Tammy Richardson sat awestruck in front of her TV when former Vice President Joe Biden announced that Sen. Kamala Harris would be his running mate in mid-August. It felt as surreal to Richardson as the moment when Barack Obama first won the presidency over a decade ago.
The announcement hit particularly close to home for Richardson. Like Harris, Richardson graduated from a historically Black college, and is a member of the predominantly Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“Being able to celebrate someone who had a similar path as me, it meant so much,” said Richardson, a Seattle resident and Microsoft director. Over 100 social media messages and texts poured in from her family, friends, sorority sisters and former classmates as they rejoiced in the historic moment. “Finally on a world stage, we have additional proof that one of the highest offices in the land can be obtained by an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) grad,” she added.
On Wednesday evening, Richardson plans to watch the vice-presidential debate between Harris and incumbent Vice President Mike Pence with her HBCU community. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s viewing party will be held virtually through group texts and Microsoft Teams.
As the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket, as well as the first vice-presidential nominee to attend an HBCU, Harris’ nomination is significant for Richardson and many other Black women in Seattle. Harris’ candidacy paves the way for other Black women and girls to follow in her footsteps, said Richardson.
“Being Black in America, you have years and years of people telling you that you can’t,” said Richardson. But as she sat in front of the TV, Richardson was struck with the unflappable belief that “I can do anything,” she said.
In La Shanda Hurst’s eyes, the nomination showcased the strong education and sense of pride that HBCUs provide for students. Harris is a graduate of historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C.
A Pacific Northwest native, Hurst splits her time between Portland and Seattle, where she sometimes speaks with prospective students about her alma mater, Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana. “It’s so awesome to be able to tell them that Sen. Harris is an HBCU grad,” said Hurst, an AKA member and mother of a current HBCU student.
Like Richardson, Hurst plans to commune with friends through group texts during Wednesday’s debate. The last viewing party she attended in 2012 for Obama drew 50 attendees. Hurst hopes to infuse a similar level of excitement into a virtual election party held through Microsoft Teams, where she plans to use a red, white and blue background and play games during breaks.
Seattle resident Nykeesha Griffin saw Harris’ nomination as a “beacon of hope” for the entire community during a year when Black people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic as well as police use of lethal force.
“Representation matters,” said Griffin. “I’m the mother of two young girls, and for them to see images that reflect themselves as high as the White House is critical for children.”
The historically Black sororities and fraternities that compose the so-called “Divine Nine,” formally known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council, were born of a desire for representation. Founded in 1906 at Cornell University, Alpha Phi Alpha was the first Black fraternity created to foster brotherhood amid racial prejudice on a mostly white campus.
Unlike many mostly white Greek organizations, members of Black sororities and fraternities pledge to a lifelong commitment to service and involvement.
Established in 1930, the National Pan-Hellenic Council served as the umbrella organization for sororities and fraternities founded by Black students, and it now includes Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Delta Sigma Theta, Iota Phi Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. The nine groups have a strong alumni presence that contributes to their tradition of a “lifetime commitment.”
Harris and Alpha Kappa Alpha
Founded at Howard University in 1908, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. developed a reputation as a lifelong professional development network that fosters a commitment to public service and social action. As an AKA member, Harris has access to a strong support system that has helped elevate her throughout her career, said Dr. Glenda Glover, international president and CEO of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
“She has one sister who is a biological sister, and then she has another 300,000 sisters in the sorority, then 700,000 sisters in the Divine Nine,” Glover said in an interview.
While AKA’s nonprofit status prevents the organization from endorsing candidates, members can vote or help nominees in an individual capacity. As such, many AKA members have volunteered at polls or made contributions to political candidates in alignment with the Divine Nine’s voting engagement platform.
Glover was proud a to see a woman of color on the Democratic ticket: “It says that little Black girls, little Asian girls, and all little girls can see her and see what they can become,” said Glover, who is also president of Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville.
“Part of our mission is to educate and train young women and girls and make sure that they grow up to become leaders. And that’s exactly what she’s become: an outstanding leader,” she added.
As Harris accepted her nomination at the Democratic National Convention in late August, she donned a pearl necklace in honor of her sorority. “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha … our Divine Nine … and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” Harris said, according to NPR.
Harris’ nomination sparked family discussions at Griffin’s house. She engaged with her kids about the nomination, and they shared pride in seeing a Black woman make history.
“It’s part of the reason why I step up for so many roles in my personal life, because it’s important for people to see successful African Americans taking a lead in spaces where they usually don’t see them,” said Griffin, who is co-chair of the Black employee resource group at her technology company.
The Rev. Phyllis Beaumonte, a Mount Zion Baptist Church associate minister, said Harris’ nomination comes at a turning point during a divisive time for the nation. In her eyes, Harris’ candidacy serves as a contradiction to current racial injustices. “The country is at a crossroads,” said Beaumonte. “The American people will have to decide what their values are.”
Pamela Lewis, a graduate of historically Black Savannah State University in Georgia, felt validated to see Harris, as another HBCU alumna, receive the nomination. Although she understood there was a stigma against HBCUs — they were considered inferior to other colleges — Lewis was drawn to Savannah State because she had never had a Black teacher throughout her public school education. “It was a totally different experience for me. The teachers were nourishing and supportive,” said Lewis.
For Richardson, the November election offers a chance to reconnect with familiar faces amid a challenging year. Annual homecomings at HBCUs draw thousands of alumni to campuses for food, music and reminiscing during several-day affairs that resemble a family reunion.
This year, Grambling State alumni have discussed replacing an in-person homecoming with a virtual campaign to increase voter turnout on Election Day, said Richardson.
For now, Richardson is still reveling in the pride and hope she’s carried since Harris accepted the nomination.
“Often times you plant the seeds but don’t get to see it blossom,” said Richardson. “This is one where we get to smell the roses.”