A 'divine' sisterhood: Kamala Harris' historic run hailed as HBCU triumph

Members of the Divine Nine sororities are rallying behind Kamala Harris.

August 23, 2020, 11:22 AM

When Sen. Kamala Harris announced her run for president in January 2019, she used her campaign logo to pay tribute to the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination.

Chisholm, who represented New York's 12th District from 1969 to 1983, ran for president in 1972 under the campaign slogan, "unbought and unbossed."

"Like so many other Black women in Congress, I stand on the shoulders of the great Shirley Chisholm. The first Black woman elected to Congress, Shirley was unbought, unbossed and never afraid to speak the truth," Harris tweeted in February, in honor of Black History Month.

The California senator, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is now the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major party. And while accepting the historic Democratic nomination for vice president on Wednesday at the DNC, she again paid tribute to Chisholm.

But besides their historic runs for office, the California senator and Chisholm have something else in common: They're each members of sororities that are part of the National Pan Hellenic Council, or NPHC, also called the Divine Nine.

The NPHC consists of nine historically black sororities and fraternities, five of which were founded at Howard University, including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., to which Harris belongs, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., where Chisholm was member.

A 'divine' sisterhood

Harris, who served as California's attorney general from 2011-2017, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the early '80s, where she earned bachelor's degrees in political science and economics.

Howard University is often referred to as the "mecca" of Historically Black College and Universities, or HBCUs, because of its vital role in the educational advancement of Black Americans throughout history.

PHOTO: Rep. Shirley Chisholm announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 25, 1972.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 25, 1972.
Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images, FILE

Harris pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. while Chisholm was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Both sororities were establish at Howard -- AKA in 1908, DST in 1913.

During her historic acceptance speech on Wednesday, Harris paid tribute to her "family," acknowledging her mother, sister, aunties and nieces, as well as her extended "family."

"Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our divine nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters. " Harris said, embracing thousands of HBCU alumni and NPHC members on a national stage.

Harris' nomination to the Democratic ticket not only raises the profile of HBCUs, it exemplifies what most HBCU graduates already know: that an education from an HBCU can be just as valuable as from an Ivy League school.

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) gave the convocation oration for The 2017 Howard University Commencement Ceremony in Washington, D.C., May, 13, 2017.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) gave the convocation oration for The 2017 Howard University Commencement Ceremony in Washington, D.C., May, 13, 2017.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Beverly Smith, president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., said that while sororities are non-profits that don't endorse candidates, the organization is "pleased" with Harris' selection because it recognizes how "important" it is for Black women, the HBCU community and all members of the Divine Nine.

Smith said there's a "friendly rivalry" between sororities, but added, "We are all in this together." Harris' selection, Smith said, is "important for everyone."

"I think right now we have about 5 million members of our Divine Nine organizations, who are all obviously eligible voters. And we have made a very conscious effort of coming together as organizations, especially right now, when it's critical and you know, as Michelle Obama said … people have to vote as if their lives depend on it because they do at this point in time."

'It tells little Black girls ... you really do have a chance'

Amid news of Harris' historic selection, hundreds of HBCU alumni and "Divine Nine" members expressed their pride.

PHOTO: Howard alum Janine Rouson meets Sen. Kamala Harris at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina in August 2019.
Howard alum Janine Rouson meets Sen. Kamala Harris at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina in August 2019.
Courtesy Janine Rouson

Janine Rouson, a retired Howard alumna who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, met Harris in August 2019 at an event and was absolutely "thrilled" about her selection.

In an interview with ABC News, Rouson recounted how the two women bonded over the realization that they're "three times sisters" – Howard alums, Alpha Kappa Alpha sisters and members of the Links Inc., a community service civic organization.

"We just had a wonderful moment, and I told her how much I'm supporting her," Rouson said.

Rouson, who retired from General Electric a few years ago as director of global volunteerism, said Harris' selection is a "transformational" and "triumphant" moment.

"For many years, we were extremely proud and happy for Barack Obama and very proud of Michelle Obama as first lady. I think this takes us to the next level, with the heightened awareness of Black Lives Matter," Rouson said. "It tells little Black girls, like it did years ago for little Black boys, that you really do have a chance."

PHOTO: Members of the "Implausible 31", women initiated into Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in Spring of 1979, celebrating their 40th anniversary during Howard University Homecoming in October 2019.
Members of the "Implausible 31", women initiated into Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in Spring of 1979, celebrating their 40th anniversary during Howard University Homecoming in October 2019.
Courtesy Nina Hickson

Nina Hickson, a 1981 Howard alumna and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., works as chief legal officer for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She said that although her "excitement" about Harris initially was "tempered" because Lance Bottoms, who was also on Biden's shortlist, wasn't selected, she quickly felt "pride" and reveled in the moment.

"There just tends to be a very special kind of bond that we share, even though we're in different sororities. ... I just tried to hold on to that feeling as long as I could because it was just really extraordinary," Hickson, also a member of the Links Inc., told ABC News.

Attending an HBCU often creates a bond among alumni, regardless of which school one attends, and Harris' deep ties to HBCU community allow her to tap into a network of Black professionals around the world, from sorority sisters to thousands of HBCU graduates.

Activism and social justice

HBCUs, initially established to provide access to education and contribute to the progress of newly freed slaves, also provided access to higher education through the Jim Crow and civil rights eras when many universities still wouldn't admit Black students.

Past, present and current HBCU students have helped galvanize the country during some of its most pivotal moments – from post-slavery, to the civil rights fight, to Black Lives Matter.

PHOTO: Senator from California, Kamala Harris, addresses the media, Jan., 21 2019, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., after announcing earlier in the day that she is running for president.
Senator from California, Kamala Harris, addresses the media, Jan., 21 2019, at Howard University in Washington, D.C., after announcing earlier in the day that she is running for president.
Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

In February 1960, four students attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, held sit-ins at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, an act of protest credited with fueling the national sit-in movement. The late Rep. John Lewis' social justice fight dates back to the 1940s, where he was one of 13 Freedom Riders in Mississippi, taking his "Good Trouble" to Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee from which he graduated in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy, cementing his legacy in the Civil Rights era all the way to Capitol Hill, where he served as a congressman for more than 30 years.

Dozens of prominent leaders in politics and culture have also been members of the Divine Nine, including activists like Colin Kaepernick, Mothers of the Movement Sybrina Fulton and Rep. Lucy McBath, literary greats Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat, as well as members of Congress.

PHOTO: Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Del, Aug. 19, 2020.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Del, Aug. 19, 2020.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

In keeping with a history steeped in activism, Delta Sigma Theta became the first Black Greek-letter organization to establish a political action-oriented 501(c), announced on Tuesday in honor of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

According to Smith, D4Women in Action was established because "we truly believe that we want to have a voice" by advancing Black women in politics. The organization is not a PAC and can't directly contribute money to candidates.

"Delta has always been focused on social action. That was our first public act in 1913, when we marched with the suffragettes, and the organization will be also a training ground for women who want to run for political office," Smith said. "It can speak on issues and can endorse candidates."

In addition to Chisolm, prominent Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. members include Mary Church Terrell, a leading African American suffragette and activist, Carol Mosely Braun, the first African American U.S. senator, and Loretta Lynch, the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney general. Notably, Lance Bottoms and Rep. Val Demings, also on Biden's VP shortlist, also were Deltas.

PHOTO: Sabrina Shannon, left, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Nina R. Hickson, center, member of Delta Sigma Theta and Donna Hubbard McCree, member of AKA. They all pledged at Howard University in 1979 and are members of The Links, Inc.
Sabrina Shannon, left, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Nina R. Hickson, center, member of Delta Sigma Theta and Donna Hubbard McCree, member of AKA. They all pledged at Howard University in 1979 and are members of The Links, Inc.
Courtesy Nina Hickson

In light of Harris' historic run, dozens of members of the NPHC have been rallying individually and in groups to get out the vote and potentially push a member of their community across the finish line.

According to Hickson, her sorority sisters have been organizing virtually to support the Biden-Harris ticket by planning voter registration and education events to encourage people to vote by mail in November if they can't get to the polls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think it is a call to celebrate that someone like us who shares those commonalities can reach this point of being considered for the second most powerful position in the world," Hickson said, "So it means a lot, it means an awful lot."

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