Chicago is an ‘epicenter’ for the ‘Divine Nine’
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Entrepreneur and angel investor Corey Mays knew from a young age that he wanted to join Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He learned about the African-American fraternity from relatives while growing up in the Beverly neighborhood.
“My older brother is a Que [Omega Psi Phi]; my mom is a Delta [Sigma Theta]; my godfather is a Que,” Mays said. “It was the right fit for me,” he said.
Mays, 35, who played five seasons in the NFL, became a member of the fraternity’s Rho Gamma Gamma chapter in 2005, after he graduated from Notre Dame, and says the brotherhood among his group’s members has been lasting.
“I have people I can call anywhere in the world if I need them and someone can reach out to me,” Mays said.
The same goes for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a member of Delta Sigma Theta.
“My stepmother was a Delta, so I knew about them before I got to school. I loved that she’d been out of college for years and still was close with her line sisters and other women from her chapter,” said Foxx. “She talked about the bond — how no matter where you went in the world you’d find a sister. I thought that was cool.”
African-American fraternities and sororities have a special place in the black community.
Many of them were formed in the early 1900s at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), some, at predominantly white institutions, where black students often found themselves shut out of fraternal organizations and decided to create their own.
The nation’s black greek-letter organizations (BGLO) form a collective called the “Divine Nine” — Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (Dec. 4, 1906); Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (Jan. 15, 1908); Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (Jan. 5, 1911); Omega Psi Phi Fraternity (Nov. 17, 1911); Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Jan. 13, 1913); Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity (Jan. 9, 1914); Zeta Phi Beta Sorority (Jan. 16, 1920); Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority (Nov. 12, 1922); and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity (Sept. 19, 1963).
Many of their members pledge their fraternities and sororities as college students; others, post-college, join graduate or alumni chapters.
Lawrence Ross, a journalist and author of “The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities,” says Chicago has long been an epicenter for the Divine Nine. In fact, the oldest of those sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha, has its international headquarters in Hyde Park.
“You have a lot of Historically Black Colleges and Universities transplants who end up in Chicago,” said Ross, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. “The earlier chapters in fraternities and sororities come out of the Midwest, and many of those folks end up in Chicago.”
Divine Nine members boast numerous contributions in the fields of business, politics, education, law enforcement, civic engagement, sports, etc. In Chicago, for example, notable members who were Chicago transplants include:
Former U.S. Sen. and Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris (Alpha Phi Alpha); publishing giant John. H. Johnson (Alpha Phi Alpha); Rev. Jesse Jackson (Omega Psi Phi); Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (Alpha Kappa Alpha); U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (Iota Phi Theta); Rev. Leon Finney (Kappa Alpha Psi), Former Chicago Bears running back Gayle Sayers (Kappa Alpha Psi); Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown (Delta Sigma Theta); Dr. Mae Jemison (Alpha Kappa Alpha); and Michael Jordan (Omega Psi Phi).
The organizations boast many other local and national luminaries, including: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha); Coretta Scott King (Alpha Kappa Alpha); Thurgood Marshall (Alpha Phi Alpha); Harry Belafonte (Phi Beta Sigma); Mayor Harold Washington (Phi Beta Sigma); advertising giant Tom Burrell (Alpha Phi Alpha); Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul (Kappa Alpha Psi); U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (Sigma Gamma Rho); Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (Alpha Kappa Alpha); Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson (Phi Beta Sigma); and Chicago Cubs Vice President of Communications and Community Affairs Julian Green (Alpha Phi Alpha).
Nationally, Alpha Phi Alpha members raised $112 million in a six-year span to help build the Martin Luther King Monument in Washington, D.C. And this year, the fraternity donated $31,000 to Bennett College, an all-women’s HBCU in North Carolina.
In January, AKA member and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris addressed her sorority’s Pink Ice Gala in South Carolina, an annual event that raises money for scholarships.
Malcolm Whiteside is president of the Chicago chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), which serves as the umbrella organization for the Divine Nine. Whiteside, a member of Phi Beta Sigma, said the mission of these fraternities and sororities is rooted in community and social service, with strong emphasis on promoting civic engagement and academic excellence.
“These organizations are about service first. Giving back to the community,” Whiteside said, echoed by Alpha Kappa Alpha member Kimberly Egonmwan, social action chairman of the NPHC Chicago chapter.
“We stand united, nine organizations strong, to give scholarships, provide community service, hold forums to educate the community on where the candidates stand on the issues most important to us,” said Egonmwan. “We push for reform in criminal justice, economic conditions and education in our community.”
The Divine Nine has a long history of involvement and activism on social justice issues. To help stem the tide of gun violence, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha’s Chicago members organized a march during the winter of 2015 to bring awareness and was joined by other black greek-letter organizations.
Free agent NFL quarterback and social justice activist Colin Kaepernick is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, and his “Know Your Rights Camp” was actually held at Chicago’s DuSable Museum for African-American History in 2017. Drawing teenagers from across the Chicago area, Kaepernick’s camp provided them with workshops on financial literacy, home ownership, nutrition and civics.
And later that year, his fraternity brothers, many of whom are police officers and military members, held a “Kappas for Kaepernick” rally at NFL headquarters in New York in support of the blackballed quarterback.
The Divine Nine also emphasizes intergenerational connections on the premise that fostering relationships with younger generations — as early as high school — will ensure the longevity of these fraternities and sororities. As a result, mentoring programs are a staple.
In Chicago, for example, “Project Alpha,” has been mentoring teen boys since 1980, and Sigma Gamma Rho holds an annual “Youth Symposium” addressing issues such as financial literacy and nutrition. This year, the event will be held on March 9.
“This past year, over 250 young men were present to talk about issues ranging from pregnancy prevention, to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and other issues surrounding male sexuality,” said Charles Smoot, Alpha’s Illinois District Historian.
Chicago members of the Divine Nine will celebrate their rich history at the NPHC Chicago chapter’s annual “Sankofa Awards Show & Luncheon,” on Feb. 23. Scholarships will be given.
Disclosure: Digital Content Producer for News Evan F. Moore is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi.