Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. turns 95 years old today. Arizona Cleaver, along with her four friends, Pearl Neal, Myrtle Tyler, Viola Tyler, and Fannie Pettie, are the five pearls (founders) of Zeta Phi Beta. The idea for the organization happened several months earlier when Cleaver was walking with Charles Robert Samuel Taylor, a Phi Beta Sigma at Howard University. Taylor suggested that Cleaver consider starting a sister organization to Phi Beta Sigma.
Although there were already two sororities on the Howard University campus, Cleaver and her four friends were interested and started the process. They sought and were granted approval from university administrators. The five met for the first time as a sanctioned organization on January 16, 1920. They named their organization Zeta Phi Beta. It is the only National Pan-Hellenic Council sorority constitutionally bound to a fraternity; that fraternity is Phi Beta Sigma.
In 1923, Zeta Phi Beta was the first of the NPHC sororities to establish a chapter in Texas. Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, was the chapter’s home. The college was founded in 1873 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the first black college west of the Mississippi River. West Texas was a challenging site for the college, given the overt racism and Jim Crow laws of the time. The 2007 film, The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, is based on a true story about the Wiley College Debating Team which was coached by Melvin Beavnorus Tolson. In 1935, the Wiley team debated and beat the national champion team from the University of Southern California (the film changed the team to that of Harvard University).
Zeta Phi Beta made history with its 1937 Grand Boule’ (national convention). About three years earlier, Lambda Zeta, a graduate chapter based in Houston, was chartered. Violette Anderson, the 8th Grand Basileus (national president), asked Lambda Zeta to host the convention. It was the first time any black GLO held a convention below the Mason-Dixon line. The meetings took place in Houston’s black business area. The Y.W.C.A. cafeteria provided the meals because downtown Houston had no restaurants available to blacks. The delegates were housed with members and friends in their black neighborhoods.
Although she had sought the locale and made the connections, Anderson was unable to preside at that Houston Boule’. An article in the January 29, 1938 Pittsburgh Courier with the subtitles “SPIRIT OF LATE BASILEUS INSPIRES SORORS TO ACTION” and “Progress Under Leadership of the Late Attorney Violette Anderson Is Recalled” offers some insight:
CHICAGO, Jan. 27—When Attorney Violette N. Anderson passed just before the 1937 Boule, the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority lost a most conscientious, industrious and outstanding Soror and Grand Basileus.
During the four years that Soror Anderson was the grand basileus it was evident that she had not only stressed and worked for the development of finer womanhood for Zeta, but had done so for all humanity.
It was Soror Attorney Anderson who made the personal contacts which made Zeta alive in some of our leading colleges, universities and cities. Her guidance as a Zeta, a Christian, a lawyer (the first race woman attorney to practice before the Supreme Court), a club woman, and a good citizen, kept all Zetas alive and living up to their ideal of ‘Finer Womanhood.’
Under her administrative leadership, the sorority carried on its wide-awake recreational project for the handicapped in Coatesville, Pa. That project was directed by Soror Gertrude Hamm, of Washington, DC , and her assistants. The project received nation-wide favorable comment.
Although at the Boule in Houston, Texas, during the holidays, all Zetas were saddened by the death of their grand basileus, Attorney Violette N. Anderson, they were happy to know that her last year for Zeta closed with over one hundred active Zeta Phi Beta Chapters, and an incomparable published book of Zeta’a accomplishments. ‘Time Marches On,’ thus a new grand basileus, Soror Nellie B. Rogers, was elected for 1938. Mrs. Rogers is a native of Indianapolis, Ind., and other than being a teacher in the public schools there, she is a singer and an active worker in religious, civic, social and educational circles. She has her A. B. degree, is working on her master’s degree, and studies with the Musical College of Indianapolis.
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