Before officially joining his fraternity, Xavier Washington ’20 stood on a stage, wearing a mask and holding a rose, which he would later hand to his mother. He shared information about the group and its founders, sang a song based on an old spiritual and stepped before a crowd of family members and alumni — none of whom knew that it was him behind the mask. At this induction ceremony last fall, Washington and his peers officially became part of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, after weeks of preparation.
Usually, rushing a fraternity at Yale involves getting meals with current members, attending parties and months of pledging. But the process to join Alpha Phi Alpha is different. As the nation’s first black Greek organization, Alpha Phi Alpha has given black men a source of community and mutual support since its establishment in 1909, and the new member presentation, or “probate,” is one aspect of black Greek life that sets it Alpha Phi Alphart from mainstream fraternities.
Alpha Phi Alpha is one of the three black Greek organizations still active at Yale today, along with the sororities Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta. The Alpha Phi Alpha has brought black men from New Haven–area universities together for more than a century, but between 2009 to 2016, only one new student from Yale joined the local chapter. But in 2016, three Yale students joined the fraternity, and the next year, two more joined.
Trey Phills ’16, one of the students who helped revive the fraternity at Yale two years ago, said it was “cool to bring the lineage back.”
Yale’s black Greek organizations are all members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, an organization of nine historically African-American fraternities and sororities collectively referred to as the “Divine Nine.” Many of these organizations formed to support black students at predominantly white universities, where people of color were often barred from joining mainstream Greek organizations. While these discriminatory practices no longer exist, members of black fraternities and sororities said that the organizations remain valuable communities for students at Yale, where less than eight percent of the student population identifies as African-American.
“Yale has a lot of communities and it’s nice to see yourself reflected in the people around you, whereas, if you look around your seminar tables, that’s not always the case,” said Alyssa Patterson ’18, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
In a report published in 2016, the Yale College Council Task Force on Greek Life cited the founding of minority-based fraternities and sororities — like Alpha Phi Alpha and Alpha Kappa Alpha — as a sign that, even today, minority students “often feel alienated from more well-known or ‘mainstream’ Greek organizations.”
Alpha Phi Alpha’s chapter in New Haven currently has 12 members, according to Washington. The fraternity has five students at Yale, two at Southern Connecticut State University, four at the University of New Haven and one at Quinnipiac University. The local chapters of Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha were both established in 1984, before any of Yale’s panhellenic sororities were founded. Delta Sigma Theta’s chapter reactivated last spring, drawing about eight new members from Yale.
Representatives of Delta Sigma Theta at Yale declined to comment for this story.
After a period of inactivity, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s chapter in New Haven re-established membership in May 2016 with 20 members, said Leona Dotson, communications chairman for Alpha Kappa Alpha’s national organization. Dotson did not specify how long the chapter had been inactive.
Now, the chapter has five members, consisting of two Yale students, two Quinnipiac students and one Southern Connecticut State University student, according to Patterson.
The major difference between black fraternities and mainstream Greek life is the emphasis on scholarship and service, according to Phills and Washington. Members of Alpha Phi Alpha are expected to keep upstanding images and high grades, Washington said, especially since the fraternity was born as a community of highly educated black men. Alpha Phi Alpha also has a long legacy of developing prominent leaders and figures in the black community — Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Du Bois were all members.
According to Alpha Kappa Alpha member Jessica Reed ’18, her sorority frequently holds fundraisers and programs that benefit the New Haven area. Last month, the Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter hosted a documentary screening to promote wellness and healthy practices in the black community, she added.
While members of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Alpha Phi Alpha said they would like to become more visible on campus, they said recruiting new members is not a major priority. Unlike mainstream Greek organizations, black fraternities and sororities do not hold rush events, besides information sessions each semester.
“Our recruitment process isn’t the same as say SigEp or SigNu,” Phills said. “We’re not really pressing to have somebody join every semester. It’d be nice, but we’re still very much quality over quantity.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Phi Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta are all resident groups of the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Alice Park | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, March 1: This version of the article has been corrected to reflect that there was one Yale student who was admitted to Alpha Phi Alpha between 2009 and 2016.