This article is a part of Blavity U Spirit Week 2023.

The letters and symbols of Black sororities and fraternities have recently been the focus of several headlines.

As Blavity reported, in September, a white substitute teacher went viral for wearing a jacket embroidered with the sorority letters of the teacher she was covering for. A few weeks later, a Nashville teacher made headlines for confiscating a shirt that a second grader was wearing, bearing the letters of the same sorority of which she was a member.

The instances sparked conversation around the significance and importance of the letters and symbols associated with Black Greek organizations, also known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council and Divine Nine.

While members of the organizations understand the sacred meaning behind their letters, the conversation has been split around whether those not associated should understand it as well.

The history of the “Divine Nine” is deeply rooted in legacy and unity. The majority of the organizations were formed at HBCUs during times when Black students could not participate in groups or attend schools that served white students. These organizations were formed by individuals who wanted to fill a void in spaces where representation and support for Black students and communities were needed.

In an interview with CNN, Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, spoke about how the value of these letters may not resonate with some. 

“For those people who say, ‘Eh, that’s just (a shirt), it doesn’t really matter’ they also don’t really believe or understand (Black Greek) fraternity and sorority life,” he said.

The respective letters, symbols and logos are deeply rooted in the history and traditions of each NPHC organization. They help members connect with the origin and legacy of their organization, reminding them of the accomplishments and struggles of their founders and preceding members.

Many NPHC symbols are tied to the values, principles, and ideals of the respective organizations. They serve as visual reminders of the mission and purpose of the sorority or fraternity.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. hold the honor of being the first Black Greek-letter organization. Founded in 1906 and 1908, their use of the term “Alpha” indicates they were pioneers in the space.

Throughout the decades, chapters for each NPHC organization increased and were formed on different campuses nationwide. Their associated letters now became a way to connect them, regardless of location. Wearing NPHC symbols in public allows members to identify each other and acknowledge their bond.

To the broader community, seeing someone in fraternity and sorority paraphernalia can also allude to them being a community pillar and dedicated to upholding their organization’s mission. Those who wear their letters are held to standards that only members would understand. They remind members of their commitment to leadership, community service, and academic excellence.

Ross also shared with CNN that within the protocols of NPHC members, branded “paraphernalia is only to be worn by duly initiated members and there are rules around when and where to be dressed in the letters.”

The letters and symbols are an integral part of the rituals, ceremonies, and initiation processes within the organizations. They are used to represent the pride that the member has in their journey.

The associated letters and symbols are a fundamental and cherished part of the NPHC culture. They play a vital role in fostering unity and preserving the traditions and values of these organizations. They serve as a constant reminder of the history, purpose and dedication of each organization.