They have been called her secret weapon: Thousands of members of the oldest Black sorority in the country share a special sisterhood bond with Sen. Kamala Harris and they are rallying to champion her historic Democratic vice presidential nomination.
Across the region, members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority are mobilizing to raise money for the Biden-Harris campaign, buying pink-and-green gear from T-shirts to face masks and lawn signs, and turning up plans to get out the vote in November. With more than 300,000 members, including a large contingency in the city, they are a formidable network.
“This is a great moment for African American women,” said Glenda Glover, the sorority’s international president. “It’s a great moment for the country.”
Harris joined the sorority in 1986 at Howard University in Washington, where the sorority was founded in 1908. She has maintained a close relationship with her “line sisters,” the women who were initiated with her, and attended sorority conferences before the pandemic hit.
Black women, long considered the backbone of the Democratic party, are expected to play a vital role in the 2020 presidential race, a point acknowledged by Biden when he announced Harris as his running mate. Harris last week praised Biden’s “audacity” to choose a Black woman.
The selection of the first Black woman and first Asian American as the vice presidential pick on a major party ticket has struck a chord with the minority community on many levels, said Narisa Sasitorn, a lawyer and AKA member who lives in Philadelphia. She is working to mobilize Asian voters in the city.
“This is a defining moment where people really need to show up and show out,” said Sasitorn, who is of Southeast Asian descent. “It’s almost like life or death.”
The nomination has also especially brought a sense of pride to other Black fraternities and sororities, known as the Divine 9, which has roughly two million members nationwide, local graduates of historically black universities such as Lincoln University and Cheyney University, and young Black women inspired by Harris’ leadership.
Supporters hope to use her affiliations to reach voters. Harris is also a member of Links Inc., a volunteer service group founded by two Black Philadelphia women in 1946.
“She shows that a Black woman can persevere and make her way into the old boys’ club,” said Lexie Wells, 19, of Washington Township, a sophomore management information systems major at Pennsylvania State University.
Traci Benjamin, president of the New Jersey Garden City Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, said she believes Harris’ candidacy has sparked a growing momentum that she has not experienced since the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president in 2008.
Like Obama, Harris has been attacked by President Donald Trump, who questioned her U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run, and those who dislike her politics. Supporters say they plan to counter falsehoods and focus on issues important to Black voters.
“There’s something about the power of a Black woman,” said Benjamin, of Pine Hill, a communications specialist with labor union 32BJ SEIU. “Despite COVID-19, this gives us hope that change can happen. It’s an awesome time.”
Richard Snow, a Philadelphia-based regional development director for the United Negro College Fund, believes Harris’ nomination will help bring more awareness to historically black colleges and boost scholarship donations. Harris has said her days at Howard were a major life influencer.
“This is a great day for us,” said Snow. “We have someone on the ticket who is part of us. Everyone is tremendously proud.”
Snow, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity headquartered in Philadelphia, said his brothers plan to stand behind Harris. While at Howard she was a fraternity “sweetheart” — an unofficial group of women who assist with service and social projects.
Because AKA is tax-exempt, it cannot endorse Harris or make donations, but expect to see members greet her on the campaign trail wearing the sorority’s signature colors of salmon pink and apple green, head to toe.
They can make personal contributions to the campaign and many — some first-time donors — have joined a social media campaign to contribute $19.08 (the year the sorority was founded). Divine 9 members have been asked to make donations in the amount matching when their groups were established.
Plans are also underway for a virtual fund-raiser in Philadelphia that organizers hope will generate $500,000 to $1 million, said Evelyn Sample-Oates, an AKA member and one of the planners. Details were still being worked out.
“I’m excited about this ticket,” said Sample-Oates, executive director of Government, Advocacy, and External Relations for the Philadelphia School District. “She is clear about who she is, where she comes from. I respect that a lot about her.”
Philadelphia is home to several of the largest AKA chapters in the country. The sorority’s founder, Ethel Hedgeman Lyle, an educator, spent many years in the city and is buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Delaware County.
Several Black women in Congress are also members of the sorority, including Rep. Bonnie Coleman Watson (D., N.J). Famous members of the sorority include C. Delores Tucker, Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta Scott King, and Rosa Parks.
Glover, AKA’s leader who is also president of Tennessee State University in Nashville, said the sorority plans to use its tentacles to galvanize voters here and around the country and hold virtual education workshops to make sure they understand how to vote by mail. There are more than 13,000 sorority members in the North Atlantic region, which includes eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
“It’s bigger than Alpha Kappa Alpha,” said Glover. We’re going to do all we can to keep this spirit of excitement.”