Phylicia Rashād pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Howard University in Washington, DC in 1968, yet it took narrating a new documentary about the organization before she learned some of its earliest history.
“When you pledge a fraternity or a sorority, you learn the names of the founders and the year in which it was founded,” she told CNN. “But the detailed history that’s in this documentary, we did not learn that as pledgees.”
“Twenty Pearls” tells the story of the first Black sorority, which was founded in 1908 by nine women enrolled at Howard University.
The AKAs, as members are called, currently number than 300,000 throughout the world. Along with Rashād, the organization’s membership includes the first African-American female astronaut, Mae C. Jemison and the current Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris.
Vice President Harris is among the women interviewed for the film by director Deborah Riley Draper.
“It’s an honor to elevate the stories of Black women who have influenced American society using the tools I know and love,” Draper, who is also a member of the sorority, recently told writer Nsenga K. Burton.
The sisterhood among the women has been pivotal in the lives of many of its members, Rashād said.
The esteemed actress pledged during a tumultuous time period that included the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose wife Coretta Scott King was also an AKA.
Rashād said that one of the things she loves about the documentary is that is focuses on the sorority being at the forefront of so much in history, including a healthcare initiative they started in Mississippi during the Great Depression that went on to help vaccinate Black people who were suffering under Jim Crow laws.
“With this documentary to learn about the activism among women back in 1923, I’m talking about political activism,” she said. “In the Women’s Suffrage Movement — not being asked to participate — however, that did not deter the women [of AKA] from action.”
“The women were never idle,” Rashād said of those original members and those who came after them in the early years. “They were very, very active socially, politically, moving for education, moving for equal rights, moving for equality. Not just sitting around complaining about it, but showing up.”
That continues today as the country finds itself continuing to wrestle with a racial reckoning.
Rashād said her sorority was founded with “the intent to uplift” and that mission persists.
“We will persist in delivering the good,” she said.