Dawn of a New Tradition: Black Greek Letter Organizations

On a stroll around most college campuses, you may see students wearing shirts, hoodies, and sweaters with a number of letters from Greek alphabets in a variety of colors. These students are members of Greek letter fraternities and sororities, gendered organizations with the purpose of brother/sisterhood and camaraderie. Yet Greek organizations have an interesting history and cultural divides among them.

Social Greek organizations began in the United States in the early nineteenth century. These organizations were highly exclusionary, often restricting membership to people of specific genders or races. As fraternities and sororities continued to grow, exclusionary practices began to increase, and many greek organizations' constitutions were written or ratified to restrict membership from African American students. To resists this exclusion, African American students began forming their own Greek letter organizations.

Starting in the early twentieth century, African American students formed their own Greek fraternities and sororities to foster communal bonds and increase professional opportunities after collegiate careers, but also to provide community service to the African American community. Service and activism are central principles of Black Greek organizations. Ideals of racial uplift were prominent at the time people founded many of these organizations.

The founders of Black Greek organizations were made up of a small number of African Americans in the early twentieth century that attended colleges and universities. These students attained the education and resources usually only afforded to the White population, then used those resources to educate and benefit the entire African American community in order to foster racial equality. Using these resources for racial uplift, the founders of Black Greek organizations created their organizations to benefit the African American community across the United States. They would charter chapters at multiple universities, both nationally and internationally, to spread their mission.

Nine of the largest Black Greek organizations organized into an umbrella council, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, in order to promote their common purpose.

First opened in 1958 as the Louisiana State University in New Orleans, the University of New Orleans (UNO) was the first public university in the South to open as an integrated institution. Despite its racially integrated student body, African American students at UNO faced hostilities from its earliest days to the present time, including cross burnings, intimidation tactics, unfair grading, and restricted use of spaces. Black Greek Organizations were essential resources for students admitted to UNO who faced grave discrimination from university officials, students, and the public.

To learn more about the hostilities Black Greek Letter Organizations fought and resist against, see “55 in ’58: Integrating the University of New Orleans.”