In March of 2014, two things occurred that rocked the world of
collegiate fraternities. First, The Atlantic magazine published a cover
story titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” a year-long study, and
ultimately a critique, of these organizations. The article sparked a
broader dialogue about the state of college fraternities—e.g., in
popular culture and with regard to their tensions with host
institutions. This dialogue reverberated across a host of media,
including television, radio, and print. Second, Sigma Alpha Epsilon
Fraternity (SAE), one of the nation’s largest and most storied college
fraternities, eliminated pledging. This was in part due to a Bloomberg
report that found SAE to be the deadliest fraternity to join, at least in
recent years. It was also in part because JPMorgan Chase & Co.
stopped managing SAE’s charitable foundation given the bank’s
concern about SAE’s bad publicity.
This public dialogue reflects a long-standing debate held on
campuses, at conferences, in chat-rooms, and in Facebook groups,
usually amongst a small community of individuals. For years,
members of historically African American fraternities and
sororities—also known as black Greek-letter organizations
(BGLOs)—have grappled with a particularly violent brand of hazing
and questions about its utility, necessity, and potential for being the
root of these organizations’ demise.
Black Greek-letter organizations are old and storied
institutions, the first—Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity—being founded in
1906 on the campus of Cornell University. A confluence of
organizational, institutional, and contextual factors gave rise to Alpha
Phi Alpha and helped spawn and perpetuate seven other
organizations between 1908 and 1922—Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
(Howard University, 1908), Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (University,
of Indiana, 1911), Omega Psi Phi Fraternity (Howard University,
1911), Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Howard University, 1913), Phi
Beta Sigma Fraternity (Howard University, 1914), Zeta Phi Beta
Sorority (Howard University, 1920), and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority
(Butler University, 1922). In 1930, the bulk of this collective founded
the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) as an umbrella
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