Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority for Black women, found itself in the spotlight at election time in 2020. The very first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority she joined while attending the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C.
The sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, actually began at Howard University in 1908. Like other fraternities and sororities, it grew out of a nationwide trend to create affinity groups where people could feel they belonged.
The First Fraternity in the U.S.
The elite Phi Beta Kappa Society was the first fraternal organization in the United States. It was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Their motto was “Love of learning is the guide to life.” With a new nation being formed, the select group felt they had an important mission. The group of members met in secret and discussed everything from politics (should religion be a part of government?) to culture (What is the value of theater?) to topics of the day.
In the early 19th century, the fraternity movement began to spread. Union College gained its first fraternity in 1825. Other fraternities grew up at colleges and universities elsewhere in the country.
College curriculum at that time tended to be proscribed, so the fraternities offered a place to socialize but also to discuss topics that weren’t part of most college curriculums.
Sororities followed a bit more slowly, as did higher education for women. By 1851, the Adelphean Society, later to be known as Alpha Delta Pi, was started at Wesleyan Female College, the first college to grant degrees to women. Like the fraternities, Alpha Delta Pi was considered a secret society. Pi Beta Phi (1867) and Kappa Alpha Theta (1870) came along a little later at other colleges. By that time, the format for sororities was official.
The Beginning of Black Fraternities
People of color were excluded from most colleges. The few they were allowed to attend would have kept fraternities and other types of social organizations separate.
At Cornell University in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha was formed to provide a fraternal organization for Black men. College students there saw the need to band together to tackle the difficulties that were endemic in society because of racism and the growing power of Jim Crow laws.
In 1907, the Beta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha opened at Howard University. Two years later, in 1908, a group of women at Howard felt there was a need for a sorority for Black women.
Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Founder
The leader behind Alpha Kappa Alpha was a woman named Ethel Hedgeman Lyle (born Ethel Hedgeman, 1887-1950). She was a junior and a scholarship recipient at Howard. She heard the stories of the benefits of a sorority from people she knew, and she observed the enjoyment that her boyfriend (and eventual husband) gained from joining a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Howard.
In the summer of 1907 Ethel Hedgeman began recruiting other women to create a fraternal organization for Black women. By 1908 they were ready to form the first sorority. The group incorporated in 1913.
Lyle remained active in the sorority throughout her life. She worked in education and was always an active community member.
In the 1930s, she and her husband lived in Philadelphia. Because she was involved in so many activities that involved both black and white city residents, the mayor of Philadelphia tapped her to chair the Committee of 100 Women. This became part of the group that planned the Sesquicentennial of the Adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
Growth of the Sorority
Over the years AKA has provided service to communities throughout the nation, offering education enrichment and job support. The organization placed particular emphasis on health-related needs, because they saw that they were different from what white people needed or to which they had access. AKA has also been very active in issues regarding civil rights.
In July 2014, Selma director Ava DuVernay accepted an honorary membership, adding her name to those associated with the organization.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Continues
Today Alpha Kappa Alpha has 300,000 members and 1036 chapters in the United States. There are also ten regional chapters in nine countries.
The sorority’s goals remain much the same as they were when the organization was founded. Within each community they focus on education, good health practices, the strengthening of the family. They also see the importance of having a global impact, and they have established some programs in Africa to meet the needs of certain countries.
For more information on the sorority, visit Alpha Kappa Alpha.