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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Members in the Bay Area Celebrate 100th Founders' Day

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority members from Northern California posing before stepping and marching in Oakland's Black Joy Parade.
Stacy Johnson
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority members from Northern California posing before stepping and marching in Oakland's Black Joy Parade.

This year Sigma Gamma Rho, a historically Black sorority, turned 100 years old in November. Seven Black educators founded the organization in Indianapolis. In this story, we're going from Oakland to Indianapolis to hear about the organization's unique history.

Celebrating in Oakland

The Mimosa 2 Lounge in Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood is packed with my sorority sisters and guests. A large group of us are outside in front of the lounge reciting sorority chants.

It’s Friday night and we’re here celebrating our 100th Founders’ Day, which is about a week away. Sorors from around the Bay Area and Sacramento came to this party, which is one of many my sorority sisters are throwing in the U.S. and around parts of the globe.

You only turn 100 once and we’ve been celebrating all year. We performed at Oakland’s Black Joy Parade, danced at a NBA game, hosted two star-studded celebrations in our founding city of Indianapolis and had a street named after us. We stepped in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on the “Today Show.”

Major artists such as Charlie Wilson, Kirk Franklin, Too Short and our sorority sisters MC Lyte and Marsha Ambrosius performed at our concerts. I could go on with all of the exciting events. From the Bay to Dubai, we’ve been having a good time.

And we honored this occasion doing what our founders were committed to – service. Such as mobilizing people to vote, providing backpacks and school supplies for kids, partnering withUSA Swimming to teach water safety and reduce drownings of Black and Latino youth.

The Seven Founders of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority 

Seven Black teachers foundedSigma Gamma Rho Sorority on November 12, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their names are Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Vivian Irene White Marbury, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Hattie Mae Annette Dulin Redford, Bessie Mae Downey Rhoades Martin, and Cubena McClure.

Most of the women studied at Butler University.

“Founder McClure died [of appendicitis at 24] before she could start her bachelor’s degree," says Prof. Donna J. Nicol, a sorority member and chair of the Africana Studies Department at CSU Dominguez Hills. Prof. Nicol also serves as a history consultant to the sorority. “[Founder McClure] was awarded a prestigious Gregg scholarship to attend Columbia University, which provided further educational training to established teachers in Indianapolis.”

Prof. Nicol says some of the founders, such as Founder Redford, attended Buttler for graduate school.

Sigma Gamma Rho is one of four Black sororities in the National Panhellenic Council (NPHC). We’re the youngest sorority and only sorority in the NPHC founded at a predominantly white college. The other three sororities were founded at a Historically Black university. That information appealed to me before becoming a member through the Oakland alumni chapter in 2004. I graduated from a predominantly white university, and was an exchange student at a Black college. The major difference was that I didn’t face racial obstacles on a campus, where most of the students looked like me.

The sorority’s history resonates with many Sigma sorors, such as Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark.

“I became a member of Sigma Gamma Rho on May 31st, 1992,” says Tamika.

Tamika is originally from Oakland. She joined the sorority while attending Sacramento State. We’re chatting in my car outside of the party in Oakland. Her rhinestone Sigma pin sparkles against her black sweater. Tamika loves Sigma history. She served as historian on every level starting from undergrad chapter. And recently finished her last term as the sorority’s international historian. I ask her what about our founders’ story holds meaning for her.

Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark
Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark
Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark

Tamika answers,The interesting part for me is that these were just women, who were just trying to figure out a way to better themselves, so that they could better the Black community as a whole and have a greater impact.”

Our founders, who ranged in age from 17 to 26 years old, were courageous too.

“Yeah, in the 1920s, D.C. Stephenson, who was like the [Grand Dragon] of the Klan, bought property that was adjacent to Butler University,” says Tamika.

That’s a major part of our sorority’s history. Time for a trip to the past.

Going Back to Indy and Irvington

Over the summer, I flew to Indianapolis for the sorority’s Centennial Boule. While there, I went on a tour in a neighborhood called Irvington. This was the first location of the Butler University campus. Steve Schmidt is a tour guide and volunteer with the

Irvington Historical Society.

KALW's Jenee Darden reporting while touring the Irvington neighborhood.
Jenee Darden
KALW's Jenee Darden reporting while touring the Irvington neighborhood.

“Now, the reason I wanted to stop here is because you are now literally walking in the footsteps of some of your founders,” says Steve.

As he talks into the mic, he points the hand-held speaker to the long bright trail of women wearing summer clothes in our sorority colors– royal blue and gold. All look curious about the information Steve is sharing.

He says that our founders were able to attend a predominantly white and male college in those days because of the politics of Butler’s founder.

Steve explains,Ovid Butler was an attorney, a newspaper publisher, and an abolitionist, who was very progressive. He wanted to establish a school that was open to all. Butler was the second school in the nation to admit women on an equal basis and one of the very early ones to admit Blacks on an equal basis.”

In the 1920s, this neighborhood was made up of huge houses on large lots of land. Now, it’s a suburban neighborhood with historic homes and wide porches that make you want to sit outside with a glass of iced tea. American flags wave from the front of a few houses. Another sign I’m in the midwest – the weather. It was hot and the bugs were out. I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life, so I wasn’t used to this heat. Even one of my sorors from Florida thought it was really hot. We find some relief in the shade as Steve gives us more information.

“Okay, a couple of facts I'd like to call your attention,” he says. Six of the seven founders worked for Indianapolis public schools. For most of their lives, only one taught elsewhere. Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little spent most of her career in Los Angeles.

Sorors made our sorority call, “EEE-YIP,” for Founder Gardner-Little because she is the primary founder.  

Steve continues, “And all seven of the founders had more education than the vast majority of Americans at the time, or even now, and most of them earned advanced graduate degrees. Okay, we got one more house. we're gonna stop at.”

Now we arrive at the property once owned by D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. The current house looks nothing like Stephenson’s house. Our guide points to a tour marker that shows a photo of Stephenson’s home from a century ago. He made some changes to his house when he moved in. His tastes in decor reflected his politics.

He removed the original front porch and installed large columns on the front to emulate a southern plantation home,” says Steve.

The crowd groans.

Indiana was nicknamed “Klandiana” in the 1920s because of its high concentration of Klansmen. More than 30 percent of white men in the state were Klan members. Stephenson had a lot of power and political influence. Our tour guide Steve says the Klan backed candidates, including the governor, the mayor of Indianapolis and the school board.

Stephenson became a king maker and announced that he was the law in Indiana,” says Steve. However, his end came when he violently raped and assaulted a young Irvington woman named Madge Oberholtzer. She later died from the wounds he inflicted.

Madgeworked as Stephenson’s aide. According to a story in Smithsonian Magazine, he forced her to take a trip with him to Chicago and raped her on a train ride. Madge died about a month later.Stephenson was charged and convicted of rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder. People started distancing themselves from him.

Steve tells us, “Klan power diminished quickly as politicians scrambled to disavow any involvement with his organization. In 1922, the women who founded Sigma Gamma Rho were obviously aware of the Klan, of Stephenson in the ominous times, yet they persisted and built a thriving organization.”

I stood at the gate of D.C. Stephenson’s former property. The house there now is a chalky white, Georgia colonial style home with tall pillars. I wondered if our young founders were afraid at times, or just super cautious when they came to this community for school. Steve tells me other Klansmen lived in the neighborhood then.

Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark says the founders had no other choice but to persevere.

They pretty much had to go past his house to just go to school because as African-American women, teaching was a noble cause,” Tamika says. It was a way to become a professional, to get outta domestic work, to better themselves and their families and their community.

Butler Campus

I take a 15-minute Lyft ride to the current Butler University campus, where many sorors are taking photos of a new plaza built in honor of the founders. It includes seven pillars, each with our founders’ names and bios.

Sorors call for other members to gather. They spontaneously form a circle around the pillars, holding hands and singing our hymn.

“Sigma Gamma Rho of thee we sing in chorus, thy beacon bright shines clear before us…”

I go over to the grass, and stand back away from the crow to take everything in. For me, this week in Indianapolis has been very moving and powerful and, and just full of love and sisterhood. This is history. This is American history and Black history.

Sigma women have made their mark in history, such as Maritza Correia McClendon, the first African-American woman to make a US Olympic swim team; Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar; American Idol and Grammy winner Fantasia Barrino-Taylor. Here in the Bay, we have members such as Oakland Congresswoman Barabara Lee and Dee Johnson, founder of the Lend a Hand Foundation, which assists underserved and low-income youth.

It’s not only the big names that attract women to Sigma. Tamika recalls being impressed with how the sorors she met in college were active both on and off campus, and welcoming to her.

 “They were just overall really friendly women,” says Tamika. “ [They were] the kind of women that I knew that I wanted to associate myself with for the rest of my life.”

“Wow, that's deep,” I respond.
“Yeah,” says Tamika. “I was 18 when I joined and now I'm 49. That should tell you that I was looking long term and those women had the qualities that I liked and that I wanted to be a part of.”

Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark’s Golden Legacy

Sadly, this was my last conversation with Tamika. She passed away a few weeks after this interview. Tamika was a daughter, an aunt, a sister, a good friend, a soror, a beloved singer who performed around the Bay Area and a social media strategist for a non-profit. That’s just a short list. She had a big heart and gave so much to people. Many are grieving her passing, including me.

Jenee Darden and Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark outside of District in Oakland.
Jenee Darden
Jenee Darden and Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark outside of District in Oakland.

Tamika Nicole Williams-Clark embodied the women who made me want to be a member of Sigma Gamma Rho– smart, down to earth, beautiful sistas on the inside and out, who exemplify our sorority’s slogan of “Greater service, Greater progress.”

Tamika did live to celebrate our centennial on November 12th in Indianapolis, where she premiered the sorority’s documentary that she produced. She shared with me her dreams for the sorority’s next 100 years.

 “I hope that Sigma Gamma Rho continues our path,” said Tamika.” I want us to go back and really train the next generation of leaders, cultivate leaders who are actually implementing the programs, writing the grants and helping the communities to be better overall.”

The year 2022 has been unforgettable. Yes, we partied, but we also volunteered in our communities, reconnected with sorors, grieved our sisters no longer with us physically, and welcomed new women into the sisterhood. All because seven young Black women had a vision. Now that is golden.

Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She is the executive producer and host of the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds as well as the series Sights + Sounds Magazine. Jeneé also covers East Oakland for KALW. Jeneé has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.