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'Divine Nine': Together again at Illinois
In the past five years, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has reinstated a number of African-American Greek letter organizations to campus. The “pretty boys” of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity made their return to campus in the spring of 2010 and the “dawgs” of Omega Psi Phi fraternity entered the scene the following year in the spring of 2011. This year, with the return of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Illinois has emerged as the only school in the Big Ten that has all nine National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations active on campus.
“Having all nine active organizations raises respect and esteem for us as a campus,” says Anthony Sullers, member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and a former Black Greek Council president.
Founded in 1930, the NPHC is an umbrella organization aimed at creating “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.”
The NPHC encompasses the original nine Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs), affectionately known as the “Divine Nine,” which include Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, and Iota Phi Theta fraternity.
The first national black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, began in 1906. Like its successors, it formed as a response to the hardships and inequalities facing black students at the time. The organizations were designed to meet the needs of black students on college campuses, and in return, give students an outlet to serve their communities. Principles of service, unity, achievement, scholarship, brotherhood and sisterhood are embodied in each organization’s mission, and they reflect the vision each of their founders had at their formation.
In the early history of American higher education, African American matriculation was scarce. Of those students who did enroll, many chose historically black colleges and universities. In light of the heavy discrimination and segregation plaguing our country during that period, few black college students attended predominately white institutions. For the last century, BGLOs have partnered together to help African American students at succeed at all institutions.
Black Greek letter organizations have a rich history at Illinois. For more than 100 years, they have been present on the campus. Illinois is home to the Beta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, the second nationally recognized chapter of the organization, as well as the third chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the 18th chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
In the 1960s, as colleges and universities began to integrate, black student enrollment at Illinois increased significantly. By that time, the campus was already home to several BGLOs.
In the spring of 1968, Illinois made a concerted effort to recruit African American students with an initiative that became known as Project 500. This initiative promised to admit 500 disadvantaged students with adequate support, housing and financial aid.
However, by the beginning of the fall semester in 1968, many African-American students felt isolated and in need of more support. It was the BGLOs that helped to bridge that gap.
Clarence Shelley, the director of Project 500, explained that the failure of Illinois to provide for these students created a greater need for leadership and unanimity.
“In my early years working here, it was black Greeks that meet that need,” he said. “They were visible to the rest of campus, and had ties to other African-Americans in the community. They had a lot of resources that were useful to all black students, not just their members.”
Throughout his time working at Illinois, Shelley has witnessed member organizations of the NPHC become inactive and be absent from campus for years at a time.
Shelley said that when BGLOs partner together, they can get more accomplished than just an active two or three.
“Each organization brings something unique to campus and the African-American community here,” he said. “Having a complete set, not only provides students with more opportunity to get involved, but really gives the council strength in numbers.”
Today, it is uncommon for a university to have all nine members of the NPHC concurrently active. “Black Greek Councils in the Midwest region have a reputation of having low membership,” said Sullers. “I’m hopeful that we will be the leaders in changing that and getting back to the culture and purpose our founders had in mind when establishing these organizations years ago.”
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