Guy Zephir, along with HBCU alumni and representatives from Divine...

Guy Zephir, along with HBCU alumni and representatives from Divine Nine fraternities and sororities, meets with students in Roosevelt on Thursday to share the significance of pursuing higher education. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Every Wednesday for the past three years, staff members at Roosevelt High School who attended a Historically Black College or University and belonged to a fraternity or sorority have shown off their organization's attire. 

The idea — wearing the Greek letters of Black organizations known as the Divine Nine — was to get students interested in what are known as HBCUs, colleges and universities founded starting after the Civil War when Black people were typically denied admission to most U.S. institutions of higher learning.

On Thursday, the high school took the movement a step further by holding an assembly mainly for seniors who got to listen to staff members talk about their experiences at HBCUs and encourage them to apply.

“We know the merit and worth of young people of color choosing to go to an HBCU, to build family, to build character, to build a community that’s long-lasting,” said Deborah Wortham, the superintendent of schools for Roosevelt.

She is a graduate of an HBCU, Morgan State University, where she obtained her master’s degree.

HBCU alumni and representatives from Divine Nine fraternities and sororities...

HBCU alumni and representatives from Divine Nine fraternities and sororities display their pride and symbols of their organizations at Roosevelt High School on Thursday. Among the Devine Nine are the Alpha Kappa Alphas, who wear pink and green; Delta Sigma Thetas, who wear crimson and cream; Omega Psi Phis, who wear purple and gold; and Zeta Phi Betas, who wear blue and white.

Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Roosevelt assembly was held to mark HBCU Week, which this year was recognized nationally beginning Sept. 24.

There are about 100 HBCUs in the United States, among them well-known schools such as Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Wortham noted that Vice President Kamala Harris is an HBCU graduate — she attended Howard, not far from the White House where she now works.

Vivian Isom, an administrator and teacher at the high school, said her own time at Howard “was the absolute best. I had an amazing time. The friends I met at Howard are still my friends to this day.”

She grew up in the projects in Harlem, she said, and did not hear about HBCUs until late in high school. She was immediately smitten.

Rhoderick McGhee, a teacher in Roosevelt’s life skills program who also coaches varsity track, told the students that attending Morehouse was a “life-changing experience. I had so many encounters that I probably wouldn’t have had if I didn’t go to Morehouse. I wouldn’t change my experience for anything in the world.” 

Some students said the assembly was inspiring for them, since they didn’t know a lot about the schools.

“I was excited because I’ve always been interested in HBCUs but I never took the time to actually research them,” said Nylah Lyons, 15, a sophomore who helped emcee the program. “So this really was eye-opening.”

She said it especially helped change her view of sororities. The speakers' comments were “making me think maybe I want to do this when I graduate and I’m in college.”

Kayla Chappelle, 17, a senior, said “I was really inspired by” the program, in part because she wants to attend an HBCU — especially Morgan State. She thinks getting in there “would change my life.”

Roosevelt High School’s student body has changed dramatically over the past decade, going from about 70% African American and 30% Hispanic to the opposite, Wortham said. But that isn’t a problem, she added: HBCUs are open to anyone, and more than a few Hispanic students attend them.

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