Mrs. Bethune and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

One of the most intriguing discoveries that I made while writing Finer Women was that Mary McLeod Bethune was at one time affiliated with Zeta Phi Beta. As a graduate of Bethune-Cookman College—the institution she founded in 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida—and as one who formerly gave tours at the Bethune Council House in Washington DC where I interned in 1998, I was well-versed in Bethune-facts.  One of those unquestionable facts was that Mary McLeod Bethune was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, inducted in 1923 at its 5th national convention.



Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Scurlock Collection

On January 10, 1925 the New York Age newspaper reporting on Zeta’s 5th convention held in December, 1924, stated the following:

…Zora Neal [sic] Hurston, short story writer, a member of Zeta spoke on the Negro in drama and art, and four songs were submitted for consideration as National Sorority Song, one to be adopted at next convention.

Mrs. Malone and Mrs. Bethune, associate members of Alpha Chapter, and Mrs. Napier, associate member of Lambda Chapter, were made national honorary members, the honors to be conferred at the 1925 convention, which is to be held with Gamma Chapter at Baltimore…

When I read this I was numb for a long time. The thing is, I had seen Mrs. Bethune’s name listed with other notable Zetas in the 1925 Howard University yearbook before.  And as much as I trusted the editorial eye of the yearbook’s associate editor, Ophelia Settle Egypt—a Zeta—I considered it an oversight for a long time.  I mean everybody knows Bethune was a Delta. Check your facts Ophelia.

Written as a press release—seemingly authored by Zeta Phi Beta and released to the media—the New York Age article gave me pause for a number of reasons:

  • First, the sole use of Mrs. + last name implies that the ladies were as well-known to the readership as say…Beyoncé is today and therefore needed no introduction. As the first black woman millionaire, Mrs. Malone needed no introduction. Mrs. Napier, wife of J. C. Napier, the former Register of the United States Treasury whose name graced United States currency, also needed no introduction. Which leaves Mrs. Bethune. There was only one Bethune that could have been coupled with the likes of Malone and Napier:  Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune.
  • Second, the phrase “were made national honorary members, the honors to be conferred” gives me the impression that it was a motion that was seconded, voted on, and carried. The article indicates that the ladies were already affiliated with Zeta Phi Beta chapters, so the business at hand was most likely transferring this chapter-specific membership to national membership. Where are these minutes?!
  • Third, the term “Associate” also gave me pause. At times this term has been used in reference to a chapter’s honorary members, before the national body usurped this power in 1934, and conferred national honorary membership to women who had been formerly associated with single chapters. The term has also been used in reference to graduate sorors who were still associated with their undergraduate chapter due to a lack of a nearby graduate chapter.  And lastly, the term has also  been used in reference to a graduate soror serving as an undergraduate chapter advisor.

Connecting the dots… Napier was a long time “associate” member of Nashville’s Lambda chapter. And although the conferment of her national honorary membership should have taken place in 1925, it would not happen until 1929 when the Zeta boulé was held in her home town. Maybe she didn’t like to travel.  🙂 

In the case of Malone, I know that she became an “associate” member of the Alpha chapter around the spring of 1923, and quite possibly as early as the fall of 1922. At the December 1925 Boulé she was conferred honorary membership and gave the keynote address. The interesting connection between Malone and Bethune is that they were in fact very close friends. How close? When Malone’s husband sued her for half of her multi-million dollar beauty empire, Bethune came out swinging. She championed her and helped rally public support for Malone and the business that had given so much to the black community. She was that kind of friend. And no sooner than the ink was dry on the divorce papers, Malone gave Bethune $1,200 (roughly $16,000 today) for her to take her first trip to Europe. I guess it should be no surprise to see them linked to Zeta’s “mother” chapter at Howard University together.

Perhaps a lack of rules governing honorary and associate members of Greek organizations in the 1920s made dual ties acceptable. I don’t know. If Bethune hadn’t joined another sorority I would knight her right now. As that’s not the case, I’ll simply say that at one point in her life, Mary McLeod Bethune was Zeta-Affiliated or to be specific, an Associate Member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority’s Alpha Chapter.


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