100 Years of Sisterhood, Captured in a Night

Delta Sigma Theta float at Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 1, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty)
Delta Sigma Theta float at Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 1, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty)

(The Root) — I wasn't entirely sure it would be worth all the fuss. It was a half hour before midnight on Sunday, and a surprise fog had dimmed the neighborhood's streetlights to spooky. Recovering on the couch after a hard day of being out seemed like the smart thing to do. Did we really still want to go?


The resounding answer from the women reminiscing on the couch next to me was "Girl, yes." Yes, we were still going to walk to Howard University's campus to fellowship with the other women in the city celebrating Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.'s 100th-year anniversary when the clock struck midnight.

"And what exactly are sorors going to actually be doing out there?" I asked, feeling like a Scrooge on New Year's Eve complaining about the touristy mobs down in Times Square.

"Singing songs, I think? Who cares! It's our centennial!"

So I rooted through my closet for something red and weather-appropriate, finding a multicolored scarf with a hint of crimson and a fire-engine red sweater from a few Christmases ago that was too small. But it felt good putting that color on for a reason again. I was getting my second wind despite still being skeptical about how thousands of grown women were going to handle standing around without anything concrete to do besides smile at one another.

I can't remember not wanting to be a Delta. My mother wasn't one, and neither was my grandmother or my great-grandmother. But to me, pledging a sorority, like graduating from college and barreling through a career with a capital C, simply seemed like a given. And after doing my research, I decided that Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was the only option. I showed up at my initial interview in an emerald-green skirt suit paired with a deep-fuchsia silk shirt — pink and green — and somehow made the cut. Delta would always be that forgiving.

In the almost 13 years since, the sorority has been like an invisible escalator in my life. I've stumbled, I've raced up the steps two by two and I've leaned against the railing for a rest, while Delta keeps moving forward and gathering speed.


We talk often about our illustrious history and our accomplishments as an organization dedicated to public service, but for me what we do and have done is secondary to what we are: a sisterhood. Bringing strangers together and turning them into sisters — not co-workers or even teammates — is no easy task, and yet I consider the women I made vows with more than a decade ago my family, not just really good friends.

But promises you make aren't always promises kept in their entirety. As the years have stretched between, I've been noticeably lax in my commitment to the work of the sorority, using excuses like shuffling from state to state and having an equally nomadic bank account to avoid settling into a graduate chapter and finding a Delta home base. I realized what was missing when my chapter sorors and I started our walk to Howard's campus during Saturday's last hour.


The amount of red someone had on was almost directly proportional to how active that person had been in the sorority. One of my sisters — the one who makes sure to keep in touch with every new line coming out of our chapter — had on three layers of letters. Of course, we made fun of her "para on para on para," but I was just as proud, especially when other women called out to us from moving cars. "Oo-oop," yelled a woman in her 40s, beaming. "Hey, soror," we yelled back, never knowing her name.

By the time we arrived at the famed Fortitude statue on Howard's main campus, the storm of red was practically a monsoon. Despite living in Washington for more than seven years, I had never seen Fortitude in person. Like a native New Yorker who'd never been to the Statue of Liberty, I knew it was there without having to lay eyes on it. Still, the experience was overwhelming.


"Commissioned by the sorority and unveiled at Howard University in 1979 as a tribute to the founders, the Fortitude sculpture is a visible symbol of the celebration of black womanhood," according to Delta's official website, and the history I memorized by heart all those years ago. "The statue symbolizes courage, hope, wisdom and strength."

I've recited those words like a mantra before, but seeing them come to life in front of me was a different experience. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women filled all the available space within the Fortitude line of sight. This was "sisterhood" as a verb. We were doing what we said we would do: coming together.


The singing started right after midnight, after we'd laughed and hugged and cried and shouted to the heavens like women celebrating the New Year, Christmas and a birthday all at once. At first we strained to hear the right notes, but they kept getting swallowed by the fog. So we gave up and gave in.

"What verse is this?" a soror next to me asked.

"I have no clue," I answered. So we both just swayed, knowing that we'd catch up eventually because the song would go on.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.