Lifting as They Climb: Race, Sorority, and African American Uplift in the 20th Century
36 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2015 Last revised: 1 Aug 2017
Date Written: September 14, 2015
The common narrative about African Americans’ quest for social justice and Civil Rights during the Twentieth Century consists, largely, of men and women working through organizations to bring about change. The typical list of organizations includes, inter alia, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What is almost never included in this list is African American collegiate-based fraternities. However, at the turn of the Twentieth Century emerged a small group of organizations founded on personal excellence, the development and sustaining of fictive-kinship ties, and racial uplift. Given these organizations’ almost immediate creation of highly-functioning alumni chapters in cities around the United States, members of these organizations who were college graduates could continue their work in actualizing their respective organizations’ ideals. Two such organizations, founded at Howard University and Butler University in 1920 and 1922, respectively, were Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho Sororities. This article explores the history of these sororities involvement in African American’s question for racial uplift in the United States.
In doing so, the article raises a few interesting points: First, black sorority racial uplift engagement was different from that of black fraternities in one particular sense. There was far less civil rights litigation and possibly public policy work on the part of black sororities, at least when compared to black fraternities. Second, and as a result, black sororities — like Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho — largely engaged in racial uplift work via efforts to shape public policy and through philanthropy. Much of their racial uplift work, however, was demonstrated through community service and non-social justice philanthropy. Third, when compared to the black sororities that predated them, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho engaged in less social justice work, comparatively. Fourth, over time, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho’s racial uplift efforts and strategies shifted, largely, away from social justice work to even more community service and philanthropy work. In an effort to clarify these points, the authors rely heavily on Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho’s primary documents — their history books and national magazines.
Keywords: Civil Rights, African Americans, Organizations, Women
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