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The Delta Sorority's Special Sisterhood

The nation's largest Black women's sorority pays tribute to its past during its 100th anniversary

Earlier this year, 75-year-old Norma Dotson-Sales joined the hundreds of Deltas from metro Detroit who traveled to Washington, D.C. to reenact the 1913 women's suffrage march.

For Dotson-Sales, attending the march—part of a yearlong celebration to honor the sorority's centennial anniversary—was an energizing reminder there is still much to do. "There was just this sea of Black women in front of me and in back of me, as far as the eye can see," she recalls. "It was powerful."

Now marking 100 years, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. is celebrating in Detroit on Saturday, April 6, as its Centennial Torch Tour reaches the city (see BLACdetroit.com/TorchTour for details).

The society was founded just 25 years before Dotson-Sales was born, on Jan. 13, 1913, by 22 women who were Howard University students in Washington, D.C. Delta, like other Black sororities and fraternities that have reached the 100-year mark, was founded when academic and employment opportunities were few for Blacks, and segregation was at its highest. Many were children and grandchildren of former slaves, and the first generation of college-educated Blacks in the country.

African Americans have come a long way in the past century, and Delta's Detroit Alumnae Chapter is showing off its crimson and cream to celebrate the accomplishments and struggles of the past—and looking forward to the future.

Beverly Gray, president of the Detroit Alumnae Chapter, says, "Because of the centennial celebration, people will see and hear a lot about the sorority, but I like to say that we were always here."

Community service efforts

She cites the sorority's large initiatives such as the Delta Manor, the 100-unit senior citizen home, as just one of the service-focused sorority's efforts. Besides health initiatives and outreach programs for veterans and the homeless, the sorority supports troops overseas with cell phones and provides scholarships for local college-bound high school seniors. Deltas are out in the community at church, in schools and in the workplace every day.

Dotson-Sales says the sorority always has been a powerful force in the Black community. "I have wanted to be a Delta since I was a young girl, in part because there were so many of them who were my teachers and women I would see working out in the community doing good work," Dotson-Sales says.

Although she pledged Detroit Alumnae Chapter in 1979, she still gets emotional when she talks about what the sorority means to her. She was in law school while she was pledging and got ill. "My kidneys started to fail, and my doctors told me that I might not make it. But I wanted to be a Delta before I died."

Dotson-Sales got her wish when the Deltas came to her hospital room to induct her into the sorority.

"I love Delta," she says, and her voice breaks.

The Detroit Alumnae Chapter stands out as one of the largest in the country (second to Prince George County, near Washington D.C.), with more than 1,000 members. Inkster, Southfield and Pontiac also have large, active chapters. On a national level, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. has more than 250,000 members in 950 chapters worldwide.

 

Setting high standards

And while outsiders often see the social aspects of Black Greek life, Gray and Dotson-Sales say that there is so much more to the fraternities and sororities. Like the other Black Greek Letter Organizations, Delta sets high academic and public service standards for the undergraduate and alumnae chapter candidates. A sorority candidate must have a 2.75 GPA and demonstrated commitment to community service.

Those high standards have created a who's who roster of achievement and leadership among Deltas on national, state and local levels. Delta Kim Trent, a member of the Inkster Alumnae Chapter, was recently elected to the Wayne State University Board of Governors. Jacqueline Hall Keith, a federal administrative law judge in Detroit, is a Delta, too. Also, outstanding community servants such as Ohio congresswoman Marsha Fudge, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, Clinton White House advisor and political pundit Donna Brazile, the U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and newswoman Soledad O'Brien are all members of Delta Sigma Theta.

"I have never met a Delta who was not committed to serving the community, says Dotson-Sales. "That's who we are."

Gray says there is a real dedication to seeding the future of the community through the support of academics and scholarship in the Detroit chapter. "We recently hosted our 31st annual art auction, which is our single biggest fundraiser for scholarships," Gray says. "This year, we raised $16,000 through the auction, which will provide scholarships for nine college-bound students." The Deltas have awarded more than $500,000 in scholarships over time.

The sorority's Five Point Programmatic Thrust, focusing on social action, educational development, international awareness and involvement, and physical and mental health, guides much of the work that the southeast Michigan Deltas do in their individual chapters.

And while the Deltas have had a house in Detroit for decades, three years ago, they moved to a new 50,000 square-foot facility, believed to be the largest of its kind in the nation. The sorority has also taken on supporting the needs of military veterans in the Detroit area. Gray and Dotson-Sales agree that the work that's coming out of the sorority helps lift up the image of the city at a time when there are so many negative stories about Detroit.

The century club

Detroiter Mark Tillman, the newly inducted national 34th general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.—the oldest of the Black fraternities and sororities—says, "We are all happy to welcome Delta Sigma Theta to the 100-Year Club."

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity reached the 100-year mark six years ago. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black sorority, hit the milestone in 2008. Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities celebrated their 100-year birthdays in 2011. By 2022, eight of "The Divine Nine" will have reached the century mark.

"Many corporations have not lasted for 100 years, or even 50 years," Tillman says.

Even in the midst of the celebrations, the sororities and fraternities have had their fair share of bad press as of late. In 2010, a medical student who was pledging Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity at Wayne State University sued the organization for alleged hazing activities, including beatings that put him in the hospital for 12 days. In 2002, two Alpha Kappa Alpha pledges drowned in Southern California during their pledging process. In 2010, Alpha Phi Alpha suspended its national pledging process due to alleged incidences of hazing and inappropriate behavior. Delta has also faced challenges around allegations of hazing and suspensions.

Changing landscapes

And just as the country is struggling to come to grips with a changing landscape around same-sex marriage and overall acceptance of the LGBTQ community, so are Black sororities and fraternities. Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member and CNN commentator Roland Martin was suspended from the network for his comments about gays on his Twitter feed. Kappa Alpha Psi member Nathaniel Gay got a fiery response on social media when he married his long-time love, Robert Brown, in Kentucky, and posted the video on YouTube.

In light of the controversy and decline in memberships in many traditional Black institutions, many naysayers feel that historically, Black folks have already overcome the obstacles that originally brought fraternities and sororities together and see them as only social organizations today.

However, Gray and Tillman say the work is far from done—in Detroit or nationally.

"Fraternities and sororities are as relevant today as they were in the past 100 years," Tillman says, pointing to the challenges that the Black community is facing right now.

"When you look at the challenges to the Civil Rights Act and the attempts to do away with the Voting Rights Act, you see that there is still a need," she says. "Together, we offer a strong collective voice—nearly a million Black men and women."

Lawrence Ross, the author of "The Divine Nine: The History of Black Fraternities and Sororities," sees the nurturing of young Black leaders as an important role that will keep the organizations relevant and viable for years to come.

"It's very difficult to explain, but when you interact with our youngest members, our college members—our 18- to 21-year-olds—you don't have any question about the reason or the purpose of our fraternities and sororities. I mean, it really literally gives you chills and, as long as we're always a step ahead, always leading, I think we'll always find ourselves being relevant in the next 100 years and the next 200 years," Ross says.

All of the nine fraternities and sororities continue to draw in new members in large numbers each year, at both the undergraduate and alumni and alumnae chapters. Gray says that the Detroit Deltas inducted 112 new members in the fall of 2012.

"When we announced that we were taking that new class, 500 women applied to become members. So yes, the interest is there."

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