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By Paula J. This history of the largest block women's organization in the United States is not only the story of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority DST , but also tells of the increasing involvement of black women in the political, social, and economic affairs of America. Founded at a time when liberal arts education was widely seen as either futile, dangerous, or impractical for blacks, especially women, DST is, in Giddings's words, a "compelling reflection of block women's aspirations for themselves and for society.
Giddings notes that unlike other organizations with racial goals, Delta Sigma Theta was created to change and benefit individuals rather than society.
As a sorority, it was formed to bring women together as sisters, but at the some time to address the divisive, often class-related issues confronting black women in our society. There is, in Giddings's eyes, a tension between these goals that makes Delta Sigma Theta a fascinating microcosm of the struggles of black women and their organizations. In Search of Sisterhood is full of compelling, fascinating anecdotes told by the Deltas themselves, and illustrated with rare early photographs of the Delta women.
Canady, the national president of Delta Sigma Theta. She congratulated me on the book—and then offered me two propositions. It was a gesture of support, something that Black sororities are well known for. And Delta, especially, has had a long tradition of supporting women in the arts. The second proposition was for me to write a history of the organization in time for its seventy-fifth anniversary in The fact that its membership also included significant historic and contemporary figures such as Mary Church Terrell, Sadie T.
Alexander, Patricia Roberts Harris, Barbara Jordan, Leontyne Price, and many other women who were leaders and pioneers in their fields, made it more so. As a college-based group, its history also would shed light on the experience of Black women in higher education—a driving force in our history. Education, then, was the dividing line between a life of drudgery and crude exploitation, and the greater quality of life and status derived from professional work.
Like other Greek-letter groups, Delta Sigma Theta was founded by young college women with the idea of creating social bonds or a sense of sisterhood among its members. Its primary focus, then, has been on transforming the individual.
At the same time, however, its founding in , a time of both racial and feminist ferment, also imbued it with a secondary purpose: to have an impact on the political issues of the day, notably the woman suffrage movement. By , the organization made its first public pronouncement against racism and four years later created a Vigilance Committee whose purpose was to enlighten the growing membership about political and legislative issues and thus prepare them to become agents of change.
This aspect of Delta distinguished its beginnings from the other sororities, both Black and White, that preceded it. It also makes contemporary Black sororities, in general, different from most of their White counterparts.
The history of Delta is better understood when seen in the light of the principles that govern social movement organizations. For example, they must be able to adapt to changing environments: in this case, the ever changing exigencies of race relations and the attitudes toward women. Consequently, Delta has had to alter its purposes and goals throughout the years—and must continue to do so—as well as its internal structure to accommodate them. This makes the Black sorority a particularly dynamic organization.
At the same time, however, changes cannot occur too abruptly or without the consensus of an increasingly diverse constituency. Social movement organizations are also dependent on the attitudes of the larger society toward both the movement that they represent and the organization itself. The ideal condition for organizational growth is a strong sentiment base with a low societal hostility toward the movement and the organization.
The sorority, I knew, would also be an interesting subject to study because it is an exclusive or closed membership organization. Undergraduate members must be in college. Against the long experience of discrimination and exclusion in the broader society, and color and class distinctions within the race itself, debates regarding the various criteria for membership have, historically, been particularly emotional and intense.
Despite the inherently controversial nature of an exclusive Black organization, it also has certain advantages. For one thing, a closed membership group is better able to take on new goals.
This is even more true for an organization with solidarity incentives, one that emphasizes coherence, or, in this case, sisterhood, within its membership. And because the focus of its leaders is mobilizing its membership for tasks—rather than attracting members through a charismatic leadership style—there is greater diversity in the kind of women who lead the organization, and more emphasis on getting those tasks done.
While there was no question that the sorority had historic importance, I also knew that there would be difficulties in writing the history. Systematic efforts to organize its archives were still in the early stages, and documentation is scattered and incomplete.
And I was afraid that many of those who had a long-standing and thorough knowledge of the sorority would be reluctant to reveal its inner workings and problems. I was not willing to write a public relations tract, and I wondered about how much freedom I would have to get beneath the skin of the sorority and write about its weaknesses as well as its strengths.
Concerning the latter, President Canady assured me that she would welcome constructive criticism, and that it was important to give a realistic picture of the organization—and she noted as much to the membership.
Her style of leadership convinced me that the organization would be supportive, and that I would have a free reign—which turned out to be true. The last thing I considered was my own personal view of the sorority. I had become a Delta during my sophomore year at Howard University. At that time, , fraternal organizations were being widely criticized for their emphasis on social activities—which seemed all the more frivolous during the Black Power years—and their exclusiveness in a period when middle-class notions were under intense attack.
However, for me, who never found socializing very easy, the ready-made parties and get-togethers with the sorors and fraternity men were an attractive feature of the Greek-letter groups. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, I had never felt a sense of belonging to a community, and the sorority paved the way for lifelong friendships.
But more importantly the groups were concerned with more than the frivolities of campus life. Most of the student leaders belonged to them—including those who were poised to close down the university in the following year in an attempt to make it more responsive to the Black Power movement.
Among the sororities, the Deltas held, to my mind, most of the coveted ones such as the editorship of the literary magazine that was beginning to reflect the more race-conscious poetry and prose of the period. Finally, the coeds whom I most admired, and liked, were Deltas, and I was anxious to be a part of the sisterhood that they shared.
Later, I would experience the down side of sorority life. Friends of mine would be rejected for what I thought petty, personal reasons, and be devastated by it. The pledge period was an intense one. There was little sleep, constant fear of big sisters —who had extraordinary power over the pledgees—hazing, and other unpleasantries.
On the other hand, there were the excesses, the mean-spiritedness, even the revelation of the sadistic side of human nature, that are inevitable by-products of the pledge period. Hazing that might produce any physical harm was strictly forbidden by the national organization, but it could occur. A paddling incident during my own pledge period cast a shadow over the whole sorority experience.
It was one of the reasons why I ceased to be an active member or join any of the alumnae groups after I graduated. But there were other reasons, too. I became involved in my own career as a writer and editor. In any case, I was never much of an organization person. Also, although I was aware that the Deltas had a long and honorable history of serving their community and helping individuals, I was not convinced that the demands put upon its graduate members were equal to the results the group achieved.
However, by the mid-seventies, when I was an editor at Howard University Press I was invited to become a part of a newly established arts and letters commission.
As will be written about in more detail, the commission was an effort to support Black women in the arts, and one of its projects was a book and author luncheon for poets Nikki Giovanni—also on the commission—and the venerable Margaret Walker, who had co-authored a book for Howard University Press. But its most ambitious project was the production of a full-length feature film with political import to counter the influence of the blaxploitation movies that offered little but stereotypical images of Blacks.
However, the film encountered some major difficulties that caused much turbulence in the sorority. So, when President Canady proposed my writing the history, I paused. I had forgotten that feeling of well-being and sisterhood that pervades those meetings. It struck me that Black women may be among their freest, their happiest, and, in some ways, their most fulfilled when they are together in their organizations. A psychologist whom I once interviewed, Kathy White, used the term beloved organization when we discussed this dynamic; and it is the sorority, I am convinced, that is the most beloved of all.
These feelings are even true, I have found, of many of those who are inactive, or have been disappointed or hurt by sorority life. As one can see from the rules that govern the social movement organization, this idea can be a difficult one to realize. But the effort to resolve the tension between the goals of the organization, and those of the sisterhood, through strengthening social bonds within the context of social action has been an interesting and engaging experiment.
One that can be seen as a model for Black organizational life, and which adds contour and dimension to the history of Black women in this country.
I would like first to express my appreciation to immediate past national president, Hortense G. They, among many others in the Delta organization, gave me their time and cooperation in this effort. My special thanks to our two living founders: Bertha Pitts Campbell, who at her home in Seattle not only granted me an interview, but took me shopping, and to lunch and dinner. I was the one who needed a nap at the end of the day. Campbell still possessed the sense of humor and fun that they had as students at Howard.
Thanks also to members of the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter who took part in the interview with Mrs. Richardson, and shared earlier ones with me for this book. All of the national presidents gave of their time to talk to me about the organization. I especially benefited from the help of Anna Johnson Julian, who was among those who read the manuscript, despite recovering from surgery. Porter and Jessie Nave Carpenter for sending me additional materials; Norlishia Jackson, who helped me find photographs and was an important source of information.
The unpublished manuscript of Helen G. Edmonds was an invaluable guide to the writing of the history. And last, but not least, a special thanks to the already overworked national headquarters staff, who graciously acceded to yet more demands from this writer. A number of university archivists responded promptly to my requests for Delta material.
Owen D. Throughout its history, Delta has shaped and been shaped by its members—many of whom rank among the most important figures in American history. And when, thirty-seven years later, Terrell became one of the leading plaintiffs of the celebrated Thompson Restaurant case —which ultimately led to desegregated public accommodations in Washington—the Deltas, in coalition with other Greek-letter organizations, helped man the picket lines and filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs.
The sorority has always been an important source of leadership training for Black women, whose opportunities to exercise such skills in formal organizations are few. On the eve of her appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg in , she said that while there are many things in my life which have prepared me for what I am about to do, it is largely the experience in Delta Sigma Theta which gives me the most security.
It was on one of those occasions when, looking up at the arched ceilings of the Capitol, she told the then national president, Geraldine P. Woods, that one day she, too, would have an office there. In addition to opportunities for leadership, the sorority has also historically been both a supporter, and magnet, for Black women in the arts.
Throughout our history, even the most brilliant talents could depend on little financial support for study, and few opportunities to perform, publish, or have the benefit of an empathetic audience that appreciated the meaning of their achievement. There was a mutual appreciation, for example, for writers like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the poet, journalist, and suffragist who was the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar when she became a member of the sorority.
In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement
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In Search of Sisterhood