Greek Organizations' Conventions

Greek Organizations' Conventions

Date Observed: Varies
Location: Varies

The national conventions of African-American fraternities and sororities are held in various locations throughout the year. These gatherings serve as annual reunions and provide opportunities for socializing, networking, business-related meetings and workshops, and celebration of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Historical Background

Greek letter fraternal organizations have existed in the U.S. since 1776. The first fraternities were founded at colleges and universities on the East Coast, and they were intended primarily as social clubs for white men. As the idea of college fraternities began to gain widespread popularity, some organizations broadened their focus to include scholarship, spirituality, and brotherhood in addition to purely social objectives. Sororities, Greek letter organizations for women, did not begin to form until around the 1850s. For the most part, these fraternities and sororities were not integrated and very few African Americans were accepted as members.

African-American Greek letter organizations began to form in the early 1900s. Most of the African-American fraternal clubs that are active today were founded at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. These fraternities and sororities were founded in part to create stronger bonds among African Americans, who faced racial discrimination on and off campus. Some groups welcomed all AfricanAmerican students while others were created for specific professions or areas of study, such as education or business. Major African-American fraternities include Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Sigma Pi Phi. Major African-American sororities are Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Zeta Phi Beta. These organizations soon became a powerful influence on college campuses as well as on the African-American community as a whole. Throughout their history, AfricanAmerican fraternal clubs have focused on serving the needs of the larger community in addition to sponsoring social activities. Many chapters maintain ongoing local community service projects, while others have established charitable foundations to provide scholarships and other opportunities for young people. African-American fraternal groups have also emphasized involvement in politics, and have been instrumental in the civil rights movement. Alumni members generally take on leadership positions at the national level and set goals for the fraternal clubs as a whole, often conducting this business at the national convention.

Sigma Pi Phi

Sigma Pi Phi is generally recognized as the oldest black fraternity in the U.S. It was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1904 by six AfricanAmerican men. The founders were all educated professionals and included a pharmacist, a dentist, and four physicians. Sometimes called the Boulé, Sigma Pi Phi differed from other fraternities by placing its emphasis on life after college instead of on the undergraduate years. Traditionally, Sigma Pi Phi members are college graduates who have achieved a level of status in their communities. It is considered to be a very elite fraternity for only the most successful black men. For this reason, Sigma Pi Phi membership numbers remained lower than other African-American fraternities. By 1954, there were only 500 members. Membership grew to about 3,000 by 1992; by 2004, it exceeded 4,000. The Sigma Pi Phi annual convention is known as the Grand Boulé and is usually attended by several thousand members and their spouses.

Alpha Kappa Alpha

The first black sorority was formed in 1908 by nine women at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Alpha Kappa Alpha was the first AfricanAmerican fraternal organization to be founded at a historically black college or university (HBCU). The sorority had strict standards from the beginning, requiring that prospective members complete the first half of their second year of studies while maintaining high grades. Alpha Kappa Alpha has become the largest African-American sorority with more than 120,000 student and alumni members in more than 800 chapters worldwide.

Over the years, Alpha Kappa Alpha has made many important contributions on international, national, and local levels. In 1938 the sorority founded a full-time lobbying organization to work for passage of civil rights legislation. In the late 1940s, Alpha Kappa Alpha became an accredited observer organization at the United Nations. In 1948, Alpha Kappa Alpha created the American Council for Human Rights, inviting the other major African-American Greek societies to work together to end racial discrimination. Their "Black Faces in Public Places" project supported the establishment of public monuments to important African Americans in the 1980s. The annual Alpha Kappa Alpha convention draws tens of thousands of members for a weeklong celebration and reunion.

Creation of the Observance

The national conventions were established by individual fraternities and sororities as a means of gathering together all members for a program of activities based on shared interests and experiences. Over the years, these annual gatherings came to be known as boulés (pronounced "boo-lays.")

Observances

Each national convention is different, but there are general similarities among the gatherings. The conventions function as reunions where members can reconnect with each other and renew old friendships. Programs and symposia are offered on such topics as African-American health concerns, African-American social issues, current events and politics affecting African Americans, and African-American community service. Educational workshops and training sessions are often held, along with general meetings of organization leadership and committees. The achievements of individual members and chapters are usually celebrated in an awards ceremony, and special recognition is given to those who have been members for a certain amount of time (for example, 50 or 75 years). Some conventions include a memorial service for deceased members. Conventions usually also include at least one black-tie formal event for socializing or fundraising for a particular project.

Contacts and Web Sites

Alpha Kappa Alpha 5656 S. Stony Island Ave. Chicago, IL 60637 773-684-1282

Alpha Phi Alpha 2313 St. Paul St. Baltimore, MD 21218 410-554-0040

Delta Sigma Theta 1707 New Hampshire Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20009 202-986-2400

Kappa Alpha Psi 2322-24 N. Broad St. Philadelphia, PA 19132 215-228-7184

Omega Psi Phi 3951 Snapfinger Pkwy. Decatur, GA 30035 404-284-5533

Phi Beta Sigma 145 Kennedy St., N.W. Washington, DC 20011

Sigma Gamma Rho 1000 Southhill Dr., Ste. 200 Cary, NC 27513 888-SGR-1922 919-678-9720

Sigma Pi Phi

Zeta Phi Beta

Further Reading

"1904-2004: The Boulé at 100: Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity Holds Centennial Celebration." Ebony , September 2004. Cooper, Desiree. "Black Sorority Sisters Epitomize Citizenship." Detroit Free Press, July 11, 2006. Lehman, Jeffrey, ed. "Greek Letter Organizations." The African American Almanac. 9th ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Soyer, Daniel. "Fraternities and Sororities." In The African-American Experience: Selec- tions from the Five-Volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History , edited by Jack Salzman. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007