On a bright, blazing Sunday morning with the lush green hills, thatched roofs and red clay roads snaking through the Royal Ezulwini Valley of region of Swaziland like a picture perfect postcard, a delegation of Delta Sigma Theta sorority members and guests were immediately moved to dig in their red purses to raise enough money to purchase windows for an unfinished AME church building framed only by cinderblocks.
From its founding in January 1913 by 22 Howard University women, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority has stayed true to its original objectives of “sisterhood, scholarship and service” – with the emphasis on the latter.
This week the District of Columbia will see a sea of red, the organization’s trademark color, as thousands of Deltas descend on the nation’s capital to attend their centennial convention. But it’s certain that public service programs, not just partying are on the full, weighty agenda of the service organization that has grown to 200,000 members in 900 chapters worldwide.
Current Delta President Cynthia M.A. Butler-McIntyre’s message is: “Standing on the shoulders of giants, Delta women continue to innovate and make a difference in the communities we serve. Following in the footsteps of our Founders, we are guided by our biennial theme, ‘A Sisterhood Called to Serve; Transforming Lives, Impacting Communities.’”
One of the first public acts of Delta Sigma Theta was to participate in the March 1913 Women Suffragists March on Washington, a role they reenacted earlier this year. And voting rights has been one of their priorities since, as promised in their response to continue pushing the cause last week after the Supreme Court’s decision to nearly nullify the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Service in a sea of red smiles: It was nearly a decade ago, December 2003, that as a journalist I accompanied about 40 Deltas on a mercy mission to South Africa and Swaziland during a whirlwind trip hosted by AME Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie and lead by then-Delta President Gwendolyn Boyd, who now serves as a co-chair of the Social Action Committee.
For a dozen days, I (a non-Delta) watched the sorors – dressed in all manner of red paraphernalia — deliver medical supplies to the Delta House for AIDS orphans, donate school supplies to their adopted Adelaide Tambo School in Soweto, conduct educational workshops at Hillside School, hand out T-shirts to children in Khayelitsha township, and purchase handmade items simply to support microbusinesses at the Bruma Lake flea market for local women vendors.
At the time, Sikhumbufo Dube Thembalelihle, a social worker at the Delta House in Mbabane, Swaziland, remarked, “When the bus pulled up and we saw that all the ladies getting our were black, we said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Black coming to help Black,’ and it gave us so much hope.”
In 2003, under Boyd’s leadership, Delta Sigma Theta was recognized for its volunteer and humanitarian service worldwide by the United Nations and was granted Special Consultative Status as a designated NGO (non-governmental organization) by the Economic and Social Council to monitor the status of programs for women and children in the world.
Deltas have a long history of humanitarian aid to Africa. In 1955 the sorority helped establish the maternity hospital in Thika, Kenya, and donated about $20,000 to it in 1985. It is now known at the Mary Help of the Sick Mission Hospital operated by the missionary sisters of the Holy Rosary and provides expanded health care services.
Physical and mental health is one of the pillars of the Delta’s Five Point Programmatic Thrust. The others are Economic Development, Educational Development, International Awareness and Involvement and Political Awareness and Involvement.
The organization sponsors Delta Days at the UN as well as Delta Days in the U.S. Congress to inform lawmakers of public policy issues particularly affecting African American women, many of which have been researched and analyzed through The Delta Foundation think tank based in D.C. along with the sorority’s national headquarters.
Rolling up their red sleeves, the Deltas service programs include the Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academy, the Jabberwock Program and Cotillion, the Well Water Project in Malawi, the Bless My Feet shoe distribution in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Sanitary Pad Project that allows young girls to continue attending classes.
During that 2003 Delta mercy mission that I witnessed, Bishop McKenzie, the organization's chaplain who was then posted in South Africa, noted how important such international service sojourns are. At that time, she said, “Now when I tell them that their brothers and sisters in America care about them, they can put a face to the names.”
And, surely they’ll remember the sea of red during those Delta days of service.
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at [email protected].