Biden Administration

From Howard to VP: Kamala Harris' Alpha Kappa Alpha Sisters Keep Her Centered

She was a Howard University senior working toward a career in public service, mature thanks to her four years on campus and committed to strengthening the bond with her line sisters 

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The year was 1986. Howard University was bursting with the voracious energy of student minds protesting apartheid in South Africa, rallying for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and launching themselves into service projects and campus life. 

Not least among them were the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Their chapter that year would boast 38 Black young women, eager to form a sisterhood since the chapter had not had a line — or new membership intake — the year prior. They were the 38 Jewels of Iridescent Splendor. Thirty-eight line sisters.

Although some of Harris' line sisters wanted to attend the Inauguration in person, they'll have to watch from their homes instead. But they say no matter where they're watching, they will be together in their hearts. News4's Shawn Yancy reports.

One of those gems is now remembered, among other things, for an infectious laugh and demeanor that earned her the name C3 — cool, calm and collected. 

“As some of us were younger, we could get a little frazzled as we were given these tasks that were almost impossible to complete. She was the one who could kind of step back and reel us all in,” Lorri Saddler remembered.  

She was a Howard senior working toward a career in public service, mature thanks to her four years on campus and committed to strengthening the bond with her line sisters. She was none other than Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

A Howard University yearbook photo from 1986 captures the AKA line sisters.

Fast forward 34 years, and Benita Stephens remembers clapping her hands and bursting, “Look at my line sister!” while watching Harris take the stage to Mary J. Blige in her stylish white suit to declare that she and President-elect Joe Biden had clinched the victory in the presidential election. 

“I said, ‘Go ahead and strut your stuff.’ I was so elated. I was clapping my hands, thankful that this journey had ended the way it had,” Stephens said.

That journey to becoming the first Black and first South Asian vice president was one Harris’ line sisters were happy to support.

The AKA line sisters of Howard University 1986. Kamala Harris is pictured here in the center in a black pantsuit.

“We are sort of a fine-tuned machine. We really take our pledge to heart and we help each other. Even for her presidency, and then for the Biden-Harris ticket, we buckled down. We did a lot of voter registration support and things to help her and help our country get to the place where we are today,” Karyn Upshaw said. 

And although one would imagine that the journey would keep the vice president-elect too busy for reunions, her line sisters say that wasn’t the case. 

“We talked to her on Friday,” Stephens said through a smile. “We were so excited when she popped in the room via Zoom. We talked about where she is now and what she’s doing.”

Karyn Upshaw
Karyn Upshaw (closest to the camera in a pink beanie), Debbie-Anne Reese (wearing a pink mask with green dots) and Darla Washington (in a solid pink mask) support their line sister Kamala Harris when she and Joe Biden announce their presidential win in Wilmington, DE.

What Harris is doing is preparing for what the sisters know is a long road ahead.

“We have so much to get done in this country,” Debbie-Anne Reese said. “Vice President-elect Kamala and President-elect Biden are the ticket that we need. They are the cure that we need to help move us forward. So I was thrilled in that regard of course, but also just thrilled because this is my line sister.” 

The person you see is her. She’s genuine, and she’s also very joyful. That laugh of hers is genuine.

Debbie-Anne Reese

While the sisters reflected on Harris’ historic win, they kept coming back to the mission of AKA, and the sorority’s success in preparing them for life.

“This is like the culmination of what our founders could have ever dreamed of. She is the evidence of their hope and their dream for beginning this organization back in 1908,” Saddler said. “I think this moment shines a bright light on historically Black colleges and universities. These institutions were founded with the mission of educating the formerly enslaved ... These institutions are certainly still relevant, and the relevance, I think, is only underscored by the accomplishment of our Vice President-elect, our line sister, Kamala Harris.”

On that Zoom call with Harris, the sisters said she told them how the bonds she had formed at AKA were her center. 

“I think all of us feel that way when we are together. It is this sort of special energy and I commend her because she has been so busy, and she always takes time to come back to center,” Upshaw said. 

Pictured: Lorri Saddler (left) and Kamala Harris (right).

Harris, with her infectious laugh and level approach to life, has much to offer the country, the sisters said. 

“I have had to call on her a couple of times for some matters, and she always stops, and she always listens and she always acts. So I would certainly want people to know that she is going to work hard for the people,” Stephens said. 

Reese agreed, and said Harris moves authentically. 

“The person you see is her. She’s genuine, and she’s also very joyful. That laugh of hers is genuine,” Reese said. “She believes in what she’s doing, and we are all in for a treat I think as she works to support Joe Biden.”

Pictured: Benita Stephens (left) and Kamala Harris (right).

From their days at Howard to the beginning of Harris’ vice presidency, the sisters radiate love, support and resolve for their chapter, goodwill that extends, of course, to Harris. 

“Wherever she is across the country, when we can be there, we’re there,” Saddler said. “If she can just steal a few moments with us, it’s kind of like … a moment for her to just kind of be away, remember, reminisce on this warm feeling, knowing that she’s got our love and support wherever she goes.”

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