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Divine Nine Sororities, Fraternities Instill Pride in Black College Students

Butler University senior Michaela Ivory says she views her membership in the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority as a lifetime commitment. She intends to stay active after she graduates. (Photo: courtesy of Michaela Ivory)

Black Catholic History Month

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Michaela Ivory was a freshman at Butler University in Indiana, she wasn’t particularly interested in pledging to a sorority. But after meeting members of the Sigma Gamma Rho community and seeing the care and concern they had for others, she changed her mind and joined.

[Related: Black Catholic History Month Mass Salutes Divine Nine]

“I knew that their interactions with me were pretty genuine and they weren’t doing it just to recruit me,” she said. “They were doing it because they genuinely cared about my well-being. It had a huge impact on me. I joined because I wanted to give back to other students.” 

Ivory, now a senior, is not only a Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority member, but she is also president of the campus chapter.

Ivory is a part of a historic group. Sigma Gamma Rho is one of the “Divine Nine,” a distinguished collection of the Greek letter sororities and fraternities founded on U.S. college campuses for female and male black students starting in the early 20th century. 

At the time, black students were largely shut out of white sororities and fraternities. “So we decided to start our own,” said Deacon Rachid Murad of St. Martin De Porres Parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which he joined as an undergraduate at St. John’s University. The fraternity’s first chapter was founded at Cornell University in 1906.

“The historically black Greek-letter organizations have always played an instrumental role both in politics and education — but also in the arts and in sports,” Deacon Murad said.

Civil rights leaders including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., as well as Olympic legend Jesse Owens and Vice President Kamala Harris, were all members of Divine Nine fraternities and sororities.

Over the years, members have been involved in social justice movements and have fought for civil rights and women’s suffrage. In recent years, some members have been part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Divine Nine provided friendship and solidarity to members and helped black students become more comfortable on predominantly white campuses. 

“It’s hard to leave home to go to college far away,” Deacon Murad said. “Imagine having to do that as a young person of color in the 1920s and 30s. This was a time when most college campuses were predominantly white. The black fraternities and sororities gave students networking opportunities. You could learn things like where the local barbershop was or where the best place to buy clothes was. The Divine Nine also provided professional networking opportunities. It helped people get ahead in their careers.”

Tanika Scott, a 1999 graduate of Butler University, pledged to Sigma Gamma Rho when she was a student; she remains active in the sorority’s alumni chapter today. “It’s a group of sisters and friends that I can rely on,” she said. “And it has given me leadership skills —  being able to talk in front of a group or head a committee. It’s a great outlet for so many things.”

Scott was well aware of the historical significance of Sigma Gamma Rho even as an undergraduate. “At the time the sorority was founded, the Ku Klux Klan was still very active in Indiana,” she noted. “The previous campus of Butler, before it moved to its current campus, was right by the home of the KKK grand dragon. So to be able to be a young person of color and thrive and succeed in that setting was remarkable.”

Dr. André McKenzie, the vice provost of St. John’s University who wrote his dissertation on the Divine Nine, said their significance goes far beyond the college campus.

“At their founding, these organizations were meant to be more than just social activities or social functions,” he said. “The commitment that members made is a lifetime commitment to improve life in the black community.”

“The affiliation doesn’t end just because you graduate,” added McKenzie, who pledged to Alpha Phi Alpha when he was a student at Illinois State University 45 years ago.

As a member of the upcoming generation, Ivory also intends to remain active in Sigma Gamma Rho after she graduates. 

“I would also like to get more involved in community service,” she said. “We are expected to do it as undergraduate members. But when you’re in school, you’re running around from one class to another. I do expect to become more heavily involved in service work as time frees up. The sorority has inspired me.”

The historically Black Greek-letter organizations, known as the Divine Nine, compose the National Pan-Hellenic Council. That umbrella group was incorporated in 1937 and is headquartered at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Here is the Divine Nine, with each founding location and year:

  • Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity: Cornell University, 1906
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority: Howard University, 1908
  • Kappa Alpha Phi Fraternity: Indiana University, 1911
  • Omega Psi Phi Fraternity: Howard University, 1911
  • Delta Sigma Theta Sorority: Howard University, 1913
  • Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity: Howard University, 1914
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority: Howard University, 1920
  • Sigma Gamma Rho: Butler University, 1922
  • Iota Phi Theta Fraternity: Morgan State University, 1963