On Jan. 16, 1920, coeds Myrtle Tyler, Gladys Warrington, Joanna Houston, Josephine F. Johnson and L.O. Goldia Smith came together on the campus of Howard University to form the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
During a time when women were fighting the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan was on the move across the country and there were few opportunities for people of color, the young women would start an organization that would grow into one of the country’s major sororities.
Today, Zeta Phi Beta is one of the “Divine Nine” Greek-letter organizations. On the eve of their centennial year, the organization’s president announced that they plan to give a future college student a $100,000 scholarship to underscore the importance of education.
“We are a sister organization that based on scholarship, service and sisterly love,” said Valerie Hollingsworth Baker, who in July 2018 was elected as Zeta Phi Beta’s 25th international president. “Education and scholarship go hand in hand, and with this $100,000 we want to show that education is important to young people.”
Prominent members of Zeta Phi Beta include renowned author Zora Neale Hurston, comedian Sheryl Underwood, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and singer Sarah Vaughan.
Baker said that from the very beginning, the Zetas stressed the highest standards of scholastic achievement, sisterhood and service and its members are carrying on a proud legacy that started in the District of Columbia.
Baker, who is a member of Delta Mu Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, said her mentor was Zeta founder Fannie Pettie Watts, whose words have been a driving force in her life.
According to the sorority’s website, there were five founders of Zeta Phi Beta, with four others initiated soon after. Zeta Phi Beta took top scholastic honors on the Howard University campus when a member of the second pledge class, Pauline Phillips, graduated summa cum laude.
Baker said she hopes Watts is looking down on her from above with a smile, adding that she always remembers Watts’ words to live by: “Be the best you can be, do the best that you can, give the best of yourself, and you will go far.”