During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.
When thousands of women — most of them clad in blue and white — gathered at Howard University last month, it served as a culmination of a 100-year-old dream hatched right there on the campus of the Washington, D.C., university.
Five women, Arizona Cleaver Stemons, Pearl Anna Neal, Myrtle Tyler Faithful, Viola Tyler Goings and Fannie Pettie Watts, envisioned a campus organization for women born out of the belief that “sorority elitism and socializing should not overshadow the real mission for progressive organizations — to address societal mores, ills, prejudices, poverty, and health concerns of the day.”
There were already two sororities on campus that had growing national influence.
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On Jan. 16, 1920, the women who would come to be known as the Five Pearls created Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. This year, in Atlanta and throughout the country, the sorority is marking 2020 as their Centennial with a series of events, service projects and celebrations.
“I am excited, anxious and I have great expectations of what I envision this organization to be,” said the 25th International President Valerie Hollingsworth-Baker. “This is a culmination of 100 years. And we have been in the trenches, we are a service organization and we care about the service.”
100 years of service
Ask a Zeta woman about their organization and the first thing she’ll usually cite is service and the importance of it.
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Zeta members worldwide provide services through ElderCare, Anti-Bullying and Adopt-A-School initiatives that reach tens of thousands annually. They have donated record amounts to the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society and Women Veteran’s ROCK. Their historic memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped broaden the exposure of urban youth to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
And the organization’s Z-HOPE (Zetas Helping Other People Excel) service projects and GET ENGAGED social action programs continue to mobilize members to make a difference.
“We are just here to do the work that we know is important,” Hollingsworth-Baker said.
Among the nine black Greek organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Zeta Phi Beta was the first organization to centralize its operations in a national headquarters, first to charter a chapter in Africa, first to form auxiliary groups, and first to be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.
Hollingsworth-Baker said the organization has more than 125,000 members and 890 chapters in far-flung places like Germany, Belgium, England, Dubai, Korea, Japan and across the Caribbean.
There are 12 chapters and about 650 active members of the sorority in the Atlanta area.
And that number is continuing to grow.
When Katrina Owens took over as president of the Gwinnett County graduate chapter three years ago, she had nine members. Today, she has 67.
“It is amazing that I am alive during this time in the sorority’s history,” said Owens, a 43-year-old financial planner. “And I am proud that we are actually out there doing so many things.”
Owens joined the sorority in 1996 at Wilberforce College and was the first person in her family to pledge a sorority.
“I pledged Zeta because they were actually doing community service around campus. All of the sororities have common goals, but service is our thing,” Owens said. “The one thing that we do well is get out in the community and get our hands dirty. We like to party too, but we do our work.”
As early as 3-years-old, Zakiya Collier remembers being dragged to sorority meetings, service projects and dinners by her mother, Welanda Collier, who pledged Zeta in 2000 at Xavier University.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Emory University, Collier was a “Pearlette,” a member of the sorority’s junior auxiliary for toddlers.
“I was exposed early on to a group of people who were goal-oriented and had a true passion and commitment for community service and sisterhood,” Collier said. “I was just getting trained on becoming a woman. If you are around women who are professors, doctors and lawyers, you understand that you too can be successful. It inspired me.”
Following her mother and a sister, who pledged at Tuskegee University in 2016, Collier became a Zeta in the spring of 2019. She was the only woman at Emory to pledge at the time, and after all of her big sisters graduated, she is the lone Zeta remaining on campus.
“Although I recently joined and I am here on campus by myself, I am still able to be a part of something larger,” Collier said. “And I am always looking to extend membership to other ladies on campus.”
Collier is the type of student that Hollingsworth-Baker hopes to continue to attract to the sorority that counts Zora Neale Hurston, Elisabeth Omilami, Sheryl Underwood, Syleena Johnson and Meredith Evans, director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, as sisters.
Later this year, the sorority will award its first $100,000 scholarship to a single high school student.
“That will be a life-changing situation for someone,” Hollingsworth-Baker said. “That is what we do, change lives.”
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