In Chicago, HQ of AKA, proud sorority sisters of Kamala Harris get to work
In Black sororities and fraternities, sisterhood and brotherhood run deep. You can go anywhere, meet a stranger, and if the two of you share membership in a particular organization in the “Divine 9,” as they’re called, you’re instant family.
So it is with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the oldest and the largest Black sorority, founded on the campus of Howard University in 1908. I pledged as a college undergrad.
Because of that sisterly bond, when Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris gave our sorority a shout-out in her acceptance speech during last week’s Democratic National Convention, many AKAs nationwide swooned.
Chicago is home to the national headquarters of AKA, at 5656 S. Stony Island Ave. in Hyde Park.
And it is also because of that sisterly bond that “sorors” nationwide have been hard at work supporting a fellow member who stepped into history’s glare with the Aug. 11 announcement by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that she was his pick.
Watch parties aplenty were planned last week, but sorors weren’t expecting the honor bestowed from a national stage.
“The place went up in the air” when Harris cited her “beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha,” said 73-year-old Josephine Perry, an AKA and retired Chicago Public Schools teacher who attended a socially distanced watch party for 16 at Bronzeville’s Bureau Bar & Restaurant.
“She has electrified us to the point where I believe every soul that’s conscious will energize their household and community to get out the vote and make a difference in this country,” the Chatham resident said of Harris, who could become the first woman vice president.
“Undergrads coming into the sorority will know there are no limits to their potential. A lot of energy will be poured into this campaign by lots of Alpha Kappa Alpha members, surely,” Perry said.
The first Black American woman and first South Asian American to grace a major party ticket, Harris pledged AKA as an undergrad at Howard — one of the historically Black colleges and universities.
In her speech, the U.S. senator from California, who’d run for president before folding her campaign in December, additionally gave a shout-out to all HBCUs and all Black sororities and fraternities.
“My reaction was, ‘Skee-Wee!’ I felt overwhelmed with happiness,” said Morgan Waller, a 26-year-old AKA who lives in Burnham, evoking the sorority’s greeting call.
Waller and Perry are among dozens of Chicago-area women, many of them AKAs, who last week launched “Women 2 Win,” a
diverse group devoted to phone banking and raising $1 million to support Harris.
“Just to be able to witness the first Black woman vice president nominee, I’m so proud. She’s blazing a trail for young women like myself to continue to make that difference in the world,” said the millennial Waller, a financial analyst and school board member at Thornton Fractional High School District 215.
Harris graduated Howard in 1986, with a degree in political science and economics, before attending law school at the University of California, where she obtained her juris doctorate in 1989.
The sorority mention came as Harris shared lessons imparted by her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a biologist who emigrated from India in the early 1960s. It was at the University of California at Berkeley where her mother met her father, Donald Harris, who’d emigrated from Jamaica.
“She taught us to put family first, the family you’re born into and the family you choose,” Harris said at the convention. “Family is my husband . . . our beautiful children . . . Family is my sister. Family is my best friend, my nieces and my godchildren
. . . Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters.”
“It was amazing! I was like, ‘We could all just flatline right now,’” said Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller, an AKA who attended Howard at the same time as Harris, graduating a year after her.
“But we can’t, because we have to go get out the vote,” quipped Miller, 54, of Linwood, also involved with Women 2 Win. “We have to raise money. We have to make phone calls. With the pandemic, voter suppression and other obstacles afoot, we can’t take it for granted.”
AKA is a global service organization with more than 300,000 members and 1,000 chapters worldwide, boasting famed honorary members like Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison and Alicia Keys.
Some Women 2 Win members, like Tiffany Harper, chief of staff and general counsel in the Chicago city treasurer’s office, are planning to do more than just fundraising and phone calls.
Harper plans to travel to swing states to provide legal assistance for election protection.
“As Black women, we don’t often get to go through doors first or break down barriers. It’s usually a white woman or Black man that gets to go first,” said Harper, 37, of Bronzeville.
“On Wednesday night, I was literally running around my house in tears, screaming. My mother is an AKA who has fought for civil rights, so to see our sorority that’s been so committed to service and community and protecting voting and other rights for marginalized communities on that stage with her, it was a moment of a lifetime.”
Many noted they’re in a race with the calendar — the Nov. 3 election is only 2½ months away. But while hard at work to support the Biden-Harris ticket, they bask in the glow of this soror’s already historic achievement.
“It was a proud and heartwarming moment to watch Sen. Harris stand on this international platform and share with the world how our organization has impacted her life. Her nomination and acceptance serves as a testament to our mission to be of service to all mankind,” AKA Central Region Director Sonya Bowen said.
“It was a profound moment for AKA and has had a resounding impact on all of our members,” said Bowen, 52, of Richton Park, a research administrator. “Watching [her] accept her nomination as vice president of the United States was a historic moment for Black women, and all women of color in America.”
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, then running for president, greets supporters including fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha member Josephine Perry (front) at a 2019 Chicago fundraiser. Perry is among dozens of area women, many of them AKAs, who launched “Women 2 Win” in support of Harris.
Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha who attended Howard University at the same time as Sen. Kamala Harris, chats with Harris last year.
Josephine Perry, 73, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, with Sen. Kamala Harris at a Chicago fundraiser last year.