Penn made great strides in opening its doors to African Americans throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the University was not immune to the racial injustices prevalent throughout the country at that time.
African-American students were barred from many area restaurants and campus gathering places, as well as most Penn sports teams. They also were routinely ignored by their fellow classmates.
To better cope with the racial injustices on campus, black students began to form support groups, including a black Greek system.
In 1918, a group of undergraduate women came together to form the Gamma Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, the first African-American sorority at Penn.
Co-founded by Sadie (Mossell) Alexander, the organization provided a place where black women could escape the racial pressures of campus, improve leadership skills and maintain confidence in their abilities to succeed. Alexander, who served as the national sorority’s first president from 1919 to 1923, said of her sorority sisters, “There wasn’t one who didn’t have a ‘B’ average and three had ‘A’ averages.”
The six members pictured in this 1921 photo are: (first row, left to right) Virginia Alexander, Julia Mae Polk and Sadie Alexander; (second row, left to right) Anna Johnson and Pauline Alice Young; and (back row) Nellie Rathbone Bright.
Many of the sorority’s early members went on to build distinguished careers. Sadie Alexander was the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law School, the first black woman in America to earn a Ph.D., and the first black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. She served on President Truman’s Commission on Civil Rights in 1945.
Anna Johnson, the first African-American woman at Penn to earn a Ph.D. in sociology, became an instructor in educational sociology at Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C.
Virginia Alexander served as medical advisor for Howard University from 1937 to 1941, and worked with the United States Public Health Service during World War II.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on March 25, 2010