Traci Phillips Published

HBCU Greek Organizations Carry On The Tradition Of Stepping During WVSU’s Annual Homecoming Step Show

More than a dozen people pose for a photo on a basketball court. They're smiling, wearing mostly red, black, or white shirts. All are women.
Members of the Charleston-Institute Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. pose during West Virginia State University’s Homecoming step show. Sorority members are dressed in crimson and cream, the sorority’s colors.
Photo courtesy of WVSU’s Alpha Delta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

This story originally aired in the Feb. 25, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Inside the Appalachian mountains of Institute, West Virginia lies one of the nation’s leading public institutions of higher education for African Americans. In 1891, West Virginia State University (WVSU) was founded, and it is full of rich history and cultural traditions. One of the school’s biggest traditions each year is Homecoming. The annual week-long celebration is filled with on- and off-campus activities. The step show is always a crowd favorite.  

Folkways Reporter Traci Phillips recently attended the 2023 West Virginia State University Homecoming step show with her 11-year-old daughter, Jayli, and has this story of a tradition that is common at most Homecomings at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Inside the old WVSU gymnasium, the space is filled with sounds of clapping, stomping, chanting, music and audience enthusiasm. Members of the public are in the bleachers surrounding the basketball court where the stage is set up. 

College students representing each Greek organization on campus take turns entering the gym to a selected song or chant. Along with the undergrads are alumni from the 1960s through present day. After their grand entrance, the students take to the stage and perform a three- to five-minute routine. Everyone wears Greek paraphernalia — hats, boots, pins and sweatshirts — in their organization’s colors.

“You got Delta Sigma Theta walking out right now,” Jayli announces.

Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that was founded in 1913, is just one of the sororities that is stepping today. As an HBCU graduate and Delta member myself, I thought it was important for my daughter, Jayli, to know this history and to experience this culture. Her being here is a rite of passage. Both of Jayli’s grandmothers are WVSU graduates. I am hoping she will one day attend an HBCU and be a Delta, too.

“Let’s see, I think they are about to stomp and clap again,” Jayli says. “I think they’re all helping each other out. That’s what I see.”

This is all part of a long tradition at HBCUs. The Homecoming step show is a way for African American fraternities and sororities to express love and pride for their respective organizations to a broader community. It is also a way for alumni and community members to reunite.

Kenny Hale of Charleston, West Virginia is at the step show today. He is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and was initiated during the 1970s at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

“Homecoming is when you see all this crowd come in and you get to see the people you knew and went to school with,” Hale says. “And just the enthusiasm that an HBCU brings with the power and the fellowship of scholarly people.”

Addison Hall of Cincinnati, Ohio is an alumni of WVSU and is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He says the Homecoming step show is a reunion.

“It’s a lot of people that you haven’t seen in a while showing back up, being in the same space that y’all shared and created all these memories at,” Hall says.

A crowd of people stand in front of a stage, as men are seen doing a step show.
Members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity performing during the 2023 WVSU Homecoming step show.

Photo Credit: Traci Phillips/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Shanequa Smith is from New York. She went to WVSU and now lives in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. 

“I’m Greek, and so it’s just a joyous time, and stepping is part of our history. It goes way back. And so this is a part of that, where we get to stay connected,” Smith says. “And it’s always good to see different people actually taking up that throne of stepping.”

The origin and roots of stepping stems from African cultural traditions. Stepping can be described as a synchronized movement using stomping and clapping. During the 20th century, America’s Black fraternities and sororities played a unique part in the reemergence of stepping on college campuses. Almost three million members strong, America’s nine Black sororities and fraternities are part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, also known as the Divine Nine. 

Up next to perform is Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority that was founded in 1908.

“They are walking out with little kids and everybody’s holding up their pinky for the AKAs,” Jayli says. “They are rockin’ this … They have a brown outfit with their state facts on it.”

One of today’s performers is Ashlyn Bell, a Delta Sigma Theta Sorority member from Charleston, West Virginia. Bell is a junior majoring in elementary education. She says part of why she joined a sorority was her memories of going to step shows.

“Growing up in West Virginia, I came to Homecoming all the time and I just always seen the community. Actually, my mom is a Delta, so I’m a legacy. And we would come down and watch the step shows and I just remember really enjoying it,” Bell says. “It was lit, it was just over-the-top loud. I just thought it was so fun and so cool. Just couldn’t keep my eyes off what they were doing, how they’re moving with their hands, and jumping and screaming. I just thought it was amazing.”

This year, Bell performed by herself, representing her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. She came out to the 1970s hit song, “Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn, and early 2000s hit song “Knuck If You Buck” by Crime Mobb, doing a move called “the duck.” To do the duck, Bell says you have to, “bend your knees, hands out, head turned slightly up just a little bit. You know, you just lean into it.”

Bell wears black shorts, a red vest with Delta designs on it, sunglasses and spray-painted red boots. “The boots are actually traditional, something that past Alpha Delta chapter members have done for the step show,” Bell says. “So I’m gonna continue the tradition.” 

A young woman poses for a photo. Her hair is dark and pulled back. She wears sunglasses, a red vest, black shorts, and red shoes.
Ashlyn Bell poses before her performance at the WVSU Homecoming step show. Her hand signal represents the shape of the letter “D” for Delta in the Greek alphabet.

Photo courtesy of Kristy Lyles-Bell

Clothing and Greek paraphernalia are a big part of the step show. Debra Hart is the director of Equity Programs at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and was initiated during the 1970s on the campus of West Virginia State University.

“When we crossed line in 1976, we all had to get a white suit made with a red shirt. And we got gloves and we got boots to match,” Hart says. “All 12 of us had a cane, and we were going to tap the canes and cross them back and forth.”

Kids are also a part of the community at Homecoming. Hart says she remembers going to a step show as young as eight years old.

“My grandmother would dress us in black and gold, because we’re all going to State’s Homecoming. When I was ten years old, I remember aggravating my family to stay for the step show,” Hart says.

A family of five is shown posing for a photo. One man and one woman. Two girls and one boy. They smile for the camera, and their arms are wrapped around each other.
Folkways Reporter Traci Phillips (back middle), poses with her family during the West Virginia State University step show. Family members include (from left to right): Brother, Danny Adkins — member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity — and his daughter, Ellie Adkins; son, True Phillips; and daughter, Jayli Phillips.

Photo courtesy of LaQwanza Jackson

After the step show, I asked my daughter, Jayli, what she thought of her experience.

“I thought the step show was really empowering and motivating. The people out there stepping looked really good,” Jayli says. “I loved it, it looked like a fun thing to do. I can’t wait to get there and do it myself one day.”


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.