The year was 1920. It was the start of the decade, shortly after World War One, and a time of great prosperity for the country. Women were called dames, dolls, or the cat’s meow. At the beginning of the decade, women still wore long skirts but the “Roaring 20s” brought a new look of short skirts and smartly coiffed shorter hair. Racial tensions were high and quotas set for immigrants coming into America. The Klan was very active during this period. The Harlem Renaissance was acknowledged as the first important movement of black artists and writers in the US. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became effective, heralding the start of Prohibition and on August 18th of the same year, Tennessee delivered the crucial 36th ratification necessary for the final adoption of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The worst and longest economic recession to ever hit the United States would define the end of the decade-the Great Depression.
It was within this environment that Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded on the simple belief that sorority elitism and socializing should not overshadow the real mission for progressive organizations – to address societal mores, ills, prejudices, poverty, and health concerns of the day. Founded January 16, 1920, Zeta began as an idea conceived by five coeds at Howard University in Washington D.C.: Arizona Cleaver, Myrtle Tyler, Viola Tyler, Fannie Pettie and Pearl Neal. These five women, also known as our Five Pearls, dared to depart from the traditional coalitions for black women and sought to establish a new organization predicated on the precepts of Scholarship, Service, Sisterly Love and Finer Womanhood. It was the ideal of the Founders that the Sorority would reach college women in all parts of the country who were sorority minded and desired to follow the founding principles of the organization. Founder Viola Tyler was oft quoted to say “[In the ideal collegiate situation] there is a Zeta in a girl regardless of race, creed, or color, who has high standards and principles, a good scholarly average and an active interest in all things that she undertakes to accomplish.”
Since its inception, the Sorority has chronicled a number of firsts. Zeta Phi Beta was the first Greek-letter organization to charter a chapter in Africa (1948); to form adult and youth auxiliary groups; to centralize its operations in a national headquarters; and to be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.
Zeta’s national and local programs include endowment of its National Educational Foundation, community outreach services and support of multiple affiliate organizations. Zeta chapters and auxiliary groups have given untotaled hours of voluntary service to educate the public, assist youth, provide scholarships, support organized charities and promote legislation for social and civic change.