By Jordan Williams, William & Mary Libraries
Last week, W&M Libraries shed a bright light on Black Greek Letter organizations (BGLO) at the debut of the library’s exhibit, “Strollin’: A History of Black Greek Letter Organizations at William & Mary.” More than 125 students, staff, and alumni, including Greek members from past and present, gathered to take part in the special occasion and celebrate the recognition of their organizations.
Spearheaded by the libraries’ oral historian, Andre Taylor, the exhibit combines artifacts, oral histories, books and more to tell the origins of each of the eight Black Greek organizations that have existed on campus.
“We know of Hulon Willis, the first black graduate of W&M, and we’ve heard the stories of the first black students in residence at W&M (Karen Ely, Lynn Briley and Janet Brown),” Taylor said. “But we hadn’t investigated the Greek life within the initial group of black students that studied here. There are rich stories to be told.”
Taylor’s desire to research the Black Greek experience on campus spawned from a question asked by an inquisitive student. One day, while proudly sporting his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity t-shirt, Taylor was questioned about the meaning of the Greek letters he wore. Taylor quickly learned the student was unaware of the existence of W&M’s black fraternities and sororities.
“If students don’t know that Black Greek Letter organizations existed, and we are in a place of academia, then it’s our job to educate them,” Taylor said. “As an oral historian, I started wondering about the story of other black Greeks that had been initiated on this campus and it went from there.”
Nationwide, there are nine Black Greek Letter organizations, which are affectionately known as “The Divine Nine.” The Divine Nine developed in the early 1900s in response to the trials and tribulations of racism black people faced. BGLOs are largely known for their social traditions, but the majority of their values center around social change, propelling educational advancement and serving the community.
These values have molded some of the most influential leaders and barrier breakers in our nation. Martin Luther King was an Alpha Phi Alpha, Arthur Ashe pledged to Kappa Alpha Psi, Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson was an Omega Psi Phi, and Toni Morrison and Kamala Harris were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
Despite decades of social impact, a large gap of time still passed before the first Divine Nine organization took shape at W&M. Alpha Phi Alpha started a chapter on campus in 1976 to become the first black fraternity at W&M.
“The exhibit has a timeline depicting the origins of the Divine Nine Organizations, their arrival and progression at W&M, and the black experience throughout those years. It shows how things started and gradually blossomed,” Taylor said. “I wanted to highlight how the black experience at W&M started years after there had been Greek life on campus.”
A key resource in helping Taylor track down these stories was W&M’s Chief Diversity Officer Fanchon Glover. During her 26 years of service at W&M, Glover has had the opportunity to meet many W&M BGLO alumni, and she was able to connect Taylor with them.
“Many people don’t know Divine Nine organizations exist and others have known, but only because they walked by a step show. However, Divine Nine organizations are much more than step shows and parties. This exhibit connects and tells a fuller story of an entity a lot of people don’t know about,” Glover said.
As a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Glover understands the powerful sense of community that comes with being part of a BGLO. Glover pledged to her sorority post-college, and it provided instant community after coming to Williamsburg with no family in the area. She is now passionate about helping black W&M students discover a space of belonging on campus.
The reception also featured guest speaker Gregory Parks, professor of law at Wake Forest University. He gave a talk on his latest publication, A Pledge with Purpose: Black Sororities and Fraternities and the Fight for Equality. In the book, Parks and his co-author Matthew W. Hughey unpack the historical and political significance of the Divine Nine.
“’Strollin': A history of Black Greek Letter Organizations at William & Mary’ was such an amazing display of sacrifice, persistence, and community,” Parks said. “I was automatically reminded of the essence of fraternal life—
brotherhood (and sisterhood)—when I saw the picture of my fraternity brother, and friend, Andrew Zawacki. Brother Andre Taylor created an excellent exhibit. I was humbled to be asked to talk about these incredible organizations and that so many people came out to support.”
For Taylor, debuting the exhibit was a unique way of jumpstarting Black History Month. The research provides an additional layer of context to the historical figures commonly celebrated during this time of year.
“Learning about the black leaders who were members of these organizations adds context to their lives. Now we can see them through a different lens,” said Taylor. “I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off Black History Month.”
*The oral histories given by members of Black Greek-letter organizations at W&M and the book talk given by Parks can be viewed on the W&M Libraries YouTube Channel