Be the ∆ you wish to see
On the first day of 2018, Californians visited legal recreational marijuana facilities, the Pope castigated humans for ruining 2017, and Yale sororities opened registration for recruitment. From Recruitment Orientation to Bid Night, sorority rush on Yale’s campus takes a little over a week — nine days exactly — before each Potential New Member is united with her sisterhood.
For the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the process of joining the sisterhood is different. Membership intake is a long, intentional, and demanding process, and it culminates in a New Initiate Presentation, the welcoming and pronouncement of a new line. The process forges bonds between line sisters (members who are initiated at the same time) and teaches them the history and ways of the organization.
On March 9, 2017, the Pi Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. held its presentation of its eight new members, the first line of members since 2011. This line, led by President Kaylan Burchfield, TC ’18, decked out in crimson bomber jackets, took to Cross Campus to celebrate and embody the mission of their group: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated is an organization of college educated women committed to the constructive development of its members and to public service with a primary focus on the Black community.
On the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March of 1913, the Woman Suffrage Procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. At the rear of the cluster of protesters stood the 22 Illustrious Founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. They composed the beginning of Alpha Chapter, which is located at Howard University. They were at the back because the white southern suffragists threatened to boycott the march unless strict segregation rules were enforced and the Black delegation got the last slot in the lineup. (According to the NAACP’s The Crisis, Black women resisted this agreement, and women like Ida B. Wells refused to comply with the enforced segregation.)
The 22 Howard University students, who constituted the founding line of Delta Sigma Theta, had grown frustrated at the lack of political engagement in the community. Nia Berrian, BK ’19, the Pi Alpha Chapter’s Sergeant at Arms and Social Action Committee Chair narrated, “The National Women’s March of 1913 was coming up, and they wanted to do something about that and get more active in their community and talk about the issues of the day, because it was 1913 for a Black person. Lynching was a huge thing at this time.” Inspired, the 22 established Delta Sigma Theta Sorority on January 13, 1913. Their first public act as a newly formed organization was the Woman Suffrage Procession. Founding member Florence Letcher Toms commented in 1963, “We marched that day in order that women might come into their own, because we believed that women not only needed an education, but they needed a broader horizon in which they may use that education. And the right to vote would give them that privilege.” According to the official Delta Sigma Theta website, 97 percent of Deltas were registered to vote as of 2008.
Fulfilling their founding intention to be a nationally-focused organization, Delta Sigma Theta and their mission spread. Berrian said, “After that, we get women like Pauli Murray; we get women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. And in the span of like five years they went from DC to Ohio and Pennsylvania. They get out to the West Coast and spread the word of committing yourself to these organizations and creating national programs for us that actually focus on the issues that we face.”
This focus on the issues has since been organized into the Delta Sigma Theta’s Five-Point Programmatic Thrust: Educational Development, Economic Development, International Awareness and Involvement, Political Awareness and Involvement, and Physical and Mental Health. President Kaylan Burchfield articulated the benefit of this breakdown: “It’s super meaningful because you can find all of these communities which might be disproportionately affected by something or disenfranchised, and we can go in as Black women and say, what are the things that need to be done? What are the particular needs of these communities? We don’t just go in and say this is what needs to be done. We talk with those communities; we try to get familiar, and then we see from there what we can best do to serve them based on the things that they’ve expressed.”
The Yale Deltas embody that spirit in New Haven, where Yale’s efforts (or lack thereof) to support and engage with the New Haven community are often criticized for lacking this important attribute. Burchfield continued, “For example, Pi Alpha recently did a winter gear drive here on campus because New Haven has a huge homeless population, and particularly those people are people of color.” The Deltas gathered winter clothing items from friends on campus as well as friends and family from home over breaks to donate to the New Haven Housing Authority. In the coming months they’ll be working with Hunger Heroes and continuing their Red Talks, designed to elevate the voices of Black women and showcase the work they’re doing. Dean Renita Miller of Berkeley College and member of Delta Sigma Theta hosted the first of the Red Talks titled “Minority Voices: Representational Roles of African American and Latino Legislators during State Legislative Deliberations.”
Burchfield emphasized that Delta Sigma Theta is a service organization first and foremost. She said, “While we love our bonds of sisterhood and devotion to one another, we also realize that our first love is service, so you’ll usually see a tagline, ‘Sisterhood, scholarship, and service.’ We are educated Black women who are devoted to one another but who also realize that we have an obligation to the communities from which we came.” Berrian echoes this sentiment when articulating what attracted her to the Deltas. She said, “I think there’s no other group that really focuses on public service the way the Deltas have. Even their founding story is very focused on what they can do for their community, and I try to be someone who thinks about their community in such an intentional way. So it’s kind of a way for me to better myself and also have people to support me on that journey.”
Burchfield herself comes from two generations of sisterhood, scholarship, and service through the Deltas via her mother and grandmother. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee — a predominantly Black city, she noted — she witnessed and admired the work they did in her community. According to Azaria King’s (BK ’20) article “The Return of Yale’s Deltas” in DOWN Magazine, Naiya Speight-Leggett, GH ’19, also comes from two generations of Delta women. Though these familial bonds underscore the lifelong dedication to service and sisterhood, Burchfield is quick to note that one does not inherit this enduring commitment but rather must choose it: “Being a legacy of my sorority is a privilege, because it means I came from somebody who had the resources and the education to be able to be a part of this organization. But at the same time you have to make a choice for yourself. I had to make the decision for myself about why I wanted to become a Delta, and that was because I saw Black women at the forefront being innovative leaders, being trailblazers, being some of the nation’s finest minds.”
Though March of 2017 marked the re-establishment of the Pi Alpha Chapter, the Deltas are not exactly new on campus. In fact, it was the first sorority ever to be established at Yale. The homepage of the Official Website of Pi Alpha Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated opens, “On March 24, 1984, two women in the New Haven area, Soror Delilah Gomes and Soror Mattie Long, inspired by the legacy of the founders of our beloved Delta Sigma Theta, met and established the Pi Alpha Chapter. Pi Alpha was the first undergraduate chapter of Black Greek-letter organizations for women chartered in the New Haven area.” It does not specify Yale because the Pi Alpha chapter was founded by thirteen women from both Yale and Southern Connecticut State University and later welcomed membership from other schools in the area including Albertus Magnus College, University of New Haven, and Wesleyan. Much like the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (which remains a New Haven fraternity rather than a Yale one), Pi Alpha was associated with a region rather than a school. Though the last members of Pi Alpha were active around 2012, and all of the new members are Yalies, there is also a New Haven Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta — one of many such chapters across the globe.
The reason for the disappearance of the Deltas around 2012 is not completely clear. An old Twitter account for Pi Alpha last tweeted in April of 2012. Though it’s (unlikely but) possible that interest waned, and there were simply no new members to induct, Berrian stated “I’m not sure of the exact details.” If there were issues, it seems as though the Deltas were taking the time they needed to take stock, reevaluate, and plan for the future.
In the time since the Deltas disappeared, and again this week, the week of sorority rush, members of Yale’s Greek community have faced uncomfortable truths about seemingly intractable problems. With the shameful (though not particularly revelatory) revelation that multiple women had been sexually assaulted at Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), Yale’s Greek life once again intersects with its nasty sexual climate. It was only two and half years ago that Yale’s Greek life exemplified its institutional racism when a brother manning the door at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (now “Leo” locally, though still SAE nationally) proclaimed that it was letting in “white girls only.” (The Herald reached out to Leo for comment on their lingering affiliation with SAE’s national organization but did not receive a reply.) Leo has recently been receiving praise for making its parties safer for women, but there was no similar Herculean effort made to repair the harm done after the incident of 2015.
Berrian commented on joining a potentially turbulent Greek scene by noting that Black Greek organizations are somewhat separate and certainly not mired by the classic pitfalls of privilege that many Greek organizations come up against. Delta Sigma Theta is not a member of Yale’s Panhellenic Council, though it is a part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the organization that comprises the nine historically Black Greek lettered sororities and fraternities. Delta Sigma Theta’s identity as a service organization rather than a social organization is also a key aspect of this separation. Though sororities across the nation participate in philanthropy, service is not as integral to their missions. Burchfield clarified, “We don’t just give money, write a check, take a nice picture, and then leave. Deltas are going to work with Habitat for Humanity for example, who’s one of our partners, and go out and help build the homes. We’re going to go to soup kitchens and roll up our sleeves. And we’re not doing it just for publicity or just for show. We are a service organization, so the reason you’re joining a lifetime commitment to serve is because you are willing to.” (Delta Sigma Theta was the first Black organization to partner with Habitat for Humanity.)
The Deltas also don’t mix with fraternities in the same way that sororities on the Yale Panhellenic Council do. To further articulate their difference, though, Berrian talked about the role race plays in making spaces: “Realizing how race and this space interact with each other, it’s very different. A lot of it is, we just have different missions and different focuses, and people join for different reasons.”
These differences of Black Greek life will soon (if they have not already) become relevant in a current campus debate: should Yale disband or coeducate Greek life altogether? The campus group Engender is leading the charge to eradicate gender-exclusive social spaces (with a focus on all-male spaces), but what about a historically Black fraternity like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.? Berrian argued, “It’s very interesting to see how we fit into the Engender conversations. I don’t think Engender is going to ask Alphas to disband and coeducate anytime soon. And it’s very interesting to see if they should; you just have to think about how the politics of that works. But then a lot of it doesn’t even apply, so it’s not like any bad blood is there for not being included.”
Seventeen years after their founding, on January 20, 1930, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority incorporated, and fulfilled one of their original goals to enlarge the scope of their organization. Today, Delta is not just national but international spanning the US, England, Japan, Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and South Korea.
When asked what the Yale community can look forward to seeing from the Deltas in the future, Burchfield, a proud president, gushed, “Pi Alpha has been one of the leading sororities on this campus, and I don’t think that that will change when the school year ends. I’m excited for Pi Alpha to just continue to be the leaders that I know they will be and that Delta trusts them to be and molds us to be.”
In 1974, Alice Paul, organizer of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession described Mary Church Terrell’s plan to bring a group of protesters from the National Association of Colored Women “a hurdle.” Along with Terrell’s contingent, the founding 22 members of Delta Sigma Theta made up the entire delegation of Black women that participated in the march that made important strides toward the right to vote for women — the same march that white women had threatened to boycott because of their involvement. In remembering her organization’s inaugural act of national engagement, Burchfield recounts, “And because they were Black women they had to be subjugated to the back of the line, but nonetheless, we were there with our Delta Sigma Theta Sorority banner held very proudly. And 105 years later we’re still there.”