The year was 1920. It was the start of the decade, shortly after World War One, and a time of great prosperity for the country. Women were called dames, dolls, or the cat’s meow. At the beginning of the decade, women still wore long skirts but the “Roaring 20s” brought a new look of short skirts and smartly coiffed shorter hair. Racial tensions were high and quotas set for immigrants coming into America. The Klan was very active during this period. The Harlem Renaissance was acknowledged as the first important movement of black artists and writers in the US. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became effective, heralding the start of Prohibition and on August 18th of the same year, Tennessee delivered the crucial 36th ratification necessary for the final adoption of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The worst and longest economic recession to ever hit the United States would define the end of the decade-the Great Depression.
It was within this environment that Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded on the simple belief that sorority elitism and socializing should not overshadow the real mission for progressive organizations – to address societal mores, ills, prejudices, poverty, and health concerns of the day. Founded January 16, 1920, Zeta began as an idea conceived by five coeds at Howard University in Washington D.C.: Arizona Cleaver, Myrtle Tyler, Viola Tyler, Fannie Pettie and Pearl Neal. These five women, also known as our Five Pearls, dared to depart from the traditional coalitions for black women and sought to establish a new organization predicated on the precepts of Scholarship, Service, Sisterly Love and Finer Womanhood. It was the ideal of the Founders that the Sorority would reach college women in all parts of the country who were sorority minded and desired to follow the founding principles of the organization. Founder Viola Tyler was oft quoted to say “[In the ideal collegiate situation] there is a Zeta in a girl regardless of race, creed, or color, who has high standards and principles, a good scholarly average and an active interest in all things that she undertakes to accomplish.”
Since its inception, the Sorority has chronicled a number of firsts. Zeta Phi Beta was the first Greek-letter organization to charter a chapter in Africa (1948); to form adult and youth auxiliary groups; to centralize its operations in a national headquarters; and to be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated.
Zeta’s national and local programs include endowment of its National Educational Foundation, community outreach services and support of multiple affiliate organizations. Zeta chapters and auxiliary groups have given untotaled hours of voluntary service to educate the public, assist youth, provide scholarships, support organized charities and promote legislation for social and civic change.
A nonprofit organization, Zeta Phi Beta is incorporated in Washington, D.C. and in the state of Illinois. The dues and gifts of its members support the Sorority.
Over the years since the sorority’s inception, Zeta Phi Beta has chartered hundreds of chapters and initiated thousands of women around the world. Zeta has continued to thrive and flourish while adapting to the ever-changing needs of a new century. Despite the Great Depression, discrimination and segregation and a host of other challenges, Zeta has continued to hold true to its ideals and purpose, for, as stated by one of the Sorority’s founding members: “…I believe that no [other] organization could have been founded upon principles that were so near and dear to all of our hearts.” (Founder Myrtle Tyler)
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Zeta Phi Beta Sorority is unique in the way the organization decided to expand the reach of the Sorority beyond Howard University’s campus and into a national organization. While other organizations focused on initially establishing chapters at predominately white educational institutions, Zeta saw a clear need to develop chapters leveraging the backbone of the African American educational experience-
As such, Zeta dared to establish its very first chapters not in the relatively urban cities of Chicago, New York and Detroit, but in the deeply divided cities in the Deep South including Talladega, AL, Lorman, MS and Charlotte, NC. Zeta’s first two chapters after Howard University were established at historically black universities-
Zeta Phi Beta was also at the forefront in other areas of expansion. In 1937, National President Violette Anderson asked Lambda Zeta chapter to host the upcoming national convention in Houston, Texas. No other black Greek-
Zeta again sought to challenge established norms in the 1940′s when work began to develop a chapter in Africa. Many African students attended American universities in the 1930s and 1940s, and several of these students became members of Zeta Phi Beta. One of these women, Dr. Rachel Townsend, commented how she would love to have a chapter in her country of Liberia, Africa. At the encouragement of other Sorority members, Dr. Townsend returned to Liberia to find other Zetas who had attended Howard University and were interested in forming a chapter. An application was submitted, and the charter was granted in December 1948 for the establishment of a Zeta graduate chapter in Monrovia, Liberia, Africa.