Three generations of women gathered one recent afternoon in a Hamlin Park home to share their personal stories of growth.
They are all members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the largest African-American organization for women in the country. This year marks 100 years of community service for the group that started on the campus of Howard University in 1913 with 22 young women.
Locally, the 90 active members of the Buffalo Alumnae Chapter will join the celebration with a year of events. They include the Western New York Black Film Festival, the Crimson and Cream Scholarship Gala and the Black College Tour for high school students.
At age 84, Rowena Adams Jones is the local chapter’s senior member. She presided over the Buffalo chapter from 1958 to 1960, and while talking with the other women in the dining room of her Victorian home, she wears sorority colors of crimson and cream. Seated with Jones are sorority members Jennifer J. Parker and Morgan Williams-Bryant.
Jones was a Girl Scout leader for 25 years, and smiles with pride when recounting a trip to Washington, D.C., in the 1970s with 27 scouts to meet Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress – and who was a Delta Sigma Theta member.
Jones, a University at Pittsburgh graduate, moved here to earn her graduate degree from the University at Buffalo, where she later worked in the office of student affairs.
When Jones joined the Buffalo Alumnae Chapter in 1948, she recalled, it had only a dozen members.
The women joining her at her home come from later generations.
Parker, a Buffalo attorney and businesswoman, is 52.
Williams-Bryant is 31, and works as deputy commissioner of youth services for Erie County. Her career path was launched back when she was a junior at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and attended the sorority’s Black College Tour.
“To see other black young people in college and doing so well motivated me to want to do the same thing,” she said.
The 300,000 members of Delta Sigma Theta crisscross the world with chapters in England, Germany, Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, Japan and Korea. Notable members include singers Lena Horne, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin, actresses Ruby Dee Davis and Keshia Knight Pulliam, and newswoman Soledad O’Brien, along with many women in politics and other areas of community leadership.
Historically, Delta Sigma Theta social action projects have targeted some tough issues dating back to March 1913, when members took part in the women’s suffrage parade in Washington.
The members of the Buffalo Alumnae Chapter fuel each other through their commitment to community service and enrichment programs. Yet their attention to civil rights history is a necessary element to their continued success, members believe.
“When you know who you are, you can stand up for what you do,” Parker said.
Black Film Festival
The Western New York Black Film Festival is in its 11th year. Co-founded in 2002 with Common Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith, its purpose is to focus attention on such issues as domestic violence, civil rights, mental illness and HIV awareness.
Past films have included Keith Beauchamp’s civil rights documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” and Andrew P. Jones’ “Kings of the Evening,” about the Great Depression.
This year, the festival presents Ya’Ke Smith’s film “Wolf,” the story of a family coming to terms with a son who has been molested and his relationship with his abuser. It stars Irma P. Hall and Eugene Lee. The event, which starts at 5 p.m. next Saturday at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, 639 Main St., will be followed by a discussion led by invited guests Hall, Lee and Smith. Tickets are $5. (The movie is not recommended for children under 12; young teens should be accompanied by an adult.)
Black College Tour
For more than 20 years, the Buffalo Alumnae Chapter has helped high school juniors and seniors visit historically black colleges, including Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, and Howard University in Washington.
The tour was started in 1990 in partnership with Xerox Corp. by Mattie L. Rhodes, a clinical associate professor in the University at Buffalo’s School of Nursing. It takes place in October, timed to coincide with the colleges’ homecoming celebrations. Before the tour, students can take part in preparatory workshops on financial aid, entrance exams and black history.
“It gives students an opportunity to see more African-Americans in leadership roles,” said Parker, who attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s an empowerment type situation. You have to remember, there are students in Buffalo who have never been outside of the city.”
Parker was a college sophomore in 1978 when she pledged for Delta. Growing up in Greensboro, N.C., she attended an all-African-American school from first through sixth grades. Court-ordered busing started when she was in seventh grade, she said.
“You see things, and you don’t even know what they’re about ... my parents sheltered me,” she said, recalling a trip to a movie house in South Carolina when she and her family sat in the balcony. “I liked those seats,” Parker said. “I didn’t know we had to sit up there.”
Parker married Melvin A. Parker, a Buffalo native whom she met in college, and moved to Buffalo in 1981. Both she and her husband graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Law. He is now a tax attorney. She operates Black Capital Network and Jackson Parker Communications.
Last year, the Buffalo Alumnae Chapter awarded $16,500 in scholarships to 18 students locally, according to Williams-Bryant. A major source of scholarship funding is the Crimson and Cream Scholarship Gala, which recognizes outstanding citizens and organizations in the community. Tonight’s gala, at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, is expected to draw 600 people.
The sorority’s support of education goes back decades. In 1937, the Grand Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in Washington initiated the National Literacy Project, providing reading materials to African-Americans and funding bookmobiles to serve people living in rural areas.
Professionally, Williams-Bryant has focused on youth services in the Buffalo area. In 2007, she directed youth services for the county Community Action Organization and administered $2 million in grant funding for programs.
As second vice president of Buffalo Alumnae Chapter, Williams-Bryant credits her sisters with her interest in the sorority. “Being attached to so many prominent and educated women who already have been where I am going is immeasurable,” she said. “They have pushed me to use my talents and skill in poetry and as a motivational speaker.”
Locally, the centennial observance was launched Jan. 20 with a worship service at New Covenant United Christian Church on Clinton Street. Delta member and pastor the Rev. Jacqueline Ross Brown led the service.