Happy Birthday Delta Gamma – Founded During a Christmas Holiday!

Delta Gamma was founded at the Oxford Female Institute, also known as the Lewis School, at Oxford, Mississippi. The school was established before the Civil War and eventually was absorbed by the University of Mississippi. Delta Gamma’s three founders, Eva Webb [Dodd], her cousin Anna Boyd [Ellington], and Mary Comfort [Leonard], all from Kosciusko, Mississippi, were weather-bound at the school over the Christmas holidays in December of 1873 (Leonard, 1909).

Mrs. Hays, the lady principal and their host for the holidays, had a son who was a fraternity member at the University of Mississippi. He and the women’s other gentlemen friends may have imbued the girls with the idea to start their own Greek-letter society. According to founder Dodd (1909): When the idea first came to three homesick girls during the Christmas holidays of 1873 to found fraternity or club as we then called it, little did we realize that we were laying the cornerstone of such a grand fraternity as Delta Gamma. The school we attended at Oxford, Miss., was not much more advanced than a high school of today. During the week we decided on our motto and selected the Greek letters to represent it. We did not know that there were any other fraternities for girls in the United States known by Greek letters when we gave our club its name. We spent the holidays deciding on our pin and initiation and writing our constitution. In January 1874, we had our first initiation. We initiated four girls. The initiation was in one of the rooms of the house where we were boarding. We were careful to select only the girls we thought would be in sympathy with us and make our fraternity worthy of its name. (p. 226)

The Lewis School was a preparatory school and as such the members of the chapter were seemingly younger than the women at Syracuse University, Monmouth College, Indiana Asbury College, and Boston University. Stevenson, Carvill and Shepard (1973) offered an explanation of the situation: During the early years in Oxford observers from elsewhere note a peculiarity in the Mother Chapter – that the ‘actives’ are in reality the inactive members of the group and the alumnae or inactive members are really most active in the chapter. This is attributed to the youth (those over 13 years of age) of the members, for we must remember that the Institute was really a prep school. In the early ‘eighties when the University began to admit women, many of Psi’s members were entered in classes which is the reason letters to the Anchora are datelined during this period “University of Mississippi.” Actually, the chapter itself was still established at the Institute and was never moved to the University – until it was installed many years later as Alpha Psi. (p. 52)

During the first few years of its existence, Delta Gamma installed several chapters at southern seminaries. These included: Fairmount College in Monteagle, Tennessee, a chapter that was formed in 1877; Water Valley Seminary, in Water Valley, Mississippi, established in 1877; and Bolivar College in Bolivar, Tennessee, a chapter founded in 1878. By 1881, all three of these chapters had disbanded. In 1880, a short-lived chapter was installed at Trinity College in Tehuacana, Texas. It lasted only a year and was the last Delta Gamma chapter installed in the South until after the turn of the century. The “Mother” chapter at Oxford was active until 1889 (Robson, 1968).

It was a man who took Delta Gamma north. Phi Delta Theta George Banta was a student at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. He was seeking to have a national woman’s fraternity come to Indiana to even the field for his fraternity during the Indiana State Oratorical Contest. “The fraternity of which I am a member, in those days seemed to always find the delegates belonging to either of the two sororities* then in the state, combined against them at these elections” (Stevenson, Carvill & Shepard, 1973, p. 53). Through a chance meeting with a male student from the University of Mississippi, Banta learned of Delta Gamma’s existence. He began correspondence with the chapter and on May 27, 1879, Corinne Miller of the Alpha chapter wrote Banta to let him know he was voted to full membership. Banta then initiated three women, Mary Vawter, her cousin and Banta’s future wife, Lillian Vawter,** and Banta’s cousin Kitty Ellis.

The chapter at Franklin College was in existence from 1878 until 1885, but even in its short life it provided the impetus to expand in the north and gave new life to Delta Gamma. Banta was later a pioneer in the fraternity publishing world and according to Glover (1909), he attended at least one Delta Gamma convention and shared with the members in attendance his part in Delta Gamma’s history.

The Delta Gamma chapter at Franklin College installed a chapter at Hanover College, in Indiana. It was the first women’s fraternity on Hanover’s campus and it was in existence from 1881 until 1887. Lillian Thompson of the Franklin College chapter was instrumental in locating potential members. MacDonnell (1909) recalled that the meetings were held during the first year or two in the Phi Hall in the yard of the old McKee residence.

The Franklin College chapter also established the Eta Chapter at Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio, on March 15, 1879. It is Delta Gamma’s oldest existing chapter. Banta’s Phi Delta Theta connection proved to be an influencing force in the founding of the Delta Gamma chapter and it was with the assistance of Buchtel College’s Phi Delta Theta chapter that the Eta chapter of Delta Gamma became a reality (Delta Gamma Fraternity, 1966). March 15 is the date that Delta Gamma celebrates Founders’ Day.

*Banta is most likely referring to Kappa Alpha Theta, founded in Indiana, and Kappa Kappa Gamma.

**George Banta and Lily Vawter married. Vawter was “a Franklin girl who became a victim of the White Plague within three years of her marriage” (Peerenboom, 1865, p. 9). After her death, Banta moved to Wisconsin, remarried, and soon began a printing business, with many fraternity magazines among his clientele.

The text is from my dissertation, Coeducation and the History of Women’s Fraternities 1867-1902, by Frances DeSimone Becque. All rights reserved.

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