This is an occasional AJC Sepia series that looks at black Greek letter organizations
There is a story behind every Delta who makes a lifetime commitment to our beloved sisterhood, but let me start with some of the facts about Delta that explain that dedicated loyalty.
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was founded as an organization on Howard University’s campus in 1913 by a group of 22 collegiate “rebels” who broke ties from one of our other sister organizations because they had a thirst for more involvement in social action and decided to take “road less traveled” that Robert Frost would write about a few years later.
They saw nothing wrong with the organization from which they came and loved but, because they differed in their focus on social action, they broke ties to form another sorority of those with like minds.
To show evidence of that fact, their first public act as a sisterhood was to march with the white suffragettes in Washington on March 3, 1913.
Now understand, even if their white sisters got the right to vote, they still had no chance for that same privilege. None-the-less, they saw a cause for which women should stand and, even though it would be a daring act for them in 1913, they convinced a campus advisor at Howard University to be their chaperone so that they could participate and live their vision for the support of social causes.
To define the significance of their act, let me take you on a trip back to 1913 – the era in which these young college women lived.
In the United States, African Americans made up about 11 percent of the population -- almost 10 million people.
Fifty-one of those people were publicly lynched that year.
Even though 1913 saw celebrations all over the country for the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, on April 11 President Woodrow Wilson’s administration began government-wide federal segregation of work places, rest rooms and lunchrooms.
One step forward.
Two steps back.
And, interestingly enough, 1913 also marked the death of Harriet Tubman and the birth of Rosa Parks.
One female civil rights legend beginning where the other left off.
Even in those times, these young women decided to risk their lives and very few liberties to be political activists breaking ties with the establishment to form something new and focus on a cause whose realization for them, at that time, could only be a dream.
Delta continues to actively engage in its five-point programmatic thrust with 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters located in the United States, Japan (Tokyo and Okinawa), Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Republic of Korea.
From those 22 Founders, and the strength of our beginning, Delta has produced educator and presidential advisor Mary McCloud Bethune and civil and woman’s rights activist Mary Church Terrell.
Our incomparable congresswomen Shirley Chisholm, and Barbara Jordan and the four black women in Congress who call themselves our sorors: the honorable Yvette Clarke of New York, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, and the two dynamo’s from Ohio Joyce Beatty and immediate past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (who happens to be also have been Delta’s 21st National President) Marcia Fudge.
We claim dance legend Judith Jamison; polio survivor Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win not one, but three Olympic gold medals; and Brigadier General Hazel Johnson Brown.
Legendary singers Lena Horne and Natalie Cole; journalist Soledad O’Brien; the late Ruby Dee and actresses Cecily Tyson, Angela Bassett, Suzanne Douglas Cobb and Daphne Maxwell Reid.
Delta’s first executive director Patricia Roberts Harris was the first black woman to be appointed ambassador to a European country.
And not one or two, but all three of the African-American women to serve as United States surgeon generals -- Jocelyn Elders, Audrey Forbes Manley and Regina Benjamin -- are Deltas.
Also in civic service are one of our national treasures, National Council of Negro Women’s founding CEO Dorothy I. Height and the former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.
The indomitable civil rights icon Frankie Muse Freeman is a Delta as well as the current phenomenal United States Attorney General Loretta Elizabeth Lynch…. whew!!!!
Closer to home, Delta’s outstanding community leaders include former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin; Carolyn Young; Coca-Cola executive and current chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women Ingrid Saunders Jones; Big Brothers-Big Sisters President-CEO Janice McKenzie-Crayton; former Girls, Inc. CEO Janet Street; Juanita Baranco, the executive vice president of Baranco Automotive Group; Georgia State Rep. Dee Dawkins Haigler; and the late Pota Coston, who was the first African American elected to the Fayette County Commission.
And the list goes on to many movers and shakers right here in our fair city.
As the largest African-American sorority/minority female-owned corporation in the world with over 250,000 initiated members, Delta Sigma Theta has 16 alumnae and collegiate chapters in the Metro-Atlanta area with approximately 5,000 active members working in social action and community service in every walk of life.
The power of Delta was evident in 2002 when Atlanta hosted (and I chaired) our national convention of 15,000 Deltas at the World Congress Center seating the facility’s largest sit-down dinner served to that date.
So back to why I made Delta a lifetime commitment.
The way Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. realizes its mission speaks to me!
When I was a college freshman umpteen years ago, Delta Vivian Lawyer approached me on my white campus to talk about Delta Sigma Theta and the Epsilon Omicron chapter.
I jumped at the chance to meet other black women at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.
You see my dad was a civil rights activist in the 1950’s and 1960’s. When I was growing up in northern Ohio my family integrated everything in my town: our neighborhood, our church and our schools. As a matter of fact, when my father died in the 1999, he integrated the local cemetery where he was buried!
He believed that prejudice was born of ignorance and if we just learned to know one another as individuals we could end racism.
But I have to tell you, growing up as the “only one” in most places and going where you aren’t sure you are wanted day-after-day from the age of eight makes for an interesting childhood. But that’s another story altogether!
As I learned more about Delta this sorority did two things for me: First it gave me a group of Black women with whom to connect and find my identity, and secondly, Delta reinforced the values of social activism and community service I had known all my life.
Delta spoke to me!
When I raised my hand to take that oath, I knew Delta Sigma Theta was the right sorority for me.
It is a decision of which I am proud and I have not regretted in my 48 years of membership.
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