Born to Service

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Recently, a stretch of Decatur Street between Malcolm X and Patchen Avenues in Brooklyn was renamed for Fannie Pettie Watts, the youngest founder of my beloved Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. Now my mind travels back thirty years to the first time I walked that block of Bedford Stuyvesant in route to Founder Pettie Watts’ home.

A teenager at the time, I was a Zeta perspective attending a founders day celebration. When the ceremony ended, I volunteered to deliver the sorority’s bouquet to Founder Pettie Watts. It is hard to describe my adoration and awe of the short little woman who greeted me at the front door. I was so speechless I forgot my name. She accepted the flowers with the grace and kindness she was known for then offered me a seat.

There I was treated to her recollection of the events that culminated in the founding on January 16, 1920 of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. In a way, our sorority sprung from a rib of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. At their 1919 conclave, fraternity founder A. Langston Taylor and another member Charles Robert Samuel Taylor were tasked with a mission that would change the history of black greek letter organizations. They were to find a group of esteemed women to create a sister organization for the fraternity. College for these men only a generation or two removed from slavery was likely their first experience of living away from home. The fraternity realized these young men would benefit from the fellowship and camaraderie of like-minded women. Charles was very keen on the idea and immediately shared it with his girlfriend Arizona Cleaver, a popular coed at Howard University. Founder Cleaver quickly recruited fourteen women interested in becoming the first members, but as is often the case with the best laid plans, things didn’t go as smoothly as she’d anticipated. After learning of the proposed moral and academic standards, the founding group dwindled to only Pearl Anna Neal and sisters Myrtle Tyler (Faithful) and Viola Tyler (Goings). Still one shy of the requisite five the university required, Fannie Pettie saved the day!

Before moving forward with the new organization, the women asked themselves what more could a new sorority contribute since there were already two on the campus of Howard University. The women determined to distinguish themselves by being an organization in which elitism and socializing would take a back seat to the primary mission: defeating the prejudices and poverty that acutely affected the black community. 

Intent on doing things differently, the women began their expansion by granting charters to historically black colleges and universities in the Jim Crow South rather than on white campuses in urban areas. The women knew, from the stories they read in black newspapers and heard from those who had been a part of the recent great migration of southern blacks to northern cities, that this was dangerous. They were undeterred.

Zeta’s spirit for embarking on new frontiers would continue as it became the first National Pan-Hellenic Council organization to charter a chapter in Africa, centralize its operations in a national headquarters, and be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.

When my little chat with Founder Pettie Watts ended, I knew Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. was my destiny. I shared this with Founder Pettie Watts who said, “I hope you make it in because we’re a nice group of women” 

She made me promise to come back to visit her, so after I was initiated, I went back and told her. She was thrilled for me and became like a grandmother. We celebrated birthdays together and often joined each other’s families for dinners and special occasions. I would visit her to clean and assist with errands. I was honored to share time with her, especially as a fellow member of the local Delta Alpha Zeta Chapter. One of the things I most cherish is having had the opportunity to create a Zeta room within her home where all of her memorabilia could be displayed.

During those early years in the sorority, the thought of leading the organization into its second century was not yet in my imagination, but today, here I stand. I’m proud to have this opportunity, as the 25th international president, to mount the centennial flag for Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. and usher my sisters into the future. 

I do so with the wisdom I gained from Founder Fannie Pettie Watts and other mentors who showed me what it takes to be committed to service, to support sisterhood, and to run a multi-million dollar enterprise with scruples, acumen, and passion. I also gained knowledge from friends, family members, professional colleagues, training courses and leadership resources, and my personal experience. And so this book is written in parts. The first part encompasses much of my life and experiences. The remaining sections are to instruct. I impart these one hundred lessons first and foremost to my sisters of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated in honor of our one hundred years of service. But I believe and hope they inspire women the world over.