When Helen Butler arrived on the campus of the University of Georgia in the winter of 1967, she had to go searching to find other black students.
It was six years after Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault integrated the campus, but still fewer than 100 black students attended the school.
“My first roommate was white, and I never saw anybody black in any of my classes,” said Butler, the executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. “So you had to go to the student center to see someone who looked like you.”
The few black women on campus weren’t being invited to rush any of the long-standing sororities at UGA. So, in 1969, Butler and seven other women formed their own, chartering UGA’s first black sorority, the Zeta Psi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.
This weekend in Athens, the Zeta Psi chapter, which has initiated more than 600 black women into the sorority, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
To commemorate, members have established a scholarship fund and will hold a 6.9K race and community fair.
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“We did a lot of things to work together as black people on campus,” said Butler, who graduated in 1971. “And having a chapter of Delta Sigma Theta brought the women together for collective action.”
To date, the chapter has raised close to $140,000 through its Fortitude 1969 Fund, which has been matched by the university, to provide financial assistance to students and increase diversity on campus.
“We have a unique opportunity to lead the campus toward funding need-based scholarships for students,” said Neicy Wells, president of the anniversary committee and 1994 initiate. “It’s a win-win for all involved because we get to celebrate our wonderful sisterhood by paying it forward and helping UGA students.”
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About 8% of UGA’s student body is black, which is among the lowest of major public universities in the state.
"Things have changed, but things haven't changed that much," Butler said.
Butler, a Madison native, had been offered a full ride at Spelman, but turned it down because she “wanted to see what it was like at UGA.”
Butler and the women who formed the chapter with her — Carolyn Baylor Reed, Carrie Gantt, Beverly Johnson Hood, Cheryl Walton Jordan, Barbara Atkinson Moss, Deborah Bailey Poole and Bendel Love Rucker – would come to be known as the “Great Eight.”
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“It’s incredibly humbling to realize that, before I was even born, eight women, who were undoubtedly in the minority at a mostly white University of Georgia, banded together to form a sisterhood,” said 1995 initiate Jackie Holness. “Being a Delta at UGA provided a safe space for me as a minority, and it wouldn’t have been there if these eight women didn’t exist.”
On Saturday, the chapter will host their “iRun & Walk for the Health of It” 6.9K race at 8:30 a.m. at Trail Creek Park. A health fair will be held in conjunction with the race, and proceeds will benefit the Fortitude 1969 Fund.
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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com