MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we want to talk about a different kind of service. If you were in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, then you probably saw a sea of ladies wearing red and white - or rather crimson and cream. Those are the colors of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. The organization celebrated its centennial over the weekend.
It was founded by students at Howard University in 1913 and the group now has some 900 chapters all over the U.S. and in countries around the world, including Germany, Japan and Korea.
We wanted to take a closer look at this organization, so we have called upon Paula Giddings. She is the author of, among other works, "In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement." She is a member of the sorority and the Elizabeth A. Woodson professor at Smith College.
Professor Giddings, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us and Happy Centennial.
PAULA GIDDINGS: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: I don't know if that's the right greeting.
GIDDINGS: Well, thank you. Thank you. Good to be with you.
MARTIN: I'm not sure that many people understand just why a group that many people join in college or in graduate schools still has such a hold on them throughout the rest of their professional and adult lives. So can you just talk a little bit about what this sorority is all about, what it is about it that continues to have its hold on members?
GIDDINGS: I think, at the heart of it, Michel, is the idea of sisterhood. The core values of the sorority are sisterhood, scholarship and service, but sisterhood is really at the center. It practices - we practice sisterhood and I think that's so important to us for so many reasons. It was important when we were founded at Howard University of young women who found themselves striving for liberal arts education at a time when not that many black women were getting bachelor's degrees. It was very important in predominantly white universities, which were also early chapters, like the University of Pennsylvania, where it became a harbor for - against discrimination in that way.
So it's been very, very important. And, you know, I once wrote that I just - I've never seen women quite as happy - black women - as they are when they come together for these kinds of celebrations, as we've seen in D.C. this weekend. Twelve thousand women came to celebrate the centennial.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that the organization claims 200,000 members at the moment, but there are so many famous names listed among its ranks that - just names that people know. For example, the civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height; the singers, Aretha Franklin and Lena Horne; Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, both, you know, pioneering members of Congress. Even today, the broadcaster Soledad O'Brien, the economist Julianne Malveaux and, of course, yourself.
Why is it, do you think, that so many prominent women have been associated - prominent African-American women have been associated with this particular group?
GIDDINGS: Well, it's a wonderful, supportive network. For example, we created - and there are lots of women involved in the arts in Delta Sigma Theta, as well, and there's been great support there for writers, for - we've have master classes for women who have aspirations in music and in the arts, in education.
Service is really very important, too. For those of us who are really involved and want to help our communities, the sorority Delta Sigma Theta provides a way to do that through - we have an endowed share, certainly, scholarships, hundreds and hundreds of scholarships for young girls, a Delta Academy for juvenile girls. So there are so many ways in which we can express ourselves and express our aspirations in the particular way that our history has shaped black women.
MARTIN: And noted on the website and in the history of the organization is that the first public act of the group when it was founded was to march for women's suffrage and that association with kind of public service and activism continues.
I wanted to ask you, Paula Giddings, as a person with kind of a deep look at these issues, not just at the Delta as an organization, but kind of more broadly. This group, as you noted, was founded at a time when it was difficult for even the most talented African-Americans to kind of find ways to express themselves publicly, to have a public voice, to be public and important figures, but it does - but, as we've noted, now that is no longer the case.
How is it or how does a group like this continue to remain vibrant when members have a lot of other ways to express their interest in public service and activism?
GIDDINGS: That's an interesting question. You know, last year, we had a conference in Puerto Rico called Breaking the Silence and one of the themes of that conference was that African-American women particularly have had a history of having to protect themselves psychologically and physically from vulnerabilities, and we keep a lot of secrets.
Darlene Clark Hine, who's also a member of the sorority, calls this the culture of dissemblance of African-American women. And in that conference, people came together to talk about all those things that they have held inside of them and that they've always been reluctant to let others really know. And it was a phenomenal conference, Michel, if you can imagine, because it was a place where people could trust one another to even do that, and many of us don't feel we can do that, no matter how famous we might be or what - achievement-oriented achievements we may have to do that.
And so one of the things of a sorority is not just what's happening externally, what we do on the outside, even though that's very important, but one of the reasons why sororities were founded were also to talk about what's happening within and to be able to share that. And so I think this has been a very important aspect of the organization.
MARTIN: Professor Giddings, we have a minute left. Do you envision the next centennial? Do you think that 100 years from now my successor, hopefully yours, will still be talking about this group?
GIDDINGS: Oh, I think there's no question because the need will continue for all aspects of the sorority and so I'm hopeful just for a wonderful future.
MARTIN: Paula Giddings is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. She's the author of a number of books, including "In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement" and she was kind enough to join us from New England Public Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Happy Centennial. Happy First 100.
GIDDINGS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you for joining us.
GIDDINGS: Thank you, Michel.
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MARTIN: But when does a soul food habit become dangerous to your health? Filmmaker Byron Hurt asks that question in his latest film, "Soul Food Junkies." We'll hear about it next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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