On March 3, 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, nine White women dressed in brilliant white rode down Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue in an official state car, representing the only states that had given women of their race the right to vote. More than three dozen White women dressed in black flanked the vehicle on foot to demonstrate how much of the nation was home to vote-less women. “No Country Can Exist Half Slave and Half Free,” the banner above them read.
The irony in 1913 was overwhelming.
The white women who organized the Woman Suffrage Procession, which attracted thousands to protest for the right to vote, advocated for a supremacist symbol of their priorities; Black women could march—but they had to bring up the rear.
Among the Black women who showed up to the parade were 22 college women from Howard University. As liberal arts students at the historically Black school in the nation’s capital, they had front row seats to the suffrage movement—and they wanted their fair share of liberation. Their college, led by a male dean noted for being unsympathetic to women’s suffrage, did not want the women to attend the march; the talk in Washington was that it was gearing up to be a contentious, and potentially dangerous, demonstration. The college eventually acquiesced and allowed the group to attend—under the terms that a man accompany them as a chaperone.
The women were excited. It would be their first public demonstration, and this particular group had recent practice advocating for themselves and their values. In the months leading up to the march, they rebelled from the nation’s first sorority for Black women, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., finding it to be more of an extension of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., even if just in name only, and not designed to respond to the societal issues of their time—the Great Migration, the aftermath of World War I, a thriving suffrage movement. These women needed something more than a social club.
In January 1913, two months before the women’s march, the group of 22 finalized their incorporated status and renamed themselves: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.—delta, like the Greek letter used to denote change in mathematics—underscoring their motivations.
As the Deltas made their way to Pennsylvania Avenue, a quarter-million spectators greeted them. Bertha Campbell, valedictorian and only Black student at her Colorado high school, said the men threw things at them and yelled.
“They were saying ‘Go back to the kitchen,’ There were a lot of police and you didn’t dare step onto the sidewalk,” Campbell is quoted saying in historian Paula Giddings’s In Search of Sisterhood, a chronicle of the first 75 years of Delta Sigma Theta.