Since Alpha Phi Alpha was founded in 1906 the nine major black fraternities (Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Beta Sigma, Iota Phi Theta, Omega Psi Phi) and sororities (Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta. Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho) have been trailblazers, at the forefront of the fight against racism and at the forefront of the fight for African American empowerment. But over 100 years after their founding, are these organizations still doing the work that they set out to do?
To the extent that individuals have criticized these organizations from without they’ve attacked their membership practices—more specifically the practice of hazing. Almost all of the “Divine Nine” have had to deal with not only hazing allegations, but hazing related deaths over the past few decades.
But more recently members have severely criticized their organizations for their financial practices.
Most recently a case filed by a member is wending its way through the Nebraska courts alleging that the executive board of Alpha Kappa Alpha gave its International President an illegal stipend in the amount of $250,000, in violation of its Constitution and Bylaws, and without consulting the membership.
The case has not been decided, and the sorority is countersuing the plaintiff. However, this is not the first time in recent years that allegations of financial impropriety have been made against one of the “Divine Nine”.
In 2007 Natasha Stark, a member of Zeta Phi Beta’s executive board, was not only removed from the executive board, but was removed from the sorority for violating her oath of loyalty to the organization.
Her actions? Stark revealed that the sorority’s National President, Barbara Moore, had misused the organizations funds for personal use. Even after Ms. Moore reported her activity (as a result of Ms. Stark’s actions) the executive board refused to remove her from office. Ms. Moore has since been succeeded by Sheryl Underwood. And at least one fraternity’s executive board has attempted to remove one of its members for questioning its financial dealings on a fraternity email list.
These incidents should not be taken as an indictment against the organizations themselves. As a card-carrying member of Omega Psi Phi I can personally vouch for the work these organizations do, for the change these organizations have made in the lives of countless individuals, including my own.
However what it does suggest is that in early years of the 21st Century these organizations have a great deal of work to do in becoming more accountable to their members, and to the constituencies they serve in order for them to remain as important to African-Americans as they once were. It also suggests that in focusing solely on undergraduate hazing, we may be missing the forest for the trees.
At the very least members of these organizations have the right to know how their leaders are spending their money, have a right to know what type of activities their executive boards are performing in their name. At most they have a right to question their leaders without fear of being rendered “persona non grata” as in the case of Ms. Stark.
Whatever the end result of this case, it is my hope that the hundreds of thousands of members of black greek letter organizations work hard to ensure their leadership is held accountable to their membership.
There is much about these organizations that should remain secret. However it is hard to see how these organizations can fight for fight for expanding black opportunities in public, and then close those opportunities in-house.