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DELTA SIGMA THETA // A legacy of strength

Published Jul. 6, 2006

In the three decades since Paulette Walker became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, she has never gotten over the rush of walking into a national convention.

It's something like pulling up to the shores of Africa, she said.

"When you get home and you see all these people who look like you, who sound like you, who feel like you _ it's how Dorothy must have felt when she left the land of Oz," said Walker, who is president of the Tampa alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.

Walker will be among the more than 10,000 black women expected at the public service sorority's 43rd national convention, which opened Thursday in Orlando and runs through Wednesday.

The convention is "a big deal economically and socially," said Kitty Ellison, a past president of the Orlando alumnae chapter. Held every two years, the event is expected to bring $10-million in revenue to Central Florida, according to the Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

On the guest list are philanthropist and producer Camille Cosby, U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Rose-Collins, actor Tim Reid, NAACP board chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, jazz singer Rachelle Ferrell and Alexis M. Herman, assistant to President Bill Clinton.

Founded by 22 college women on Howard University's campus in 1913, Delta Sigma Theta is the nation's second oldest African-American sorority (the oldest is Alpha Kappa Alpha, founded in 1908) and has almost 200,000 members and 850-plus chapters, including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton and Lakeland.

Officially, the purpose of the Delta national convention is to carry out the organization's business and plan for its future.

But beyond the meetings, pageantry and celebrity sitings, it's a homecoming, a biennial celebration of African-American women and a chance for older members to reconnect with their college days.

Walker described it as a needed affirmation for black women.

"We don't get that feeling every day," Walker said. "We work in isolation. It's like when you walk into this building and you see all of these people wearing this red and white (the sorority's colors), there's a linkage. That is our legacy."

Denied membership in white fraternities and sororities, black college students began forming their own Greek-letter groups in the early part of the 20th century.

Paula J. Giddings, the author of a history of Delta Sigma Theta, observed that these organizations were more like honor societies than clones of their more socially oriented white counterparts.

"For many, in fact, who for assorted reasons would never have the chance to hold a Phi Beta Kappa key, the criteria-based membership in a fraternity or sorority became its own evidence of academic distinction," Giddings wrote. "Even the Greek appellations were, in part, a defiant response to the notion that a "Negro would never learn to parse a Greek verb or to solve a problem in Euclid,' as former vice president and states' righter John C. Calhoun once opined."

African-American fraternal groups also tended to be more politically active. Delta's first public act as a sorority was participating in the 1913 woman suffrage parade on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.

Today, the organization's efforts evolve around a five-point program including economic development, educational development, international awareness and involvement, physical and mental health and political awareness and involvement.

"It's not like most people think of a sorority, where you have your little tea party," National President Bertha Maxwell-Roddey told the Associated Press.

In its 83 years, the sorority has carved out an impressive membership, including entertainer Lena Horne, the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, singer Roberta Flack, activist and educator Mary McCloud Bethune, actor Ruby Dee and poet Nikki Giovanni.

Locally, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority is represented by members such as C. Bette Wimbish, the first black woman elected to the St. Petersburg City Council, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Helen Wilson, Tampa lawyer Arthenia Joyner and retired Times columnist and editorial writer Peggy Peterman, who will receive the sorority's Ethel Payne journalism award Saturday night.

"We have sorors strategically placed through the nation who are having an impact on a lot of political issues," said Thelma Nolan, president of the St. Petersburg alumnae chapter.

"We are movers, pushers and shakers," Nolan said. "That's why the community should want to know about this Delta Sigma Theta. It has a very long, meaningful history."

The writer is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

Black women may be among their freest, their happiest, and in some ways, their most fulfilled when they are together in their organizations. And it is the sorority, I am convinced, that is the most beloved of all.

_ Paula Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood