By Elise Finch

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There’s been a spotlight on African-American sororities and fraternities recently, ever since Vice President Kamala Harris thanked members of her sorority and the Divine Nine for supporting her campaign.

But what exactly is the Divine Nine, and how are Black fraternities and sororities different from all the others?

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As CBS2’s Elise Finch reports, from the outside looking in, Black Greek life might look like one big party, and most people will tell you it’s a lot of fun.

There are four African-American sororities and five fraternities that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, together known as the Divine Nine.

Each has their own colors, meaningful symbols, unique hand gestures and even calls that you’ll hear during social events.

But Black Greek life is also a serious matter because these organizations share a commitment to academic achievement and uplifting the Black community.

“African-American fraternities and sororities are just as integral of the Black community as the Black church,” said Lawrence C. Ross, the author who coined the phrase “the Divine Nine” for one of his books. “They represent kind of the idea that African Americans who are going to college can also be something larger than themselves.”

He’s also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

“They’re working together to basically go into society and to, in some ways, prove that one is a first-class citizen in contrast to what America is saying to the Black community,” Ross said.

So who are the members of the Divine Nine?

  1. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, founded at Cornell University in 1906
  2. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, founded at Howard University in 1908
  3. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, founded at Indiana University in 1911
  4. Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, founded at Howard University in 1911
  5. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, founded at Howard University in 1913
  6. Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, founded at Howard University in 1914
  7. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, founded at Howard University in 1920
  8. Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, founded at Butler University in 1922
  9. Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, founded at Morgan State University in 1963

Each of the organizations exists in part to bolster African-American college students while they’re on campus, academically and socially.

“Basically, I just loved what I saw. I loved the sisterhood. I loved how they supported each other,” said Shayla Crawford-Hymon, a senior at Montclair State University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“Even if you only had one friend … that one true friend can get you through anything, and that’s what we are to each other,” said Harry Watson, president of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s Harlem Chapter.

But they’re also devoted to serving their communities, and it’s not just a collegiate endeavor.

Mary Bentley Lamar is the North Atlantic regional director of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

“Many Greek organizations are started in college, and once your college years are over, you are pretty much finished with your activity with that organization. Whereas in the Divine Nine … we commit to service, sisterhood, brotherhood in the case of fraternities, for a lifetime,” she said.

“The Divine Nine organizations have what we call graduate alumni chapters where we then go into our respective communities and continue the work that we started on our campus,” said Randi Gray of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

“At a national level, we set forth the initiatives,” said Andre Manson, international president of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity. “The undergrads and the alumni chapters actually do all the footwork.”

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Both undergraduate and alumni members of all the groups routinely collect and distribute food, clothing and other necessities. Leadership and mentoring programs for young people are cornerstones. So are voter registration drives and fundraisers to provide scholarships.

“My particular chapter donates over $26,000 a year for high school graduates. And it’s been a great benefit, but we have fun doing it,” said Pierre Oscar of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.

Most of the organizations have hundreds of chapters in the United States and even more abroad. Because of the way they’re structured, you can join a Divine Nine organization years after graduating from a four-year college.

Many professionals do. They often enjoy career support and provide career guidance.

Valerie Hollingsworth Baker is the international president of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated.

“We have so many members who are lawyers and doctors and aerospace engineers and you know … They’re able to steer you in a direction of where you may want to go when you’re thinking about a career in life,” she said.

With so many similarities, you might wonder how people choose the organization that’s right for them. For many, it’s the group that made them feel at home.

“Here I was on campus and they literally reached out and gave me a sense of a bond and a brotherhood. I do not have a biological brother so it was an instant magnet for me to be drawn to them,” said Rev. Lamont Granby of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.

“I was influenced by somebody when I got to college, she was my mentor. We had the same major, the same interests … She was just everything I wanted to be, and for her to be an S G Rho. I said, OK, I want to be an S G Rho too,” said Kirsten James, a member of Sigma Gamma Rho.

For others, they were influenced as children.

“Most of my teachers were Deltas … They always seemed to be, you know, women who were extremely brilliant, well-spoken and just about uplifting the community,” said Felita Ford Granby, a member of Delta Sigma Theta.

“There’s this brownstone on 141st and Convent Avenue. In the window of the brownstone there were three Greek letters with lights, with seven lights and it said A Phi A,” said Larry Scott Blackmon of Alpha Phi Alpha. “I read up on Alpha Phi Alpha and I see men such as Martin Luther King Jr., I see Duke Ellington, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and I was just intrigued by these lights.”

For some people, Black Greek life is literally a family affair. There are lots of Greek couples, many of whom met in college, like Finch’s parents. You’ll often find fathers and sons who are members of the same organization, biological sisters, and of course mothers and daughters.

That’s the case for Finch. She, her mother, her sister and her niece are all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Finch’s mother joined 57 years ago.

“I knew that it was a lifelong commitment. I knew that I would be active. I had no idea how active, and I wasn’t sure what my children would do or my grandchild would do, so I am amazed,” Charlette Finch said.

The work of the Divine Nine is amazing, Finch reported. From their famous members to their community outreach to the millions of dollars raised to send young people to college and help them graduate.

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African Americans still face unique challenges on college campuses and in their communities, so the Divine Nine is as necessary today as it was more than a century ago when most of the organizations were founded.

Elise Finch