When it comes to mobilizing Black voters, Kamala Harris has something even President Barack Obama didn’t have as America’s first Black president.
Her degree from Howard University, a historically Black university, and membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority, could give her a noticeable advantage among loyal members and alumni, including in Delaware.
“It’s a part of Black America that most Americans are not aware of,” Akwasi Osei, a political science and history professor at Delaware State University, said about the Greek organization. “And it is huge.”
It could be the blessing that Biden’s campaign needs after Black voter turnout dropped in 2016. Osei expects Harris to revitalize turnout to match that of its historic levels during Obama’s presidential bids, if not higher.
Since her presidential bid last year, members of the sorority have formed into Harris’ own, unofficial private army.
It’s one of nine service-oriented Black sororities and fraternities known as the Divine Nine, and those familiar with the organizations say they should not be overlooked as a pervasive and organized sector of the Black community. AKA alone boasts more than 300,000 members, and for the first time, they are watching one of their own run for vice president. Harris joined the sorority in 1986.
“It is that level that I think Kamala has, as it were, tuned into,” Osei said. “And that is enough for some people to say, ‘I’m with her. Because I’m a Greek and I identify as such.'”
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AKA is active in Delaware, including at Delaware State University, Wesley College and the University of Delaware. Already, there are signs of support from the sorority. Some members drove from around the state on Thursday to stand outside A.I. du Pont High School in Greenville, where Biden and Harris gave their first joint appearance, in support of their sorority sister.
“She has definitely energized the African American community because of her affiliations,” said L. Germaine Cheatham-Hemphill, a DSU graduate and AKA member. “The HBCU community, for example, is tight-knit, and it’s small, and it’s nurturing. … Greekdom, within that, is even deeper.”
In other words, it transcends politics. Cheatham-Hemphill, who lives in Camden, compared the allegiance to a lifelong marriage.
“I don’t know that people really understand the real power of Greekdom in the African American community and the seriousness of it,” she said. “It stretches from teachers to preachers to lawyers to doctors to housewives, everybody. If you’re an AKA, if you’re Greek in any way, shape or form, you are buzzing. You are excited right now.”
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The “friendly rivals” within the Divine Nine are coalescing around Harris, largely via social media. Members plan to galvanize their networks outside the Greek organizations, and will likely end up throwing money at Biden’s campaign.
AKA includes other famous members such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, Phylicia Rashad and Toni Morrison. But to have one of their own taking the national stage as the potential vice president is another level.
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“I would daresay it was immediate,” Cheatham-Hemphill said about members’ organizing around Harris. “One, it was ‘Congratulations to us as AKAs for a member of our sorority being named to this role.’ And number two it was, ‘All right, everybody get together to get out to vote.’ … The mobilization is going to be amazing.”
When Harris ran for president in 2019, AKA members hosted fundraisers, donated money and showed up to campaign events.
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Before Cheatham-Hemphill learned that Harris was her sorority sister, she was attracted to her personality and politics watching her grill Supreme Court nominees and Trump administration members like Attorney General William Barr in the Senate. Once she found out, it made perfect sense.
“She’s one of us,” Cheatham-Hemphill said. “She’s a leader. She’s an alpha woman. She’s a go-getter.'”
But Harris’ affiliation with the organization may just tap into one of several groups that shouldn’t be overlooked in this election.
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“Kamala Harris is more than just AKA, she’s more than Howard. Her mother and father both have cultures, too, that I’m sure — I’m sure — are ecstatic as well,” she said.
While Obama, who graduated from Columbia and Harvard, gave communities of color unprecedented hope that a Black man can be president, Delaware State University professor Alexa Silver thinks Harris’ HBCU degree “gives credence” to the value of an education from a historically Black school, especially for minority students who don’t know how far the degree might take them.
“There’s just been more talk in the news about HBCUs and most people don’t even know what they are, and most people don’t even think about what they mean,” she said. “This is an opportunity for people to see how colleges devoted to helping particular portions of the population are creating leaders. It’s not just that we’re giving students who aren’t as strong an opportunity to get a college degree. No, we’re creating future leaders.”
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While classes have yet to resume this year, Silver expects her students — especially women of color — will feel hopeful about Harris and possibly more empowered than in 2008 when Obama was elected.
Still, the moment reminds her of Obama’s election 12 years ago. The day after the election, she arrived to teach her survey history class where her 30 or so freshman and sophomore DSU students typically sauntered in and threw themselves down into their chairs. But that day, she remembers them walking in lighter with smiles on their faces.
“They just kind of emanated this sense of hope that something that no one ever thought could happen,” she said. “For those who had actually gone home and voted, they were feeling super proud of themselves. I just remember it was the happiest day of teaching I ever had. Just to see the looks on their faces, the level of engagement.”
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It was an opportunity for Silver to remind them about the importance of voting and that America’s political system of representative democracy, while it’s not perfect, does work.
USA Today Network reporters Julie Hinds and Chanel Stitt contributed to this story.
Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Kamala Harris’ HBCU, AKA sorority affiliations could help ticket