They were black at a time when you could be lynched for it. They were college students when opportunities were, to be generous, limited. They were women when women couldn't vote.
The year was 1913 and at Howard University, dissension was brewing in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Twenty-two women split away to form their own sisterhood, Delta Sigma Theta. Several months later they took to the streets with throngs of other women and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue as suffragettes.
The Deltas now number 125,000, including two of the founders. To celebrate their march through 75 years of public service and educational achievements, about 2,000 of them are in town this weekend for what is called the Deltas' Diamond Jubilee.
Throughout the Grand Hyatt Hotel on H Street NW yesterday, there were women dressed in what looked like red and white outfits. Really, they were crimson and cream, the Deltas' colors. The colors are a symbol of pride.
"It's a sisterhood with a well-defined purpose, with a history of giving and uplifting and commitment to black people," said Roseann E. Brown Sclafford, 37, of Camden, N.J. She has been a Delta for 18 years, since she pledged in the Epsilon Rho chapter at the University of Dayton.
"Loved every year," Sclafford said.
Being a Delta means you have a network of like-minded women -- college-educated, professional -- and a support system in a sometimes unsupportive world, said Hortense G. Canady of Lansing, Mich., the national president.
According to a sorority report, Delta women have a median family income of $27,500, 64 percent higher than the median income for blacks generally. About 40 percent of Deltas have master's degrees; 15 percent have doctorates. They are entrepreneurs, businesswoman, teachers, principals, executives and lawmakers. They represent black successes and should be proud, according to Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund and an honororary sorority member, who gave a morning speech.
"Cosby is everybody's favorite daddy and Whitney Houston is at the top ten. Black leadership has permeated a range of mainstream institutions. I'm proud of these and all the black accomplishments that we have been able to build . . . . We've worked hard to get where we are.
"But I've got one strong, frank message to you: We're going to have to work harder to stay where we are . . . . There is another black community that is not riding high and that is going down and tumbling, and if you and I don't build bridges back to them and throw out some strong lifelines to our children and youths and families who poverty and unemployment are engulfing, they're going to drown and they're going to pull many of us back down with them and undermine the black future that our forebearers dreamed, struggled and died for . . . . The top cannot rise without the bottom."
The bottom, as Edelman described it, is where black infant mortality is high. It is where, increasingly, black children are being raised only by their mothers and where young, black men are being siphoned off by joblessness, crime and early death.
Those problems are part of the sorority's agenda. "Right now we are very much concerned with single mothers," Canady said. "We are very much concerned about the one-third of blacks that remain in poverty. We're very much concerned about the educational pipeline."
Later in the day, after a luncheon and fashion show, the Deltas' schedule included a visit to Delta's birthplace, Howard University. Today at the Kennedy Center, singer Lena Horne and opera diva Leontyne Price, both Deltas, will be among performers at a gala.
For Sclafford, the weekend's celebration was part of the satisfaction Deltas receive from their organization. The experience -- sisterhood -- is something she hopes her daughter will choose to be part of.
"I would hope so. I would be very disappointed if she doesn't."