Our Illustrious Founders:
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. was organized on November 12, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little and six teachers: Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian White Marbury, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Hattie Mae Annette Dulin Redford, Bessie Mae Downey Rhodes Martin and Cubena McClure. These founding members are the "Seven Pearls" of Sigma Gamma Rho. The group became an incorporated national collegiate sorority on December 30, 1929, when a charter was granted to the Alpha chapter at Butler University.
"Greater Service, Greater Progress" was to become the slogan and call of the organisation that made November 12, 1922, a significant date in the history of the Black Greek system, for this date would mark the establishment of the first sorority of Black women on a predominantly white campus, Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Three other sororities of Black women, all founded at Howard University, had already been established in the early 1900s. Because Black students could not join the all-white Greek sororities at Butler, a tough and determined Black female, Mary Lou Allison Little, envisioned the need to pull Black women together into the bonds of sisterhood. Six other Butler students who had chosen teaching as their profession joined Soror Little in laying the foundation for a new sorority and further advancing the Black fraternal movement.
Originally the new sorority was to be composed of teachers, and it was to provide support and opportunities for networking to young people, with a focus on professional development. Soon, however, the members recognised that teaching went far beyond the walls of the classroom and that community service and interaction were needed in order to educate the whole child. Education was to be the mainstay of the sorority, but the organisation also wanted to develop broad horizons with diverse dimensions in order to reach into communities and serve all people. Thus, Sigma Gamma Rho's membership had to be expanded; it could not be restricted to teachers.
National conventions were not called in the early years, because too many other issues needed to be addressed first. Under the leadership of Soror Little, who was to become the first Grand Basileus (National President), members became immersed in developing unity and broad-based goals. After the first national meeting (Boulé) in 1925, it was evident that an education-focused legacy was evolving, but it was during the fifth Boulé, in 1929, that the sorority mandated an aggressive scholarship program that required alumnae chapters to maintain a scholarship fund. This led to the establishment of the Sigma Gamma Rho National Education Fund, which focus on education, research, health, and the awarding of scholarships and grants to students regardless of race, gender, or nationality.
The torch of leadership passed through several hands during the 1920s, and the goal of involving women from various regions of the country was reflected in the selection of leaders from coast to coast. The Roaring Twenties ended with the sorority poising itself and moving aggressively to charter more chapters on Black college campuses, particularly the land grant colleges that were experiencing considerable growth in enrolment. The first West Coast chapter was established in Los Angeles and a charter member of that chapter, Soror Hattie McDaniel, became the first Black Academy Award winner in 1939, when she received an Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind.
In response to the dire economic conditions of the times, the sorority established Sigma Gamma Rho's Employment Aid Bureau. In further pursuing its agenda, additional programs to assist in community education and uplift also were established. For example, circulating libraries on wheels, national literary contest, book exhibits, and book showers for Black colleges were adopted as national programs. The African Book Shower Project, designed to send books to Wilberforce Institute in South Africa, was the sorority's first international involvement, and it later expanded into the Linens for Africa Drive and other international projects
During World War II, the sorority suspended its national conventions so that members could support the war effort at home and on foreign soil. Sigma Gamma Rho was visible in the military, the Red Cross, the USO, and similar organisations.
Against the backdrop of the war, and with an upswing of juvenile delinquency, the sorority was stirred to develop programs to address this problem. Sigma "Teen Towns", which centred around art, music, literature, games, and other forms of wholesome recreation, became a thrust of the organisation, and they carried over into the 1950s. Sigma Gamma Rho was fully involved in the Mid-Century Conference on Children, and its leaders were summoned to White House conferences that dealt with many pertinent issues.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of great social, political, and moral change. In response to these changes, Sigma Gamma Rho intensified its support for the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the Urban League and other national organisations that offered service to the community and furthered in every possible way the dignity and worth of all people. Academic excellence, moral responsibility, political involvement, social awareness, and community outreach were built into the ongoing thrust of the sorority as it concerned itself with civil rights, human dignity, moral decency, and the strengthening of a new breed of poised and informed women.
As the number of Black students increased on predominantly white campuses in subsequent decades, there was a noticeable expansion of the Black Greek system. During these years Sigma Gamma Rho modified its agenda to better address this expansion and the resulting societal changes. A national program called Project Reassurance was designed to deal with teenage pregnancy. Also, after the publication of Alex Haley's book "Roots" and with heightened concern for Africa, the sorority established Project Africa, Project Mwanamugimu, and related programs to give assistance to the people of Africa and to help young African-Americans understand and appreciate their ancestral history.
From that cold November day in 1922 when the Alpha Chapter sank its roots into the campus of Butler University, Sigma Gamma Rho has progressively evolved into a thriving sisterhood that comprises more than 75,000 college-trained women across the United States, and in Bermuda, Africa, the Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas.
1994 © Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.
(This is an edited version of a Review submitted by Soror Dr. Katie Kinnard White to Carlson Publishing, Inc. for the 1993 edition of "Black Women in America-An Historical Encyclopedia". It is a non-tradition historical account of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority-a focus on Issues, Involvement, Philosophy and response to problems in the society rather than a history drawn around dates, names and places. There was a limitation on the number of words-a difficult task to portray 90+ years.