Sigma Gamma Rho celebrates a century of ‘Greater Service’

Dr. Natasha Travis and Eva King, members of the Atlanta chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., confer with each other at the sorority's Covid-19 vaccination drive-thru at West Mitchell CME Church in Vine City on Feb. 19, 2022. Dr. Travis is the chair of the chapter's Covid-19 response committee. The sorority is celebrating 100 years in 2022.

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Dr. Natasha Travis and Eva King, members of the Atlanta chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., confer with each other at the sorority's Covid-19 vaccination drive-thru at West Mitchell CME Church in Vine City on Feb. 19, 2022. Dr. Travis is the chair of the chapter's Covid-19 response committee. The sorority is celebrating 100 years in 2022.

How the youngest of the Black Greek sororities, founded in the heart of Klan country, is still making a difference

In 1922, just seven years after the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, there were fewer places in America was devoted to them as Indiana.

By some estimates, more than 300,000 people or about one-third of all native-born Indiana males were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Butler University, in Indianapolis at the time had a policy that limited the enrollment of Black students to 10 a year.

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Members of the Alpha Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. at Butler University in 1924. Sigma Gamma Rho, founded in 1922, is the youngest of the four Black Greek sororities.

Credit: Sigma Gamma Rho

Members of the Alpha Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. at Butler University in 1924. Sigma Gamma Rho, founded in 1922, is the youngest of the four Black Greek sororities.

Credit: Sigma Gamma Rho

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Members of the Alpha Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. at Butler University in 1924. Sigma Gamma Rho, founded in 1922, is the youngest of the four Black Greek sororities.

Credit: Sigma Gamma Rho

Credit: Sigma Gamma Rho

ExploreGallery: The Seven Pearls of Sigma Gamma Rho

And those students often had to walk past the home of the state’s grand dragon D.C. Stephenson, who lived next to the campus.

It was in that tumultuous climate that seven Butler University students and educators gathered to form the Alpha Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. on Nov. 12, 1922, to fight injustice and racism while emphasizing sisterhood, service and scholarship.

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Donna Scott, president of the Atlanta alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Donna Scott, president of the Atlanta alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

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Donna Scott, president of the Atlanta alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

ExploreFormer Sigma Gamma Rho president's dedication to education forged through sorority

At 100, Sigma Gamma Rho is the youngest of the four Black Greek-letter sororities, following Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta. Along with the five predominantly Black fraternities, they all make up the Divine Nine.

“All of the Divine Nine sororities started with a similar premise because women wanted to make things better for our communities and people,” said Donna Scott, president of the Eta Sigma Alumni Chapter of the sorority here in Atlanta. “Our seven founders formed our organization at a time and place where it wasn’t really well received. But these women had the strength and courage to do so. They just wanted to come together and lay the groundwork for the betterment of our community.”

But each of those sororities was founded in the relative comfort of Howard University’s all-Black climate.

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Sylvia Cook, who pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in 1989 at Cheyney University, takes a break from registering Vine City residents in line to get vaccinated at a Covid-19 drive-thru event sponsored by the sorority at West Mitchell CME Church on Feb. 19, 2022.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Sylvia Cook, who pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in 1989 at Cheyney University, takes a break from registering Vine City residents in line to get vaccinated at a Covid-19 drive-thru event sponsored by the sorority at West Mitchell CME Church on Feb. 19, 2022.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Sylvia Cook, who pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in 1989 at Cheyney University, takes a break from registering Vine City residents in line to get vaccinated at a Covid-19 drive-thru event sponsored by the sorority at West Mitchell CME Church on Feb. 19, 2022.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Under the motto, “Greater Service, Greater Progress,” Sigma Gamma Rho is the only sorority founded on a predominantly white campus.

It is also the only sorority founded by professional women—Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian White Marbury, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Hattie Mae Annette Dulin Redford, Bessie Mae Downey Rhoades Martin and Cubena McClure—not students.

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In this undated photograph, five of the seven founders of Sigma Gamma Rho, known as Pearls, gather for a reunion. Left to right: Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian Marbury, Nannie Mae Johnson, Hattie Redford, Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little.

In this undated photograph, five of the seven founders of Sigma Gamma Rho, known as Pearls, gather for a reunion. Left to right: Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian Marbury, Nannie Mae Johnson, Hattie Redford, Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little.

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In this undated photograph, five of the seven founders of Sigma Gamma Rho, known as Pearls, gather for a reunion. Left to right: Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian Marbury, Nannie Mae Johnson, Hattie Redford, Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little.

“From my understanding of the history of our sorority, our seven founders had a dream of greater service, greater progress through higher education. This would definitely help our community at that time many young people did not understand the importance of higher education” Scott said. “So we banded together to do programs and encourage people to get their education. And we are still doing that today.”

Today there are more than 100,000 members of the sorority, often called SGRho.

Olympic Silver medal swimmer Maritza Correia; rapper MC Lyte; Academy Award-winner Hattie McDaniel; and Sandra Bland, whose 2015 death while in police custody helped spark the Black Lives Matter Movement, are members of the sorority.

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Sigma Gamma Rho member and Olympic silver medalist Maritza Correia McClendon coaches children as part of the sorority's Swim 1922 Program. McClendon was a 27-time All-American at the University of Georgia, winning 11 NCAA national titles.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Sigma Gamma Rho member and Olympic silver medalist Maritza Correia McClendon coaches children as part of the sorority's Swim 1922 Program. McClendon was a 27-time All-American at the University of Georgia, winning 11 NCAA national titles.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

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Sigma Gamma Rho member and Olympic silver medalist Maritza Correia McClendon coaches children as part of the sorority's Swim 1922 Program. McClendon was a 27-time All-American at the University of Georgia, winning 11 NCAA national titles.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

The sorority has partnered with the March of Dimes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Sister’s Network, USA Swimming and USA Track & Field to fund initiatives like the Hattie McDaniel Cancer Awareness and Health Program; March for Babies; and Swim 1922, a water safety program to educate and encourage underserved communities to learn the importance of swimming.

On a recent chilly Sunday, a group of SGRhos from Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and various alumni chapters gathered at Cleopas R. Johnson Park for a service project.

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Sigma Gamma Rho Covid-19 Drive-Thru Event. Feb. 19, 2022

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Sigma Gamma Rho Covid-19 Drive-Thru Event. Feb. 19, 2022

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Sigma Gamma Rho Covid-19 Drive-Thru Event. Feb. 19, 2022

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

All dressed in various forms of Royal Blue and Gold, as they carefully cleaned up the four-acre park located down the street from the Atlanta University Center.

It has been that way for Christina Burrell for a long time. She became affiliated with the sorority at the age of 12 in East St. Louis when she joined the organization’s youth affiliate, the Rhoer Club, which teaches life skills to young girls.

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Christina Burrell, president of Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Christina Burrell, president of Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Christina Burrell, president of Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

“If not for that club, I would not be here today,” said Burrell, now a senior at CAU and the president of the sorority’s Phi Chapter on campus. “Our founders were seven women who wanted to just do more. They wanted to show everyone that they could achieve more. That has resonated with me.”

Atlanta chapter president Scott joined the sorority on March 19, 1990, through the “Audacious” Alpha Iota at Savannah State University as a sophomore. She likes to be specific and mention that she joined the sorority at exactly 4:38 p.m.

“Because it was such a momentous time for us and I was so proud that we became members of the organization,” Scott said. “The time reminds me that there was a purpose for joining.”

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Donna Scott, far right, pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in the winter of 1990 at Savannah State University.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Donna Scott, far right, pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in the winter of 1990 at Savannah State University.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

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Donna Scott, far right, pledged Sigma Gamma Rho in the winter of 1990 at Savannah State University.

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Credit: Courtesy Donna Scott

Although her mother had gone to college, Scott was a military brat and entered Savannah State with no concept of Greek life.

She said Sigma Gamma Rho spoke to her.

“The service initiatives that were being done in Savannah like addressing teen pregnancy and mentoring the youth, were impressive to me,” Scott said. “I thought I could help. And the ladies seemed to be genuine. I felt like I belonged there.”

Scott is now in her first term as president of Atlanta’s Eta Sigma Chapter, the largest chapter in the Southeastern Region with more than 230 sorors.

Ironically, the CAU Chapter, one of the oldest chapters in the country, is now one of the smallest chapters in the area with only three members: Burrell, Vice President Diovion Gallimore, and Secretary Alexis Reed.

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Alexis Reed, a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Alexis Reed, a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Alexis Reed, a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at Clark Atlanta University.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

But that doesn’t bother Burrell, who is looking to build the chapter through service.

“Just because we are small, we are here to show our campus that we are still here to get things done,” Burrell said, still filling her blue garbage bag with trash. “That is what is so breathtaking about us. This is 100 years, but this is just the beginning. This sorority will be around for hundreds of years and what we do today matters.”

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