "thought the term 'fraternity' ill advised for a group of young ladies" (American Fraternity Advisors Manual, 1985, p. 5).

Fraternities and sororities have been historically perceived by students, faculty and administrators as being exclusive along many lines. In the 1920s, fraternities tended to attract students "from the urban, relatively affluent sector of society" (Horowitz, 1987, p. 132). In the 1940s, it was apparent that the "fraternity brother had more money than the independent" (Horowitz, 1987, p. 136). The same trend seems to be holding today for fraternities and sororities. In addition to economic factors, exclusion based on racial factors also came into play. Many National Interfraternity Council (NIC) and NPC organizations have or another had clauses within their charters that banned the membership of non-White and non-Christian members (Whipple, Baier, & Grady, 1991). These clauses were reflections of the larger society's systematic exclusion of people who did not fit the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant mold. It was this systematic exclusion that gave rise to historically Black organizations. These organizations allowed Black students to "seek the solace of these groups for a sense of belonging on predominantly White campuses and use them to voice concerns of equality and justice" (Wilkerson in McKenzie, 1990, p. 34).

The National Pan-Hellenic Council and Its Member Organizations

Predominantly Black Greek-letter organizations have played and continue to play, significant roles as sources of racial pride and as an important group for Black students (members and independents alike) on predominantly White campuses . . . These organizations represent a link both to their heritage and to their futures. (McKee in Whipple, Baier, & Grady, 1991, p. 147)

Alpha Phi Alpha, founded in 1906, was America's first historically Black Greek letter organization (Giddings, 1988). Over the next sixteen years, seven other Greek letter organizations were founded. Two fraternities (Omega Psi Phi in 1911 and Phi Beta Sigma in 1914) and three sororities (Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1908, Delta Sigma Theta in 1913, and Zeta Phi Beta in 1920) were all founded on the campus of Howard University, an historically Black college. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity was founded in 1915 at Indiana University. Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority was founded at Butler University in 1922 (McKenzie, 1990).

The formation of National Pan-Hellenic Council (NHPC) organizations was more than an imitation of their White counterparts. They were "created out of the desire to form social bonds with like-minded students" (Giddings, 1988, p. 18). They were a response to individuals who felt that Blacks could never be educated in the classics, or that they should receive industrial, non-academic educations. They provided a forum for academic excellence as many Black students, for a variety of reasons (e.g. ethnicity) could not become members of societies such as Phi Beta Kappa (Giddings, 1988). This was especially true for NPHC sororities who often held their members to stricter academic standards than their male counterparts. The formation of these organizations was also an answer to practical problems for Black students on predominantly White campuses. When some organizations were founded, they provided housing for their members, who were allowed to attend classes, but not to live on campus (Giddings, 1988).

In 1930, three sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and two fraternities Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi became the NPHC's charter members. A year later, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity entered the organization and in 1937, Sigma Gamma Rho joined the fold. In 1937, the NPHC became incorporated under Illinois law. Its purpose was to "foster unanimity of thought and action as far as possible in the conduct of Greek letter collegiate fraternities and sororities and to consider problems of mutual interest to its member organizations" (Association of Fraternity Advisors Manual, 1985, p. 39).

Today, the NPHC acts as an umbrella organization for the eight members. NPHC's mission has expanded to include helping university administrators reach educational and cultural objectives, maintaining relationships between organizations, setting organizational standards, and serving as a forum to consider issues of mutual interest for member organizations (Association of Fraternity Advisors, 1985).

Characteristics of NPHC Organizations

There are many aspects of NPHC organizations that make them unique. NPHC organizations utilize a different structure of governance of their umbrella organizations, different terminology, and have different traditions from their NPC and NIC counterparts.

Structure of Umbrella Organizations

A major difference between the NPHC, NPC and NIC umbrella organizations is that the NPC and NIC differentiate themselves by gender. The NPC is the umbrella organization for sororities and is most often manifested in the Panhellenic Council at the campus level. The NIC is the governing body for fraternities and is usually manifested via Inter-Fraternity Councils (IFC) at the campus level. The NPHC makes no gender differentiation and helps to enhance more of a communal atmosphere by providing men and women with an equal voice in the governance of the NPHC.


The terminology used by NPHC fraternities and sororities is both practical and symbolic. For example, if someone says that he or she is "on line," this means that he or she is pledging an organization. This referred to the fact that when pledges were together, they were literally in a line, usually from shortest to tallest. Each pledge was then assigned a number that corresponded to their position in the line.

Another term that is commonly used is "sands." After completion of the initiation ritual, pledges are said to have "crossed the burning sands," and their line brothers or sisters are known as that pledge's "sands." Anyone who was initiated into a particular organization in the same semester, at any campus is also that pledge's "sands." Once new members are initiated they are known as "neophytes" or "neos." After an organization takes in new members, the previous neophytes then become "prophytes."


Stepping is probably the one NPHC tradition that people are most familiar with. Stepping has been an NPHC activity for about 45 years. Originally, it was a required pledge activity. Pledges would have to march across campus in a type of lock step, three steps forward, two back (Freeman & Witcher, 1988). Today, stepping is a bona fide art form. Organizations can spend weeks preparing extravagant, precision routines complete with elaborate costumes and props (Freeman & Witcher, 1988). On many campuses these competitions, known as Greek Shows or step shows, are so popular that tickets often sell out in a matter of days (Freeman & Witcher, 1988).


While stepping is probably the most public tradition that NPHC organizations have, there are other traditions and characteristics that make the NPHC organization unique. NPHC, NPC, and NIC organizations perform some type of community service. The difference between the NPC, NIC, and the NPHC often lies in how community service is performed. While NPC and NIC organizations tend more often to raise money for charitable causes as opposed to donating time, NPHC organizations tend to donate time more often than money (Stains, 1994). Donating time to projects such as youth mentoring programs, voter registration drives, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs are just a few of the examples of the community service aspect of NPHC organizations (Freeman & Witcher, 1988). Community service is important because it helps connect NPHC organizations with the Black community and helps to fulfill W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of the "talented tenth," which holds that the best hope of the Black community lies with the most talented tenth of its population (McKenzie, 1991). Du Bois argued that these individuals should be sent to college, and after graduation return to the Black community, aid in its development and become its future leaders. "The mission of the Black Greek-letter society was from the beginning to give leadership to a struggling people, to pull together the best trained Black minds to lead the Black community" (Freeman & Witcher, 1988, p. 151).

A 1991 study, conducted at Wichita State University by Schuh, Tripney, and Heim, revealed five themes that NPHC fraternities and sororities shared. These characteristics were personal bonding, the importance of community service, connection with brothers and sisters from other chapters, networking, and role modeling (1992).

Community service was important because the ability to donate time and or money was a source of pride, tied organizations back to the Black community and was the manifestation of the original goals of many of the NPHC member organizations. Because most NPHC organizations do not own houses, personal bonding among members was especially important. The relationship starts during the pledging process, the intensity of which, helps line brothers and sisters develop a close relationship with one another. After initiation, the organization becomes a surrogate family for members. The instant connection with brothers and sisters in other chapters is the third trend. Members in other chapters have similar knowledge of the pledging process and the organization, and could share stories and traditions. This connection goes as far as providing brothers or sisters, who may be new to or visiting an area, with lodging and food when needed.

Schuh, Tripney, and Heim discovered that the ability to network allowed members of undergraduate chapters to consult with graduate chapter members for advice and employment interviews. Role modeling was important because members were aware that many Black students looked to Greek-letter organizations for leadership and direction. Therefore, members wanted to make sure that they were good representatives of their organization to other students and the community at large.

In addition to the above themes, Brown (1994) uncovered other benefits of membership in NPHC organizations. The ability to further enhance a sense of individual identity was noted by a woman considering pledging a sorority: "I would like to be associated with Black women who desire and practice leadership. I want to be around women who have an identity independent of a man" (Brown, 1994, p. 18). One student spoke about how his fraternity helped him to develop a sense of belonging: "I was glad to meet other black [sic] males who shared my focus on academics, since it took me two years to meet some like-minded black [sic] men . . . Being an Alpha helped me meet my need to belong" (pp. 49-50).

Chapter Structure

NPHC organizations have two types of chapters, undergraduate, and graduate. The development of the graduate chapter concept is significant, because members of NPHC organizations tend to join later in their undergraduate experience than members of NPC and NIC organizations (Whipple, Baier, and Grady, 1991), if they choose to join at all. Pledging a graduate chapter offers a person the opportunity to have the fraternity or sorority experience. "In the alumni chapters, political action, and service to the community are expected" (Freeman & Witcher, 1988, p. 146). Like their NPC and NIC counterparts, NPHC graduate chapters have a mentoring relationship with their undergraduate chapters. This relationship enables recent graduates to access "one of the most influential networks of Black power in this country" (Freeman & Witcher 1988, p. 146).

Because many NPHC organizations are on predominantly White campuses, many cities have "metro chapters." For example, there are five major universities in the city of San Diego. The Alpha Phi Alpha undergraduate chapter in that city is made up of members from the two largest universities, San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego. Membership is open to anyone who wants to join from any of the other four-year institutions in the city. The metro chapter concept is helpful because the Black student population on any one of these campuses is too small to support separate chapters. Thus, resources are pooled to produce a healthier membership.

Membership Recruitment

The manner in which an NPHC organization recruits members differs from that of NPC and NIC organizations. For example, when the author pledged Alpha Phi Alpha in 1990, he was first a member of an organization known as MIA, or Men Interested in Alpha. This organization provided a means to become acquainted with current members and to learn more about the organization. After learning about the chapter, current chapter members set up a formal meeting with prospectives known as a "smoker." This was the chapter's opportunity to formally explain the purpose and goals of the organization and to talk about what it was like to be a member. At this meeting, membership applications were handed out. The returned applications were screened, and some members of MIA were invited back for interviews. After the interviews were completed, the chapter decided who to invite to be "on line." This entire pre-pledging process took about five weeks.

Differences and Similarities Between NPHC, NPC, and NIC
Organization Members

A 1991 study, conducted at the University of Alabama, determined several differences between members of NPHC and NPC and NIC organizations (Whipple et al.). NPHC organizations have been racially intergrated since 1945 (Wellsley, 1991), and NPC and NIC groups were ordered to desegregate in 1963. Greek-letter organizations, in practice however, were still segregated along racial lines. Blacks and Whites had different campus umbrella organizations (NPHC for Blacks, IFC and Panhellenic Council for Whites), thus there was very little cross-organizational interaction. NPC and NIC organizations participated in Greek Week activities, NPHC organizations did not. NPHC organizations participated in Greek Shows, NPC and NIC organizations did not.

NPHC organizations tended to have greater alumni chapter participation than their NPC and NIC counterparts. NPHC organizations also tended to have more of a community service focus. NPC and NIC organizations tended to focus on providing a social outlet for their members and other Greeks, whereas NPHC organizations tended to provide a social outlet for Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Comparing the members of these organizations, the study revealed that Blacks were more likely to major in fields such as engineering and Whites were more likely to be business majors. Blacks tended to receive merit based financial aid more often than Whites. Blacks tended not only to study more hours per week than their White counterparts, but Blacks were also more motivated by grades than Whites. Blacks tended to have a higher level of peer independence, liberalism and social consciousness than did Whites. As was mentioned before, Whites tended to affiliate with an organization sooner in their undergraduate experience than did Blacks. In terms of similarities, both Blacks and Whites were involved in a similar number of extracurricular activities, had similar levels of family independence and cultural sophistication, which was defined as an "authentic sensibility to ideas and art forms" (Whipple et al., 1991, p. 142).

Challenges For the Future

NPHC organizations face challenges on two fronts: hazing and the ethnic integration of membership. The practice of hazing is utilized to form a group identity. That is, individual identity is altered to make room for more of a group identity (Taft & Boglioli, 1993). This task is accomplished most often via physical and mental abuse.

The stripping away of individuality is achieved through activities that are designed to "humble" a pledgee . . . . The need for unity, for taking responsibility for another's actions, for understanding that one's own actions will affect the entire group-have a particular resonance in terms of the Black experience. (Giddings, 1988, p. 284)

This mentality, grounded in tradition, was confronted at the 1990 NPHC national convention. The result was the end of the pledging process and the implementation of education sessions on the histories and traditions of the organization. As noted earlier, much of the strong bonding in NPHC organizations starts while "on line." Altering this process could have a major impact on the closeness that NPHC organization members feel.

Because of hazing's strong tradition, the practice remains widespread. Alumni chapters do not have the ability to supervise the activities of undergraduate chapter members who want to be a part of tradition. NPHC organizations must once again re-evaluate their membership intake processes to overcome this challenge. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity revamped its membership intake process (S.A. Hart, personal communication, November 6, 1995), and prospective members now apply directly to the national headquarters, thus completely bypassing local chapters. Once accepted by the national headquarters, an applicant is considered a full-fledged member.

The primary constituency of NPHC organizations is the Black community. However, an estimated 10 to 15% of NPHC membership is non-Black (Stains, 1994). Non-Black members most often cite the commitment to community service and the low cost of dues as reasons why they chose to join NPHC organizations (Stains, 1994). For nearly ninety years, NPHC organizations have had strong ties and commitments to the Black community. The challenge for NPHC organizations is to determine if, and how, these commitments will change because of the influx of White, Asian, and Latino members.

Implications for Student Affairs Professionals

In 1983, Tucker suggested that universities should not allow for "separate governing bodies for minority groups" (p. 145). Eight years later, Whipple, Baier, and Grady (1991) suggested the opposite; universities should encourage the formation of NPHC groups. As racial issues have continued to become more charged across the nation, NPHC organizations have seen a surge in membership. In the five year period between 1985 and 1990, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity's membership increased by 33%, and Omega Psi Phi founded at least one new chapter per month during the period between 1988 and 1990 (McKenzie, 1990).

As the number of NPHC chapters tends to rise, student affairs professionals must find an area of common ground among NPHC, NPC, and NIC organizations. This goal could be achieved by implementing a Tri-Partnership structure, as advocated by D. Jason De Sousa. This partnership brings NPHC, NPC, and NIC councils together to "a forum to discuss and act upon matters of common concern to all fraternity and sorority members on campus" (De Sousa, 1993, p. 16).

Under such a system, the NPHC, NIC, and NPC councils exist under one umbrella. Instead of forcing the assimilation of these groups into one conglomerate, this structure allows each council to have some measure of autonomy and still continue to address issues that may not impact the other members of the partnership. Details concerning Greek shows will probably have no impact on Panhellenic and IFC organizations. Panhellenic and IFC rush details will probably have no effect upon NPHC organizations. Because the foci of these groups are so different, each must be allowed to develop and reflect the needs of its members as well as make the time to educate one another about its traditions, focus and constituents. The Tri-Partnership model allows for this. This approach also helps to model true diversity. It recognizes that each council brings its own traditions and practices to the Greek community. Forcing any of these groups to give up its traditions and blend into the dominant campus culture fails to recognize and accept cultural diversity. This is especially important for NPHC organizations, whose members are in the minority on predominantly White campuses.

Student affairs professionals must become more aware of the membership intake processes and regulations of NPHC organizations in order to help resolve the hazing issue. In order to do so, communication between student affairs administrators and NPHC national organizations must be improved, and in many cases established. Too many men and women are getting hurt while pledging these organizations, in large part due to the actions of undergraduate chapter members. If student affairs professionals knew what to look for in terms of the signs of hazing and were more familiar with NPHC membership intake policies, they could be instrumental in the effort to end this brutal process.

NPHC organizations are vital components to the Black community on college campuses. They provide social connections, opportunities for leadership development, and a voice for Black students on predominately White campuses. Like all Greek letter organizations, there are issues that must be addressed in order to ensure the legacy of NPHC organizations will continue on into the 21st century.


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Tim Wilson is a 1992 graduate of San Diego State University with a Bachelor's degree in Marketing. Prior to attending The University of Vermont, Tim was a Resident Director at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Currently, Tim is a first year HESA student, a Graduate Assistant in the Student Life Office, and a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.