Dr. Deborah Cannon Wolfe on Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.’s Founding Day

From 1953 until 1965,  Dr. Deborah Cannon P. Wolfe, served as Grand Basileus (President) of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Born in Cranford, New Jersey, in 1916, Wolfe attended Cranford Schools. Although she wanted to attend Oberlin College, Jersey City State College was more affordable. After graduating in 1937, she continued her studies at Columbia University. She was hired by Tuskegee Institute when she was 22 years old with a newly minted master’s degree. She headed to Alabama where she directed the elementary education program. supervised student teachers and served as principal of two rural labatory schools. From 1943-45, she was  back at Columbia working on a doctorate. Her dissertation, Her dissertation was titled  A Plan for Redesigning the Curriculum of the Rural Laboratory Schools of Tuskegee Institute.

Dr. Deborah Cannon P. WolfeShe

When she returned to the faculty at Tuskegee, she was the only faculty member besides the President to have an earned doctoral degree. She supervised the Insititute’s graduate program in education.  In 1950, she headed to the University of Pennsylvania to do advanced postdoctoral study in methods and statistical analysis. She was also a visiting professor at New York University and Queens College, City University of New York. In 1951, when she was hired by Queens College, she became the first African-American professor on the College’s faculty. In 1962, she took a leave of absence to work for the United States House of Representatives. Her title was Education Chief of the Committee on Education and Labor and she worked with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Wolfe was active in the Civil Rights Movement, too, marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha) up Consitution Avenue. She also served as vice president of the National Council for Negro Women. According to an article by Stephanie van Hover published in Kappa Delta Pi’s Educational Forum:

Wolfe continued her lifelong involvement in numerous organizations after her retirement and achieved many firsts as an African-American female. She was the first African-American woman to be named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to become a member of and later chair the New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, and to serve as a member of the Educational Foundation of Kappa Delta Pi. She was the only African-American member on the Seton Hall University Board of Regents, the advisory board to Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, the Coordinating Council on Education for New Jersey, and the board of the American Association of University Women. In recognition of her lifelong commitment to education, she was awarded more than 26 honorary doctorates. A high school in Macon County, Alabama, and a dormitory at Trenton State College in New Jersey were named in her honor.

New Jersey City University is home to the Deborah Cannon Wolfe College of Education. When Wolfe died on September 3, 2004, her family requested memorials to the National Education Foundation for Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. Wolfe is another example of the group I call #amazingsororitywomen. 

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. was founded by Arizona Cleaver and four friends, Pearl Neal, Myrtle Tyler, Viola Tyler, and Fannie Pettie; they 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.

© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2017. All Rights Reserved. If  you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/

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