Washington DC Alumnae Prepares to Commemorate 100 Years of Excellence in Action

By Tamera Wells-Lee, Marjorie Kinard and Vinette Saunders

On the heels of welcoming a dynamic group of powerful, passionate, and purposeful new initiates into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. with its “DSTiny REDefined 79” Fall 2020 Line, the Washington DC Alumnae Chapter (WDCAC) soon will commemorate 100 years of a legacy destined for excellence in action. Chartered on Feb. 3, 1921, WDCAC’s commitment to excellence has been unwavering since its early years, even as its leadership and members have had to adapt to undulating waves of socioeconomic and other environmental changes brought forth with each passing decade. As WDCAC approaches its Centennial anniversary in 2021, it is doing so with the same intentional purpose that has enabled the chapter to have sustainable and impactful service and scholarship for nearly 100 years in the District of Columbia. There is much to celebrate and a myriad of accomplishments and key moments on which to reflect as WDCAC, with a current membership of over 500 members, reaches this historic milestone.

Historic moments and details about the chapter are captured in WDCAC’s forthcoming history book, 100 Years of Excellence in Action: Washington DC Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. This groundbreaking tome is impressively compiled by WDCAC Historian and Co-Historian, Marjorie Kinard and Vinette Saunders, respectively, and is available for pre-order on the chapter’s website.  

The Early Days: Dynamic and Historic

Upon approval by Grand Chapter, WDCAC—or Beta Beta Chapter as initially known—was chartered as the second graduate chapter in the Sorority on February 3, 1921, as previously noted. The New York Alumnae Chapter has the distinction of being recognized as the first graduate chapter when it was chartered as the Alpha Beta Chapter in January 1921.

WDCAC’s charter members are as follows: G. Dorothy Pelham Beckley (2nd National President), Founder Eliza Pearl Shippen, Grace Coleman, Elsie Brown Smith, Landonia Louise Denney, Founder Florence Letcher Toms, Edith Brinkley Howard, Geraldine [Wilma] Green Williams, and Jennie Baer Shief. They individually and collectively embodied the excellence on which Delta was founded and have served as a guiding light for future WDCAC members.

WDCAC Through the Decades: A Legacy of Service

1920s. Soon after the chapter was chartered, Beta Beta participated in the sorority’s May Week program in which there was an emphasis on supporting the higher education interests of African-American women. By 1925, when the chapter’s name changed to Beta Sigma, members continued to play pivotal roles with Grand Chapter, serving in several capacities as officers and committee chairs.

1930s. Highlights from this period included the chapter hosting the Sorority’s 24th anniversary banquet in 1937, where the featured speaker was Founder Vashti Murphy, whose address focused on “The Challenge to Do Things Vital to Present Day Youth.”  Additionally, along with the Alpha Chapter, the Beta Sigma Chapter (of which WDCAC was known at that time) assisted with the chartering of the Beta Iota Chapter at Miner Teachers College.

1940s. The chapter supported the sorority’s National Library Project to provide African- Americans in rural areas with access to libraries and books. The chapter also sponsored a baby contest as a fundraiser to raise money for that effort. A member of the planning committee who also was on the Executive Board at that time is still a member of WDAC today, Emma Mitchell Lewis.

In reflecting on WDCAC’s Centennial, Lewis, age 95, notes, “I am excited about the Centennial Celebration of our chapter because we have all been involved in every facet of programs in the city of Washington, DC. I remember how active we were in Delta as younger sorors. We attended the conventions and regional meetings and were able to play an important part in the establishment of rules, guidelines and policies as part of the Grand Chapter.”

1950s. During this decade, the chapter was renamed to what it is known by today, the Washington DC Alumnae Chapter, in 1956. There is something to be said about name recognition, as included among the chapter’s membership roll at that time were Founder Jimmie Bugg Middleton and Patricia Roberts Harris.

1960s. The 1960s brought forth the highs of the historic March on Washington, of which members of WDCAC participated, as well as the lows of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that resulted in social unrest in Washington, DC and elsewhere. Even through the uncertainty of those times, WDCAC remained a steady force and voice within the city.

1970s. WDCAC welcomed the 1970s in anticipation of commemorating its 50th chapter anniversary in 1971. It was during these years that planning began for the Delta Towers Apartments. The Delta Housing Corporation of the District of Columbia (DHCDC) was organized in 1975 during the administration of Speight and incorporated in 1977 by members of the chapter. DHCDC built Delta Towers Apartments, a 150-unit independent living housing development in 1979, and is scheduled to complete a new 179-unit apartment building, Fortitude at Delta Towers, in Northeast Washington, DC in late 2020 to meet the needs of senior citizens and the disabled.

Alice Tompkins Davis, who had been WDCAC’s president from 1966-1968, went on to serve as president of DHCDC during the building of Delta Towers, and then she chaired its Board of Directors for eight years. In reflecting on WDCAC’s upcoming Centennial, Davis shared the following thoughts:

“As we look toward the Centennial Celebration of the Washington DC Alumnae Chapter, I think one of our greatest achievements was all of the work it took leading up to the development of Delta Towers, a housing complex for the elderly and physically challenged residents of Washington, DC. We are now involved in the [development] of a second building, Fortitude at Delta Towers. As an outstanding Black women’s organization, we should be proud as we move into our second century of service.”

1980s. The 1980s also were exciting as well as reflective times in that WDCAC marched with the living Founders and retraced the steps of the first Women’s Suffrage March as part of the 1981 National Convention.  Items of note included the awarding of $16,000 in scholarships at a single May Public Meeting; the formation of the District of Columbia Delta Life Development Corporation (DCDLDC) in conjunction with The Federal City Alumnae Chapter, to develop programs for DC youth; and the establishment of the Washington, D.C. Alumnae Foundation, Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. (now known as Washington, D.C. Alumnae Foundation, Inc.) for charitable, religious, educational and scientific purposes. The Delta Literacy Foundation also was created in the 1980s, in collaboration with Metropolitan Baptist Church. The Washington, DC Metropolitan Area-Wide Founders Day Celebration also was first launched.

1990s. Areas of focus from the 1980s carried over to the next decade, where the chapter continued to support literacy efforts as well as the sorority’s “School America” program. Additionally, WDCAC actively was engaged with Self-Awareness/Self-Esteem (SASE.)  Social action activities also were paramount. In the area of fundraising, WDCAC added $50,000 to its scholarship fund from three key events: the Gospel Extravaganza, the Red and White Ball, and the Greek Step Show.

2000s. The chapter adopted an elementary school in Nigeria. The chapter introduced Delta Days at the DC City Council in collaboration with The Federal City Alumnae Chapter, as well as what would become two successful fundraisers for scholarships and programs, Distinguished Men Cookin’ with the Deltas and Sunday Gospel Brunch.

WDCAC also launched a capital campaign as part of laying the groundwork for the chapter itself to celebrate its own 100th anniversary. In January 2019, WDCAC donated nearly $1M to the Delta Housing Corporation of the District of Columbia (DHCDC) to support the development of a cultural center.  The historic contribution was made possible through funds WDCAC began collecting in the 1990s.

Of special note, during this period, the chapter located the burial site of two Founders – Olive Claire Jones and the one remaining Founder whose remains had not previously been found—Edna Brown Coleman.

Centennial Events

WDCAC had planned events throughout the sorority year to commemorate its centennial. These have included a Prayer Breakfast and a Gala, events that had been intended to take place in person, but have been postponed because of the pandemic. WDCAC has scheduled, however, the following virtual events to celebrate its 100th anniversary, with more information to be posted to its website at a later date.

  • Virtual Centennial Kickoff – Feb. 7, 2021
  • Virtual Centennial Book Launch – March, 2021
  • Joint Celebration of Centennials – New York Alumnae and Washington DC Alumnae
    Chapters – May 2021 
  • Traveling Exhibit featuring a nine-banner exhibit, centennial quilt, and artifacts of interest – Available and ongoing throughout the centennial year, and beyond. Available upon request January – December 2021

In recognition of its centennial, WDCAC also will be offering $75,000.00 in scholarships from funds raised through its previously refernced capital campain and fundraisers. Most of the scholarships are one-time awards for varying categories of students ranging from graduating high school seniors entering college for the first time, to adult learners and invidudals with GEDs, to second-year undegraduate and graduate students. A portion of the funds also are being set aside to provided emergency tuition assitance to graduating college seniors as deemed eligible. Scholarship information and applications will be posted to the WDCAC website by the end of 2020.

The centennial scholarships align with WDCAC’s longstanding commitment to supporting the academic pursuits of students. This is evident in that the chapter has awarded $401,432.00 in scholarships thus far as documented since 1939.

Lasting Legacy

WDCAC has earned a number of awards in recent years, including Chapter of the Year/Medium at the 2020 Eastern Regional Conference. Awards alone, however, do not always tell the complete story. Rather, it is the action behind the award, the work done to earn it, and the lasting impact it has made. As it relates to that, current WDCAC president Cherie Brown Jackson notes, “Our charter members set out with purpose to build upon a legacy focused on the aims of sisterhood, scholarship, and service. That legacy has culminated into a rich and rewarding history of nearly 100 years of committed engagement in the District of Columbia. I am honored to serve as president at a time such as this, and I look forward to continuing the legacy that is WDCAC.” It is a legacy that is defining, leaving an indelible mark describing WDCAC’s history and purpose; it is enduring and has cultivated a history of service through uncompromising commitment and steadfast leadership; it is linked, interweaving its lineage with those on whose shoulders many now stand; it is timeless, holding fast to the ideals of the past while still remaining relevant today; and it is alive, living right here in this moment as WDCAC prepares to commemorate 100 years of excellence in action!

By Tamera Wells-Lee, Marjorie Kinard and Vinette Saunders On the heels of welcoming a dynamic group of powerful, passionate, and purposeful new initiates into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. with its “DSTiny REDefined 79” Fall 2020 Line, the Washington DC Alumnae Chapter (WDCAC) soon will commemorate 100 years of a legacy destined for excellence in …

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