The service-minded members of the historically Black fraternities and sororities known as the "Divine Nine" have been serving the Washtenaw County community under the radar for decades, but many are hoping to raise public awareness of their work.
The Divine Nine is a nickname for the National Pan-Hellenic Council
(NPHC), an umbrella organization formed in 1930 that represents nine historically African-American fraternities and sororities. Most of the Divine Nine were created in the early 1900s in response to issues such as segregation and discrimination.
Jeanice Townsend, an Ypsilanti real estate agent and trustee on the Ypsilanti Community Schools board of education, is a member of the Ypsilanti-based Rho Delta Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta sorority. In turn, the local chapter is a charter member of the NPHC of Ann Arbor
(NPHC-AA), formed in 2011. Townsend notes that it's often young people of college age who start major movements in a society, and African-American college students in the early days of the Divine Nine came together to network and discuss how they could support their communities and fight for equal opportunities.
"These organizations were formed historically, back in the day when African-Americans were not able to join the other sororities and fraternities that were predominantly white," Townsend says. "But we still wanted to have organizations on campuses so that we could do the work of service."
Today, the Divine Nine remain active and vibrant despite sometimes having a low public profile. Stafford Watts, NPHC-AA president, says he didn't know anything about the Divine Nine until he went to college. He says one of his goals for his term as president is to make Divine Nine organizations "a little more visible." Townsend agrees that a higher profile is in order.
"All of these organizations have been active in the community for years, but lately, they've become a little more visible," Townsend says. "We're providing scholarships and promoting social justice. Any major African-American leader or educator in this community is most likely part of the Divine Nine."
Watts says that joining one of the Divine Nine in college is an excellent networking opportunity.
"You're able to be on campus, but it takes you away from studying all the time," he says. "You're able to come into a collaboration with other Greek organizations and do community service for whatever city you're in, and meanwhile, you're building relationships."
Each chapter also has an advisor that helps members prepare for graduate school or other next steps after completing an undergraduate degree.
"You're networking, and you have a mentor to help get you to where your next level should be," Watts says. "And you build lifelong friendships. I have friendships that are over 30 years old."
Linda Edwards-Brown, a social work professor and Pittsfield Township trustee, joined Zeta Phi Beta
as an undergrad at the University of Michigan in 1975, a time when the student population was more than 90% white.
"The minority population at Michigan was small and remains pretty small," she says. "I was part of the second Black Action movement in 1975, when we were petitioning the then-president to increase enrollment of Black students. Joining a sorority afforded me a sense of belonging, somewhere I could be myself and also be around other like-minded individuals."
Ypsilanti-based social worker and entrepreneur Cherisa Allen took a different path to joining the Divine Nine. She went on a tour of historically Black colleges and universities in the mid-'80s and says she was "enthralled" with members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, but she didn't have time to join a sorority then. However, she kept thinking about the Delta women and decided to join the sorority as an alumna in her 40s.
"We were started on behalf of Black people and before the Civil Rights movement," Allen says. "Back then, we were not getting our due respect and we weren't connected to resources. We needed connections, resources, and people to bond with."
Taryn Willis and Cherisa Allen at the Ypsi Jazz Fest.
As a member of the sorority's alumni chapter, she says she enjoys giving back through service, but the sisterhood she finds in the group is a big draw as well.
"You can get on a plane, and wherever you go, you'll meet a sister, and you're going to be hugged and kissed and invited into her home as if it were your blood sister," Allen says. "I love being part of an organization that uplifts Black women."
Edwards-Brown echoes that sentiment in regards to her own sorority.
"It's difficult to find your place at a predominantly white institution," she says. "But with the sisterhood component of Zeta, wherever I go in the world, I can find another Zeta. I don't have to know her for her to be welcoming and encouraging to me. That is, first and foremost, one of the greatest things you get out of joining a Greek letter organization."
While most people consider being active in a sorority or fraternity while they're in college, Townsend says Divine Nine organizations consider membership "a lifelong commitment."
"Our main focus is service. We're always thinking about how we can make more opportunities available to members of the community, that everybody has the freedom to live that American dream," Townsend says. "We're social workers, educators, and entrepreneurs. We're in politics and the legal profession. Regardless of what your profession is, though, the goal is to make sure you are providing a positive role model to the community."
She says members of these organizations are proud of their membership in individual Greek organizations. But when they're united as the Divine Nine, their shared goal is to "consider the problems of mutual interest to [Divine Nine] member organizations."
NPHC-AA President Stafford Watts.
Townsend's local chapter, along with other Divine Nine members, have provided thousands of dollars in scholarships to local students for more than 40 years and engaged in other community service projects like running Easter egg hunts or raising funds for the March of Dimes. Edwards-Brown's chapter is heavily involved in community service and civic engagement, from hosting bingo and movies for older adults at Clark East Towers in Ypsilanti to educating people about estate planning to distributing supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She not only serves on her township board, but her sorority's local chapter also does voter education and voting rights work.
"We're focused on protecting the rights of the community and promoting civic action," she says. "That can include running for office and raising awareness about general issues, which impact our community".
But in addition to these numerous initiatives, Townsend says her fellow Divine Nine members are living their organizations' values every day.
Crystal Campbell moderating the Divine Nine's Washtenaw County School Board Candidates' Forum.
"It's what we do on a normal daily basis that defines us," she says. "We provide mentorship to young people and work in a lot of different areas in the community to make sure all people, not just African-Americans, have an opportunity to do better."
Allen agrees. Joining her sorority was part of what motivated her to follow her calling by starting her own business and a nonprofit, Women and Men Working for Change
. She says that locally and nationally, Divine Nine leadership are "putting in work on a daily basis to keep us up to date, expand our reach, broaden our horizons, and keep us relevant as a nonprofit serving our community."
"I love my sisterhood and the Divine Nine as a whole. We're all doing the same things, just with different colored shirts," she says. "We all have that leadership in us. All of us have that community service in us. All of us have that giving nature, so you can find us in our community doing that work."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.