By: Dr. Kimberly Brown
What Does 100 years of Delta Sigma Theta Really Mean?
The District of Columbia should brace itself. The phrase, “paint the town red,” will take on a new and vibrantly literal meaning as immeasurable numbers of women of the illustrious Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated descend upon the city this weekend to celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary. Yet, besides the grand convention assemblies; the sea of vendors selling every kind of paraphernalia known to mankind; the rousing star power of its membership which includes Cicely Tyson, Soledad O’Brien, Natalie Cole, and countless other luminaries; the fabulous galas and brunches; the festive reunions that will surely fill lounges, lobbies, and eateries to capacity with line dances and spirits— what does it all mean, really?
1913 was many things. In January of that year, African-Americans celebrated 50 years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. While February brought the birth of a baby named Rosa McCauley (later Rosa Parks) in Tuskegee, Alabama, just one month later Harriett Tubman died in New York. God was replenishing pioneers. In May, Samuel Owensby, a Black man in Hogansville, Georgia was lynched near the local jail, after which his body was riddled with bullets. The nation’s justice system condoned lynching in both southern and northern parts of the country, so much so that one report called the record of lynchings that year a “small number” based on a 13% decrease from the year prior. That same year, a group of 22 young African-American women on the campus of Howard University, dissatisfied with the status quo, organized themselves for the purposes of pursuing, making, and being change. They named themselves Delta Sigma Theta and immediately began the work of racial uplift, political engagement, and social welfare. Their own story exemplifies the sobering realities of race matters that shaped their involvement in the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913 and stirred their greater mission to improve the world. Scholar Paula Giddings wrote, “…the Deltas undoubtedly knew, Black women suffragists had few allies.” The National American Women’s Suffrage Association (a white group) told investigator and journalist Ida B. Wells if she wanted to join the parade, she would have to do so in the rear section. Despite the lack of support from some Black men who hesitated to support the voting rights of women and the transparent disdain on the part of white women’s organizations that preferred Black women not be associated with their efforts, the college-aged women of Delta courageously marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in this national demonstration for equality. This first public act is emblematic of the sorority’s penetrating history of activism.
The more assertive political articulations and artistic expressions of the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s did not miss Delta. In fact, its members helped to usher in and nurture the era. They institutionalized literary, theater, and performance initiatives and scholarships. Delta funded the foreign study in France of Gwendolyn Bennett, “a poet, painter, and illustrator whose work was seen in such publications as Opportunity, The Messenger, and The Crisis.” They also provided scholarship monies to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a novelist who wrote the introduction to Richard Wright’s Native Son. Activism took priority throughout the 1930s and 1940s as well. Louise Thomas worked with the International Workers Order to secure employment benefits for its members. She also lent her energy to the Scottsboro Case, during which nine Black boys were falsely accused of raping two white women prostitutes. Meanwhile, educator and United States presidential advisor Mary McLeod Bethune established the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, advocated for White House support of the Tuskegee Airmen through her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and directed projects to train librarians made available to Black institutions that needed such professional personnel in order to acquire accreditation. Without the tireless efforts of Dorothy Irene Height, the modern Civil Rights Movement would have been an altogether different epoch in the struggle for equality. Although she was not on the program at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she was the heartbeat of the planning meetings that brought the event into fruition. However, her presence as the only woman on the speakers platform that day quietly symbolizes her vital function in the movement.
The march itself, in large part, was a reaction to 1963 as a year of disappointing reflection for African-Americans. It had been one hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation, yet political, economic, and educational equality remained unattained. Although the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling had passed years earlier, segregation remained dominant throughout the nation’s schools. In Vietnam, the United States was willing to go to any lengths to preserve freedom, yet the lowest paying jobs in the U.S. were reserved for African-Americans and s****l exploitation most common in domestic work was reserved for the race’s women. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his seminal volume Why We Can’t Wait, “The milestone of the centennial of emancipation gave the Negro a reason to act.” The unsatisfactory conditions of 1963 incited a new and fiery brand of activism.
2013 presented a rising anti-affirmative action movement, a legalized threat to voting rights, and a growing school-to-prison pipeline that hovers over the futures of young African-Americans, especially boys. Just one example is Philadelphia’s plans to close 23 schools while building a $400 million dollar prison. Be clear, that means they have plans to fill it. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated is rooted in a charge for change. As members celebrate its centennial and we embark upon the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and therefore the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, will revived and brazen activism take the stage again? Has God replenished pioneers?