Sister Act

by | Oct 15, 2014

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority marks 100 years on University of Illinois campus

Illinois Alumni magazine October 2014

The hallways of the I Hotel were packed as women sporting pink and green t-shirts greeted one another with huge hugs and smiles. Alpha Kappa Alpha, Gamma Chapter, was celebrating its centennial on the University of Illinois campus. Warmth and love filled the air; oxygen molecules found room where they could. In that moment, this past winter,  you felt you could do anything you set your mind to, as long as you had the support of these magnificent, high-energy women.

It’s the same kind of energy that brought the sorority to the U of I. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first such group in the nation for African-Americans, was established in 1908 at Howard University. Six years later, eight women at Illinois established the third (gamma) AKA chapter; the first at a predominantly white, public institution.

Think on this: one hundred years ago, when women could not vote and rarely worked outside the home, these founders had an outsized dream.

The Illinois campus, however, offered a somewhat chilly reception. Although its residences halls were first built in 1916, African-Americans were banned form them until the 1940s. African-American sororities were not allowed to join the PanHellenic Council until 1947.

The AKA sorority, then, provided a gathering place for these students, and the chapter occupied various houses from the 1920s-1970s.

“The sorority was important to people who belonged to it,” says Carol Ballinger Johnson, ’54 LAS, whose mother, Frances Ellis Ballinger, was a charter member of the Illinois chapter. “There weren’t that many African American students at the school. It was a close-knit group of people.”

According to Tamara Hoff (05, 08 and 14 UIUC), an AKA member whose dissertation includes the history of the chapter from 1901-1939 the Gamma Chapter served as “a network of support, a community, and a cultural outlet.”

The sorority also provided a place to learn leadership skills. Virtually all student organizations were closed to African Americans before the 1950s.

From the beginning, AKA set its bar high, says Hoff, with academics a top priority. In 1919 Gamma Chapter had the highest GPA of any sorority  on campus, and in 1938, AKA member Marian M. Silgeton ’38 ACES  was the first AFrican American to earn Bronze Tablet honors, the highest recognition bestowed by the University.

By the time Lolita Smith ’83 LAS, MD ’88 (UIC), pledged in 1980, African American women had become more integrated with the campus, but she still felt the need for a kind of family.

“It’s a sisterhood, even though we weren’t birthed by the same moms,” says Smith, who grew up in the south side of Chicago. Coming to the University of Illinois was the first time in her life where Smith really was a minority. “It’s not that I was scared, exactly,” she says, “but I wanted a bigger voice.”

Bria Purdiman ’14 MEDIA, Smith’s daughter and outgoing AKA president, always knew she’d join AKA. “My mom’s (sorority) sisters are my aunties,” she says.

The close bond is clear: Of the 16 women that pledged with Smith in 1980 (her line sisters), 13 attended the weekend’s events. Now that’s a family reunion.

Sorority Sisters at house

Alexandra the Great book cover

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