African-American sorority at UI marks centennial

African-American sorority at UI marks centennial

URBANA — One hundred years ago this week, a group of African-American women at the University of Illinois joined together to form what would be the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority's first chapter at a predominantly white public university.

At the time, African-American students were not allowed to live in university housing.

This weekend, among the many events planned for the chapter's centennial, the sorority sisters will gather in Bousfield Hall, the residence hall named after the first African-American woman to graduate from the UI, to dedicate a lounge named after the 100-year-old chapter.

Over the decades the young women in the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha would attract thousands of members, or sorors, including Maudelle Brown Bousfield, the UI graduate who would become a leader in Chicago public schools, and locals like the late Erma Bridgewater, the volunteer and community organizer, and Hester Nelson Suggs, a former principal at Booker T. Washington school in Champaign.

Many members went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators and entrepreneurs, said Jolynn Caroline, graduate advisor for the chapter and chairwoman for the centennial celebration.

"It's such a great, rich legacy," she said.

The sorority no longer has a house on the UI campus and the chapter went quiet for several years in the last decade, but a group of students revitalized the chapter last fall and this week they welcome back their sorority sisters for a centennial celebration.

Bria Purdiman, a senior whose mother was also in the sorority while at the UI, called this weekend's centennial "a pivotal moment."

"I'm looking forward to it — everything coming full circle," she said.

Purdiman and some other students last semester rallied the national office to reestablish the chapter on the UI campus after several years of it being inactive. Their current membership include 34 students studying pre-medicine, psychology, social work, broadcast journalism and more.

"It's turned out better than I could have dreamed," Caroline said. "The young ladies we have are so dynamic, so service-minded and hard working. ... I know the chapter is in excellent hands. They will hold up the legacy quite well."

Caroline, Purdiman and other women will be crossing campus this weekend dressed in the sorority colors of pink and green.

They've organized a variety of events. From the fun — a Mr. Gamma Gorgeous male beauty contest, a stroll-off dance competition — to the thoughtful, such as the discussion, "Coloring inside the lines," about separatism and colorism among races. Current members are volunteering at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, delivering flowers to the Champaign County Nursing Home and participating in a youth summit on cyberbullying at Booker T. Washington School from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

That event will be open the public and lunch will be provided.

The weekend celebration is being called "A Century of Service, A Lifetime of Sisterhood."

The focus on service is what attracted Purdiman to the sorority. Her mother joined in 1980 and as Purdiman grew up, her mother and her sorority sisters "showed me great examples of what a woman should be, what service looks like, what making a difference looks like. ... They're very selfless women."

On Saturday morning, they will gather in Bousfield Hall to dedicate a lounge named after the chapter. It will be called the Gamma Chapter Centennial Lounge.

On Saturday evening, current students, alumni and friends will convene at the I Hotel for the centennnial gala. State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights, a 1992 Gamma Chapter initiate, will deliver the keynote address. About 200 are expected, including women who graduated from the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

BACK ON CAMPUS

What: Gamma Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, University of Illinois

History: Established in 1914, the UI chapter was the third for the African-American sorority — and the first at a predominantly white university.

Gala: Saturday night's centennial celebration gala will feature State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights), a 1992 Gamma Chapter initiate.

Also: From 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, AKA alumni and current members will co-host a youth summit on cyber-bullying at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, 606 E. Grove St., Champaign.

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