Frankie Freeman remembers the day she was refused sevice in a coffee shop.
"It was in 1954, on Oct. 29, a Saturday morning. I received a call that my mother had died suddenly. I got an airline ticket to Danville [Va.] and I had to change planes in Louisville, Ky. I went into the coffee shop and sat down and the waitress said, 'I can't serve you,' and she pointed to another place. I said, 'You have to serve me -- I cannot leave.' And I did not leave.
"She called the police. I said, 'I'm on my way to my mother's funeral. I'm a lawyer and I know that it's illegal for you not to serve me.' And I thought to myself, my mother wouldn't want me to get up.
"I said, 'Arrest me if you want to.'"
She was not arrested. Instead, the waitress forced all the patrons to leave by closing the restaurant. Freeman called a black lawyer she knew in Louisville ("You didn't call a white lawyer for civil rights cases in 1954"). He filed a complaint against the airport's Host chain restaurant, and after the funeral Freeman learned that the coffee shop was desegregated.
"Then I realized that I didn't have the option" of stifling black awareness. "I would always have to be sensitive to civil rights."
Yesterday morning, 10,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. They were all dressed in white and carried banners bearing the name of their 100,000-member national organization: Delta Sigma Theta, the prestigious and predominantly black public service sorority. Wearing hats and carrying parasols or fans to fend off the August heat, the delegates at Delta's 36th national convention made their way to the Capitol.
There, at an ecumenical service to "let down spiritual anchors," they commemorated the first significant action of the original members, who, in 1913, marched the same route with the suffragetes. Delta is proud of its members -- influential women like Freeman, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Mona Bailey, the current national president who is assistant superintendent of education for Washington state; and Sadie Alexander, the first black woman to receive a PhD.
True to the suffragette legacy, Freeman says the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the most significant piece of legislation for civil rights so far. She says recinding the law would be "very damaging," and interprets the movement to do so as racist. "I am disturbed by what appears to be a move to the right."
"We are not better off. Blacks have not made it. There may be a few of us who have made it, but that's window dressing."
To Freeman, the sorority is a network of black women who can depend on each other for friendship and for help with political organization. Freeman, who is now Missouri State attorney general, says it was "devastating" when she lost her position as inspector general the day after Reagan was inaugurated. "But then the calls came in from my sisters around the country. 'Soror,' they would say, 'what can I do?' And I said just calling was enough."
Immaculately dressed in a red linen suit, 23-year-old Barbara Bagneris was groomed like a young professional. As national second vice president, she represents Delta's youth -- whose membership has grown steadily and spans the American continent, Liberia and Frankfurt, West Germany.
Bagneris is practical: She majored in business because of the opportunities. Now she is an accountant for Boeing in Seattle. Prejudice isn't a prominent part of Bagneris' experience, the way it is for the older women at the convention. She finds it hard to recall an instance of racial confrontation while growing up on the West Coast.
But she is active in Delta, she says, because the commitment of its members impresses her. During high school, she remembers, she resented her father's work as an AME minister. Small congregations paid him very little, and often the family of seven had to struggle.
Bagneris says she didn't appreciate her father's standard of living until she went to college and joined Delta Sigma Theta. "When I pledged Delta, I had a chance to express my commitment to black people, and to people in general.
At yesterday morning's service, several generations of women sang and prayed together, "on behalf of the oppressed of the land," said paid tribute to the 22 original members, remembering "how far we have come." One of Delta's four remaining founders, Bertha Pitts Campbell, was born in 1889. "Boggles the mind, don't it?" she says. Younger delegates treated the fair, frail woman like a queen at the convention, respectfully and protectively hovering close by.
Campbell grew up in the only black family in Montrose, Colo., where her father worked as a chef in a railroad hotel during the railroad boom of the late 19th century. "As long as there was only one family, we weren't treated much differently," recalls Campbell. "Everyone in town knew me. I didn't understand then that it was because I was a Negro." Now she seems amused at how racially naive she was.
She went to school at Howard University "to be with my own people." In 1913 she and 22 of her dorm friends founded Delta Sigma Theta when they grew bored with the existing black sorority. "We wanted to change some ideas. We were more oriented to serve than to socialize.
"I marvel at how we've withstood all that we have. We survived the Depression. Two world wars. The '60s revolution. And now inflation.
"It's been 68 years. We had no idea it would turn out like this. We had two handicaps working against us: race and sex. That's why when the suffrage parade came up we were anxious to march. And we did."
When Sadie T. M. Alexander came to the University of Pennsylvania to study economics she was "the only colored girl." When she left in 1920, she was the first black woman to receive a PhD. Her thesis, she notes proudly, was published by the American Academy of Political Science.
"We marched down Broad Street from Mercantile Hall," she remembers of the the day she got her degree. "As I marched down the street, I was shot at by hundreds of cameras. I was embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. Coming up the stairs to the platform I heard a voice say, 'Here she comes.' It was the president of Bryn Mawr. At that time Bryn Mawr didn't admit black students."
Between the time she went to Philadelphia as a hopeful Washington girl (she attended the old M Street high school) and left as an accomplished scholar, Alexander established the Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta on the Penn Campus. With that, the Howard-based sorority became a national body. The same year, 1918, Alexander was elected its first national president.
Frankie Freeman says it was Alexander's example that influenced her. Other delegates at the convention this weekend were similarly attracted to the 83-year-old black legend with thick glasses and a keen mind. Many flocked around her, the bold ones introducing themselves, the shy ones merely staring. And Alexander seemed very much in her element there among her progeny, interrupting her conversation to scold two noisy children.
Delta has endured, and continues -- as it did this past weekend -- to strive toward reaching its original goals. As Alexandar puts it: "We have dedicated people. Dedicated to improve themselves and others. It is not a social party. Our whole idea was we were going to make a contribution. . . . Now, it all seems like a dream."