By Jana Curry
100 years ago on January 13, 1913 on the campus of Howard University, 22 female students came together and founded Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Chapter. The 22 women had earlier been initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), but viewed AKA as not sufficiently engaged in community and volunteer efforts. It was felt that the AKA’s purpose focused mainly on social activities. The 22 women wanted to create an organization that was more political and national in its outlook. On February 18, 1913, articles of incorporation were filed to incorporate their new sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.
The 22 women were Osceola Macarthy Adams, Marguerite Young Alexander, Winona Cargile Alexander, Ethel Cuff Black, Bertha Pitts Campbell, Zephyr Chisom Carter, Edna Brown Coleman, Jessie McGuire Dent, Frederica Chase Dodd, Myra Davis Hemmings, Olive C Jones, Jimmie Bugg Middleton, Pauline Oberdorfer Minor, Vashti Turley Murphy, Naomi Sewell Richardson, Mamie Reddy Rose, Eliza Pearl Shippen, Florence Letcher Toms, Ethel Carr Watson, Wertie Blackwell Weaver, Madree Penn White, and Edith Motte Young. Many became leaders in women’s right and civil rights. These women were clearly leaders who took their civil responsibilities most serious. Among the accomplishments of the 22 were: directing the theater debut performance of actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier; the first social worker for New York City; officer position in the YWCA; and led the efforts to take on the Galveston, TX School District in court and won equal wages for Black teachers.
It is clear the 22 founders sought to move toward social activism and greater public service. They wanted to establish a national organization as a way to become more politically oriented and engage in even more activities to not only improve the lives of African Americans, but the civil rights of all Americans. Less than two months after the sorority’s founding, the founders began their political activism by participating in the historic 1913 Women’s Suffrage March in Washington, DC on March 3, 1913. They were the only Black women’s organization to walk the march. They believed that Black women needed the right to vote, to protect against sexual exploitation, to promote quality education, to be a viable part of the work force, and to empower their race. This March represented Delta’s first public act as a sorority.
Black female marchers were subject to racism, not only by people who were opposed to the enfranchisement of women, but by the event’s organizers who did not support suffrage for African American women. Even with this criticism, none of the 22 regretted their participation. Founder Florence Letcher Toms commented “We marched that day in order that women might come into their own, because we believed that women not only needed an education, but they needed a broader horizon in which they may use that education. And the right to vote would give them that privilege.”
In 1914, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. began their expansion, establishing their second chapter, Beta Chapter, at Wilberforce University, and their third chapter, Gamma Chapter, at University of Pennsylvania. These chapters were followed by chapters at the University of Iowa and Ohio State University in 1919. The first graduate chapters were authorized in 1920 at the Delta’s Second National Convention with the first graduate members in New York City and Washington, D.C. In 1921, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. became the first Black Greek-lettered organization to be established on the Pacific Coast with the chartering of Kappa Chapter at the University of California.
In 1954, Delta Sigma Theta was the first African- American organization to purchase a national headquarters site. Their headquarters is located at 1703, 1705, 1707, and 1709 New Hampshire Ave, NW, in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood. In addition to serving as the national headquarters, the building houses the Delta Research and Education Foundation (DREF) and national staff and records.
In 1925, the sorority began to organize its chapters into geographical regions. Initially, four regions were established: Eastern, Midwest, Far West, and Southern. Seven years later, the Central Region was established. In 1960, the Mid-Atlantic region was created. North and South Carolina left the Southern Region to become part of the new South Atlantic Region. A regional director and a collegiate regional representative, who provides a voice for the sorority’s college-based members, lead each of the seven regions.
A sisterhood of more than 300,000 predominantly Black college-educated women, the sorority currently has over 1,000 chapters located in the United States, England, Japan (Tokyo and Okinawa), Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and the Republic of Korea.
Delta Sigma Theta has provided assistance to address the challenges faced by people in the United States and internationally, as well. Over the years, the sorority has established programs to provide and improve education, health care, and international development, and to strengthen the African-American family.
Delta Sigma Theta provides public service initiatives through the Five-Point Program Thrust. Delta Sigma Theta uses the Five-Point Thrust as an organizing structure as it creates programs to benefit the African-American community. The Five-Point Programmatic Thrust, which was established in 1955, includes:
1. Economic Development;
2. Educational Development;
3. International Awareness and Involvement;
4. Physical and Mental Health; and
5. Political Awareness and Involvement.
Today, Delta Sigma Theta is the largest African-American Greek lettered sorority in the world. Membership in Delta Sigma Theta is open to any woman who meets the membership requirements, regardless of religion, race, or nationality. Women may join through undergraduate chapters at a college or university, or after acquiring a college degree through an alumnae chapter.
With 100 years of service and accomplishments set forth by the 22 collegiate founders, the members of Delta Sigma Theta are celebrating their centennial anniversary – a tremendous hallmark for any organization. The sorority launched an international 22-city torch tour starting on January 1, 2013, in Los Angles, California.
The members of Delta Sigma Theta began its celebration by participating with a float entitled “Transforming Communities through Sisterhood and Service” in the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade. The torch will visit the hometowns of the Sorority’s living Past National Presidents, current Executive Committee members, and s Tokyo, Japan and Bermuda, the locals of international chapters.
Because Washington, DC is where the sorority began, the District has been visited by thousands of members for various events during their centennial. The first large event, which hosted more than 12,000 members, was for the sorority’s Founders Day in January. The second large number of members was in March when the sorority reenacted the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March, bringing about 30,000 members to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to remember and bring awareness as their Founders did 100 years ago.
As the torch tour comes to its final destination in Washington, D.C., members culminated their centennial at the 51st National Convention. At that time, the torch was passed to the National President, signifying the start of the National Convention which took place on July 11th thru July 17th. There was a swarm of women in red and white attire, the sorority’s colors, throughout the District. It has been estimated that more than 60,000 members were in DC from all over the world.
The July gathering, which comes during a month in which D.C. doesn’t typically host a lot of citywide meetings, is expected to generate $73.7 million in economic impact for the District’s economy. More than a dozen members of Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington offered reduced meals to members in town for the convention. Even the D.C. Council has joined in the celebration, declaring the intersection of 17th Street NW and New Hampshire Avenue NW, location of national headquarters, as Delta Sigma Theta Way.
To learn more about Delta Sigma Theta sorority visit http://www.deltasigmatheta.org