Tapping Into My Black Women’s Legacy in Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

2020 started with a question. What will this new year be? It quickly became an invitation into the unknown I resisted accepting. Why? I struggled with the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, economic instability, politics, the elections, and America itself. All this “ish” amplified my fears and raised my stress levels to an all-time high. I wasn’t able to sleep a lot. I didn’t want to admit my normal life had changed. Fear of the unknown and anxiety became my roommates. My emotions bounced back and forth from angry to sad. As the summer season was wrapping up, I started to realize how exhausted I felt. I wondered how would I make it through. I wondered how I would move forward in my life, relationships, and wellness career. My friend Garnet urged me to see a therapist. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, I was able to find a Black woman psychologist whose practice focuses on the mind-body connection. She was exactly what I needed.

After my first several weeks of teletherapy, I started thinking about how my ancestors made it through the the 1918 influenza pandemic known as the Spanish Flu. I wondered how they coped with the changes in their daily life. How were their family, friends, work, and community service impacted by the isolation, quarantine, limitations on public gatherings, and use of disinfectants? How did they deal with the loss of about 675,000 lives in the United States? How did they move forward into the roaring 1920s? My questions led me to my family history and photos. As I learned about my family and looked at different photos, I saw the faces of Black people who carved out a life for themselves, their families, and their communities despite what was happening. They made a choice to live fully as they moved forward. That choice came from them tapping into their ancestral legacy of resilience.

Ancestral legacy of resilience is the strength of the people in my family, community, and culture who overcame adversity, faced challenges, and navigated change. These brave folks are my sheroes, heroes, and theyroes. Three of my sheroes happen to be my Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. Sorors: my great grandmother, Florida Jones Leake (changed to Leeke) affectionately known as ‘Florida J”; my great grand aunt, Lillian Jones Brown, the sister of Florida; and my mother, Theresa B. Leeke.

In case you didn’t know, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. (SGRho) is an African-American sorority that was founded by seven young educators on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1922.

Florida J, a social worker, a dressmaker, a mother of a daughter and a son, and a wife to a barber shop owner, joined SGRho in its early days. She served as a national officer in the role of Grand Anti-Grammateus from 1927 to 1929. Also, she became a charter member of the Epsilon Chapter (later became Alpha Sigma Sigma Chapter) in Gary, Indiana.

SGRho selected Florida’s sister, Lillian, a teacher, a mother of one daughter, and a wife to a doctor, as an honorary member. I imagine she was selected because of her outstanding service and work as the founder and President of the Woman’s Council, an organization that supported the educational needs of Black children in Indianapolis (established in 1909); President of the Central Association of Colored Women, one of the five sectional bodies constituting the National Association of Colored Women, from 1929 to 1934; President of the Indianapolis City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs; and a member of the Women’s Improvement Club of Indianapolis.

Both these women were uplifting their communities at a time when so much was happening to prevent Black people from moving ahead such as racism and white supremacy (still happening today). They battled with segregation; inequality in education, housing, and healthcare; denial of the right to vote; lack of access to employment training and opportunities, economic stability and mobility, and generational wealth; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; lynchings; and other lawless and violent acts. They didn’t run from these problems and the madness and chaos. Instead, they became a part of the solution.

In order to become a part of the solution, I know Florida and Lillian had to lean into the strength of the women who came before them. Women like their mother, Sarah Jones Washington; their grandmother, Jane Washington; and the seven founders of SGRho: Mary Lou Allison Little, Vivian White Marbury, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, Hattie Mae Dulin Redford, Bessie M. Downey Martin, and Cubena McClure. Drawing on their collective strength, they learned to move past survival. They learned to thrive.

My mother, Theresa learned how to become a part of the solution and to thrive from two of SGRho’s founders, Hattie Redford and Dorothy Whiteside, during her Alpha Chapter pledge process at Butler University in 1959. Her undergraduate experience shaped her commitment to “Greater Service, Greater Progress (the sorority’s motto), membership development, and leadership. As a young wife and mother of three children with one on the way, she helped to charter Gamma Psi Sigma, a tri-city chapter for Saginaw, Flint, and Bay City, Michigan (now based in Saginaw) in 1967.

Over the past five decades, I have witnessed firsthand my mom’s ability to serve and lead with humility. I have watched her show up in her life as an educator, musician, mother of four, and wife to an entrepreneur as well as work in her local chapter, Phi Sigma. She has served as a Phi Sigma Chapter member; undergraduate advisor to Epsilon Lambda Chapter at Bowie State University and Alpha Phi Chapter at Howard University; chartering undergraduate advisor to Eta Beta Chapter at the University of Maryland, College Park; committee chairwoman; and Basileus (president serving three times). Throughout her 62 years of service, she has remained passionate and dedicated to membership development and training, community service in the Washington, DC area, and regional and national activities. My mother has willingly spent her energy and time as a SGRho life member and Cultured Pearl mentoring and investing in Sigma women (including me). She does it out of a deep love for her Sigma Sorors. She does it because she wants us to thrive in our unique SGRho way. She gives back because so many gave to her.

Because of her, I learned to love and serve SGRho in my own way when I joined Beta Tau Chapter with my line sisters Tracy Brown and Gail Harleston Tucker at Morgan State University in 1983. Because of her, I was able to lead when I served as the Northeast Region Youth Services Coordinator from 1984 to 1986. These experiences and the SGRho women like Grand Basileus Corine J. Green and Sandre Mitchell who mentored, trained, and supported me laid the foundation for the woman I am today. Their investment in me shows up in the work I currently do in my wellness company, Ananda Leeke Consulting, and Thriving Mindfully Academy.

My Sorors Florida, Lillian, and Theresa are powerhouses! They are my sheroes because they embody what it means to make a way out of no way with courage, creativity, continuous learning, resourcefulness, and service. Their spirits, fierceness, and tenacity breathe new life into me. They inspire and remind me how to thrive even in a pandemic that is almost a year old. I bow deeply in gratitude to these amazing women I am blessed to call my SGRho Sorors and Leeke family.

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