Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Happy Centennial Anniversary AKA!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of an organization that has almost 200,000 members, is an iconic institution in the African-American community and is a living testament to the power of an idea.

Ethel Hedgeman Lyle came back from her summer vacation in 1907 energized with a revolutionary idea, starting a sorority for Howard's female students.
After the petition to function as a recognized group on the Howard University campus was accepted by the administration, on January 15, 1908 an historic meeting of nine women took place at Miner Hall.

The nine women present that day, Anna Easter Brown, Beulah Elizabeth Burke, Lillie Burke, Marjorie Hill, Margaret Flagg Holmes, Lavinia Norman, Lucy Diggs Slowe (of which Slowe Hall on the Howard campus is named for) and Marie Woolfork Taylor came to be known as The Original Group of founders.

That first meeting led to the adoption of the sorority's motto, 'By Culture and By Merit', the adoption of the sorority's well known salmon pink and apple green colors, and the name of the organization, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

AKA's original group were all seniors with the exception of Lyle. In order to ensure the survival of the organization once the initial group graduated from college, in February 1908 seven sophomore honor students who were part of Howard's Class of 1910 that had expressed interest in joining the fledgling organization were admitted without initiation. The admittance of Norma Elizabeth Boyd, Ethel Jones Mowbray, Alice P. Murray, Sarah Meriweather Nutter, Joanna Mary Berry Shields, Carrie Snowden and Harriet Josephine Terry increased the membership to 16 members, who would become collectively known as the Founders.

AKA conducted its first ritualized initiation of members on February 11, 1909 in its Miner Hall birthplace. New members Ella Albert Brown, Mary Clifford, Lena Jenkins, Mable Gibson, Ruth Gilbert and Nellie Pratt Russell joined the organization and for the next few years it experiences steady growth on the HU campus.

But a crisis loomed on the horizon in the autumn of 1912. At that time AKA existed only on the Howard campus. But a group of seven members wanted to change the name of the organization, colors, and motto. Nellie Quander was horrified at that prospect and believed that these traditions were vital to the long-term success of the organization.

She also visualized the organization as a constant evolving factor in the lives of its members from college through adulthood. Determined to keep AKA on the path the founders set for it, she contacted every member of AKA and won near unanimous approval of her idea to incorporate and expand the organization.

A group of AKA's led by Quander and comprised of Norma Boyd, Julia Brooks, Ethel Jones Mowbray, Nellie Pratt Russell and Minnie Smith formed a committee to take the necessary steps. AKA was legally incorporated in Washington DC on January 29, 1913 and these members became known as The Incorporators.

Quander went on to become the first International President of AKA, while the dissatisfied members withdrew from Alpha Kappa Alpha and went on to found Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. 1913 also saw the awarding of its first honorary membership, the highest award AKA can pay to someone, to Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago's Hull House and a pioneer in professionalizing social work as a field of study.

From those beginnings, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. continued to expand, survive and thrive as an organization. By its 25th anniversary in 1933 it was comprised of 104 chapters across the United States and in all regions of the country. These chapters were also being founded on predominately white campuses in addition to HBCU's as well. It had adopted its ivy leaf symbol and started publishing in 1921 the official AKA house magazine Ivy Leaf.

Members were also making their marks on society in various fields, in the world and were even involved in making history as as well. When member Marian Anderson was denied access to the DAR-controlled Constitution Hall, First Lady and future AKA Eleanor Roosevelt organized the concert at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for her to sing.

By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1958, AKA had established its first international chapter in Monrovia, Liberia, purchased its first corporate headquarters building in Chicago on South Greenwood St and has grown to include almost 9,000 members. World War II and the Korean War had come and gone and AKA involved itself in the Civil Rights Movement as well. Three years earlier future honorary member Rosa Parks' arrest kicks off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In addition to the NAACP life membership it initially purchased in 1938, it began its tradition of purchasing annual life memberships to the NAACP, the Urban League and supporting the United Negro College Fund. It collects funds to support the Mississippi Freedom Riders. Member Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win Wimbledon.

It was continuing its phenomenal growth by the time I was in college and the organization celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1984. I was even responsible for my mom reactivating her membership. When she asked me on the ride home from campus one day what the status and perception of the AKA's on the UH campus was and I asked her why, she told me she was one. I replied. "Really? I've never seen you in pink and green." A few days later Mom went next door to my neighbor's house, who was active as the basileus of one of the now five AKA graduate chapters in the Houston area and reactivated. Granted, my neighbor and her best friend had been trying to get her to reactivate her membership as well, but I'm still taking credit it for it ;)

AKA members were involved in the civil rights movement, raised the funds to purchase Dr. King's birthplace in Atlanta, which is now a national historic site and was honored by the NAACP in 1974 with the Freedom Award,

Alpha Kappa Alpha has continued its phenomenal growth to cover the dawn of the 21st century. Barbara A. McKinzie is the Centennial International President overseeing an international organization that counts as its members history making women in a wide variety of fields. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female head of state of an African continental nation when she was elected to the presidency of Liberia is a member, and so are Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, authors Toni Morrison and the late Bebe Moore Campbell, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Olympians Dr. Debi Thomas and Vonetta Flowers, producer Yvette Lee Bowser, four of the seven African-American Miss Americas (Suzette Charles, Dr. Debbye Turner and Marjorie Judith Vincent), congressmembers, mayors, educators, athletes, actors and professional women encompassing all fields of endeavor including my own mother, my sister and various cousins.

One hundred years later, Alpha Kappa Alpha women are continuing to do their part to not only uplift our race with the use of creative and innovative programs and targeted financial support, but help our people survive and thrive into the 21st century and beyond.

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