Delta Sigma Theta and Mary McLeod Bethune

On January 13, 1913, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was founded at Howard University. All 22 founders – Winona Cargile (Alexander), Madree Penn (White), Wertie Blackwell (Weaver), Vashti Turley (Murphy), Ethel Cuff (Black), Frederica Chase (Dodd), Osceola Macarthy (Adams), Pauline Oberdorfer (Minor), Edna Brown (Coleman), Edith Mott (Young), Marguerite Young (Alexander), Naomi Sewell (Richardson), Eliza P. Shippen,  Zephyr Chisom (Carter), Myra Davis (Hemmings), Mamie Reddy (Rose), Bertha Pitts (Campbell), Florence Letcher (Toms), Olive Jones, Jessie McGuire (Dent), Jimmie Bugg (Middleton), and Ethel Carr (Watson) – had been members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, which was founded at Howard University on January 16, 1908. When a disagreement about the future of the organization arose between the active chapter and the alumnae, an ultimatum was given, decisions were made, and in the end, the active members left Alpha Kappa Alpha and became Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Myra Davis went from being the president of the Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter to being president of the Delta Sigma Theta chapter. Many of the first meetings were held in Edna Brown’s living room. The 1913 Valedictorian and Class President, she married Frank Coleman, a founder of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Florence Letcher’s hobby of collecting elephant figurines led to the animal becoming the sorority’s symbol.

Nearly two months after its founding, on March 3, 1913, the women took part in the historic suffrage march in Washington, D.C. They were the only African-American women’s group to participate. Honorary member Mary Church Terrell joined them in their march.

In 1923, at the fifth national convention, Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent educator, became an Honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta.

The daughter of former slaves, Bethune worked in the fields at age five. Due to the generosity of a benefactor, she graduated from Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College). Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida can trace its history to 1904, when Bethune opened a school for African-American girls. There were five girls in the first class.  In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida to become a high school. In 1931, it became a junior college. Ten years later Bethune-Cookman became a four-year college. Bethune served as the college president from 1923-42 and 1946-47.  She was also a leader in the National Association of Colored Women and served as its national president. In addition, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and served as a Cabinet member in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.  Her push to upgrade the libraries at historically black institutions during her tenure as Director of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, and her firm belief that these libraries needed to be improved, played a part in Delta’s first national project. She died in 1955. In 1993, Bethune was inducted posthumously into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Mary McLeod Bethune and some of her students during the early years of her school. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman University.

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