On August 19, 2020, Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. When the suit-clad former prosecutor stepped up to the podium to give her speech, she commended the women who fought for the right to vote and the women in her family who nurtured her.
“My mother instilled in my sister Maya and me the values that we chart,” she said, smiling at the camera. She added, “She taught us to put family first. [Both] the family you're born into and the family you choose.”
Then, she named an important member of her chosen family.
“Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha,” she said.
Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA)—one of the nation’s oldest black sororities, whose members include luminaries like actress Phylicia Rashad and poet Maya Angelou—had a profound impact on Harris’ life. The vice president-elect joined the esteemed sorority in 1986 when she was a senior at Howard University, a federally chartered historically black university (HBCU), notes Janelle Okwodu in Vogue. But Harris’ affiliation with the group didn’t end when she graduated—her line sisters would become close friends, and many of them encouraged her on the campaign trail by making donations of exactly $19.08, a reference to the year AKA was founded.
The senator’s tribute to AKA highlighted her affection for the group. In fact, her emotional connection to the sorority runs so deep that she wore a symbol in support of her sisters—a 34” necklace bejeweled with Akoya and South Sea pearls—to her acceptance speech.
“The strand of pearls speaks to solidarity among the members,” Glenda Glover, international president of AKA, told Vanity Fair’s Daisy Shaw-Ellis in a 2020 article. “It’s a great moment for AKA. For African Americans. For women. Whether she wears pearls or not, it’s an inspiration.”
Harris often expresses this solidary and has worn pearls at important events from her college graduation photoshoot to her swearing in ceremony as a United States senator of California in 2017. For this reason, thousands of women plan to wear pearls on Inauguration Day in support of Harris.
“Pearls represent refinement and wisdom,” Glover told Shaw-Ellis. “We train young ladies to be leaders and to make sure they have the wisdom to lead…and that goes hand in hand with the true meaning of what AKA is all about.”
According to Town & Country magazine’s Jill Newman, pearls have been a symbol of AKA for decades. Its founders are referred to as the “Twenty Pearls,” and every inductee is given a badge with 20 pearls.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has 15 AKA badges, pendants, medallions and pins in its collection. The objects were acquisitioned in 2011 along with various AKA-related materials, such as books and magazines, says Michèle Gates Moresi, the museum’s supervisory curator of collections. The DC History Center gave the artifacts to the museum following their travelling exhibition, “100 Years of Service: The Alpha Kappa Alpha Story.”
Some highlights from the collections include a Pendant for an AKA Member's Diamond Anniversary, which has a salmon pink and apple green AKA seal at its center. A diamond rests at the peak of the seal, honoring diamond members who were initiated between 1938 and 1939. Another item called, Pin for Honorary Member of AKA, is festooned with three green ivy leaves, each of which is adorned with a gold letter, together spelling AKA. The triangularly arranged leaves are affixed to a gold circle border decorated with 20 opalescent pearls.
Leadership is a principle that undercuts the “Divine Nine,” a group of nine historically black fraternities and sororities, which is formally known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Most of the Divine Nine were created in the early 20th century to foster communities of like-minded individuals and to improve the world around them, as Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Sororities and Fraternities, told NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates in 2020.
“You really begin to see development of African American fraternities right around 1906,” Ross said. “A lot of this is tied basically to the idea that college moved from being the place of the elite where they would just go to be able to get a degree as part of the educated class, to a place where college was part of the social and economic movement in society.”
Ross also emphasized that these groups were important for building a sense of belonging and accountability.
“Black people, and not just black people in the Divine Nine, understand that they are not in college simply based upon their own individual characteristics. And they have a moral responsibility not just to get a degree for themselves, but to also enrich the community,” Ross said. “They recognize the structure [of mainstream society] is intentionally created to denigrate them as second-class citizens. And what they're doing typically in the work of the fraternities and sororities is trying to deconstruct that.”
Ethel Hedgeman founded AKA in 1908 at Howard University with similar aims: She wanted to create a support network for black women so that they could uplift themselves and others. According to the sorority’s website, Hedgeman and eight of her classmates formed a group that, “fostered interaction, stimulation and ethical growth among members.” Five years later, the group was incorporated, which ensured its legacy. From its inception, the group has focused on learning, providing aid for the poor and advancing civil rights. By the time Harris gave her acceptance speech last year, the group’s numbers had ballooned to more than 300,000 members.
“We weren’t just told we had the capacity to be great; we were challenged to live up to that potential,” Harris wrote of her AKA experience in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold. “There was an expectation that we would cultivate and use our talents to take on roles in leadership and have an impact on other people, in our country, and maybe even the world.”
In her acceptance speech, Harris spoke about how she wanted to have this impact, emphasizing that, “Every human being is of infinite worth deserving of compassion, dignity and respect.” She spoke about solidarity, about how it is necessary to work with others to create a better world.
Her message resonated with thousands of women across the country, and many of them plan on wearing pearls this Inauguration Day to support Harris. One Facebook group, “Wear Pearls on Jan 20th, 2021,” currently has around 375,800 members from 99 countries.
“When you think about a pearl, its created by the roughness, you know, and we have pearls in every color, shape and size,” says Hope Aloaye, founder of the Facebook group. “Pearls are linked to every woman.”
Though Aloaye is not a member of AKA, she still believes that championing other women is important and that wearing pearls can publicly display camaraderie, “[We] have women of every color, race, size, ethnicity and vocation,” Aloaye says. “We have one common goal, which is to represent women on the 20th supporting a woman.”