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Jennifer Richardson, Francene Breakfield, L.D. Neicy Wells and Beverly Schembri pose for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 in front of the University of Georgia chapel in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Ryan Cameron rcameron@randb.com)

Set against the backdrop of a segregated south and a newly-integrated University of Georgia, eight students at UGA chartered the university’s first African American sorority in 1969. Backed by a powerful sisterhood and an alumnae network of over 600 graduates, the women of the Zeta Psi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta are celebrating 50 years of sisterhood, service and scholarship.

The sorority created the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Fortitude 1969 Scholarship in honor of the anniversary, and the UGA Foundation has pledged to match each $50,000 that is raised. The scholarship is part of the UGA Foundation’s Georgia Commitment Scholarship Program.

The organization’s goal was to raise $100,000, which it exceeded before the event. The goal was then raised to $125,000. After this past weekend’s events, the scholarship campaign alone had raised $138,467.91. Combined with matching funds from the UGA Foundation, the campaign has raised about $238,000.

In establishing the scholarship, DST hopes to “bring diversity to [UGA] and to provide need-based aid for underserved students who have overcome socioeconomic obstacles,” according to the scholarship description. The award will help students with “a reported family income less than tuition and fees.”

DST, which has chapters around the world, was founded in 1913 at Howard University. It has since expanded to include more than 200,000 women.

58 years since desegregation

When Charlayne Hunter-Gault became the first African American woman admitted to UGA in 1961, there was a lack of extracurricular opportunities for minority students. The first black UGA students were influential in creating organizations such as DST where members could “officially associate with, join or become a member of something greater than themselves,” said UGA alumna and DST member Francene Breakfield, who served as co-chair of the anniversary’s activities this month.

The founding members of Zeta Psi are referred to as “The Great Eight.” Jontyle Robinson is a DST sponsoring advisor and one of the women who helped the founders establish a charter at UGA. As a graduate student at UGA, Robinson had already been inducted into DST in 1966 at Clark Atlanta University. Robinson worked with the founders to bring the organization to campus.

In 1968, Robinson partnered with her former Clark Atlanta classmate and DST member, Francine Rae Abbott, to begin the process. The two met with members of white sororities, who were willing to help, but were not open to letting DST participate in white sorority rush events. The founders used what they learned and began collaborating with the university.

Beverly Johnson-Hood was one of the founding members of the chapter as an undergraduate student. Although the original members were not close friends before the chapter’s start, they knew of each other because “there was such a small percentage of black students on campus,” Johnson-Hood said.

“We knew about the white sororities and fraternities but now there was a cohesive attempt for us to be of service to the local community as well as grow in our relationships with other ladies,” she said. “It was a bonding opportunity for us.”

Since its founding, Breakfield said the culture around UGA has changed. She is celebrating 25 years in the organization alongside L.D. Neicy Wells, the co-chair for this past weekend’s event. The pair call each other “line sisters,” meaning they were in the same pledge class.

Breakfield said that while the percentage of African American students at UGA has not increased by a large amount, there is notably more diversity. Black students made up 7.7% of undergraduates as of fall 2018 — the U.S. Census estimated in 2018 that 32% of Georgians were black.

“There are a lot more organizations on campus than were there when we were there,” she said. “[Black students] have so many more opportunities than we did.”

Anniversary celebrations

In honor of their founding year, DST hosted a “iRun & Walk for the Health of It” 6.9K run and health fair event on Oct. 26 at Trail Creek Park with the Athens Neighborhood Health Center, the Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens and the ACC Health Department.

According to Breakfield, the chapter has hosted the health fair for the past several years, though on a much smaller scale. The proceeds from the event benefited the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Fortitude 1969 Scholarship.

DST has made it a goal to get involved with its community since the beginning, Breakfield said.

“Members are heavily regarded as folks who are embedded in the political climate and working towards rights for women,” Breakfield said.

Members of the local chapter share the same sentiment. DST plays an active role in the Athens community. It hosts the annual Miss Black University of Georgia Pageant, which raises money for the Kimberlee N. Chatmon Memorial Scholarship. In memory of the chapter’s first deceased member, the scholarship is awarded to a local high school senior each spring.

The Zeta Psi chapter of DST received the NPHC Sorority of the Year Award during the 2005-2006 and 2011-2014 years. It was named Organization of the Year in 2014 at UGA’s H. Gordon and Francis S. Davis Student Organization Achievement and Recognition Awards.

When reflecting back on the progress made since 1969, Robinson gives much of the credit to the “Great Eight” for fighting the political unrest that was prevalent throughout the state.

Robinson quoted feminist Audre Lorde as she said that black women “were never meant to survive.” To her, 50 years on campus is proof of how hard members have fought to have a voice and to be recognized.

“The circumstances surrounding our existence in America supports that we were never meant to survive,” she said. “And the fact that Zeta Psi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta lasted at the University of Georgia is stupendous.”