TAMPA — With more than 400,000 members between them, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta are two of the biggest, most influential organizations for African-American women.
Their rosters read like a global who's who: first lady Michelle Obama, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
Now, for the first time either sorority can think of, the top lieutenants who help set the agendas of these century-old service groups are based in Tampa and have ties to the University of South Florida.
And today, they will be feted during a scholarship benefit and luncheon at USF.
"One city and one university have two of the highest-ranking women in the two largest sororities in the world — not just the country, but the world," said former state Sen. Les Miller, USF's director of community relations and one of the luncheon's organizers. "We just thought that was history-making."
Carolyn House Stewart, AKA's first vice president, lives in Thonotosassa and is a 1974 USF alumna.
Her Delta counterpart, Paulette Walker, lives in Valrico and is the College of Education's director of undergraduate programs and internship.
"Of all the places that this could have happened," asked Walker, a native of Detroit, "how and why was it Tampa?"
Stewart, a shareholder in the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, recalls when there were fewer than 400 African-American students on campus and even fewer professors of color.
Walker, who moved to Tampa in 1990, remembers when women and minorities were denied tenured faculty positions at USF.
The demographics of the university and the city are changing and are growing the harvest of untapped future black leaders, they said.
"Perhaps with Paulette's role and my role, we will open up to the world that Tampa is a city of opportunity, a city that supports excellence and a city that nurtures and encourages leadership of those who have the capacity for compassion, caring and uplifting the world community," said Stewart, who will be installed as AKA's international president in 2010.
While both women said they are focused on their current roles, Walker said she hopes they can collaborate on some initiatives.
"Imagine a think tank or a symposium on health care," she said. "Just imagine the impact we would have."
Times staff writer Nicole Hutcheson and news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.