THE BLOG
01/16/2015 12:39 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Alpha Kappa Alpha, First Greek-Letter Sorority for African-American Women, Celebrates 107 Years and Still Counting

A human need shared by all is "to belong."

Whether it was gathering for a quilting bee, meeting at a local tavern, going to religious services regularly, or in more modern day, joining clubs like Rotary or Kiwanis, these gatherings offer opportunities for people with like minds to get together and support each other and exchange information.

Because few would look at people of different colors to see if they might actually share the same goals and same values, minority groups of all types have historically been left out of these organizations.

How Students Grouped Themselves at Universities
In colleges, these clubs ranged from "secret societies" like Skull & Bones at Yale to fraternities, and eventually sororities. The elite Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, was the first fraternal organization in the U.S. As more fraternities of other types formed, they excluded people of color.

The Beginning of Black Fraternities and Sororities
At Cornell University in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha was formed to provide a fraternal organization for black men. Two years later, in 1908, a group of women at Howard University formed Alpha Kappa Alpha to fill the need for a sorority where black women could belong.

Over the years AKA as a nationwide organization has provided service to multiple communities, offering education enrichment and job support, and there has been a particular emphasis on health-related needs among communities nationwide. The organization has also been very active in issues regarding civil rights.

Selma director Ava DuVernay views the work of AKA as so important today that she accepted an honorary membership in July of 2014.

Looking Back
The spirit behind Alpha Kappa Alpha was a woman named Ethel Hedgeman Lyle (born Ethel Hedgeman, 1887-1950) who was a junior and a scholarship recipient at Howard, the prestigious black university in Washington, D.C. She heard the stories of the benefits of a sorority from one of the faculty members at Howard, and she also observed the enjoyment that her boyfriend (and eventual husband) gained from joining a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which had established its Beta chapter at Howard.

In the summer of 1907 Ethel Hedgeman began recruiting other women to unite with her in forming an organization. By 1908 they were ready to form the first sorority for black women. The group incorporated in 1913.

Ethel Hedgeman Lyle remained active in the sorority throughout her life. She worked in education and was an active community member wherever she lived. By the 1930s, she and her husband were living in Philadelphia. Because she was involved in so many activities that involved both black and white city residents, the mayor of Philadelphia tapped her to chair the Committee of 100 Women, which would be part of the group that would plan the Sesquicentennial of the Adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

Alpha Kappa Alpha, of course, continues on. Today Alpha Kappa Alpha has 265,000 members and 986 chapters. Their goals remain much the same as they were when they were founded. Within each community they focus on education, good health practices, the strengthening of the family, and how they can have a global impact. Some of their programs involve work in Africa in order to help where they can.

Bayer Mack, producer of the film, Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood, has produced a short and moving tribute to Alpha Kappa Alpha. To view it, click here.

For more information on the sorority, visit Alpha Kappa Alpha.

And if you would like to receive stories by email of inspirational black leaders during Black History Month, please email me and put "Black Leaders" in the subject line: kate@americacomesalive.com. I'll add you to the list. There are also multiple stories of these leaders already on my site: www.americacomesalive.com.