When Michelle Mooney moved to Utah from Hawaii, she found being a Black woman in a predominantly white state to be a “rude awakening.”
Then, in college, she discovered Delta Sigma Theta, a longstanding Black sorority.
“This community of women made me feel so at home in Utah, and I never thought I would feel that way,” said Mooney, who is an equity manager in the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
The Utah chapter of Delta Sigma Theta is celebrating its 35th anniversary this month — and its lasting legacy in Utah is reflective of the sorority’s roots.
“We are trendsetters, never one to back down from a challenge,” Mooney said. “The society doesn’t want the Black woman to know what they know. The thing of Delta Sigma Theta that defies that is that we have been significant changemakers in this society since 1913.”
The sorority was founded in January 1913, by 22 college women at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Its first public act, just two months later, was to participate in the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913, demanding the right for women to vote.
It was the sorority’s act of intersectional feminism — state laws made it prohibitively difficult for Black people to vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed — that, in many ways, set them up for what would become the group’s lasting legacy.
Goals of the ‘Divine Nine’
Tamara Stevenson — a Utah chapter member and vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Westminster College — said Delta Sigma Theta is one of the “Divine Nine” of Black Greek organizations. It’s a point of pride, she said, that each of the nine sororities and fraternities have similar, but distinct, goals.
For DST, those goals stem from the areas of scholarship, sisterhood, service and, most of all, social action. Since there are no historically Black colleges or universities in Utah, the anniversary of Delta Sigma Theta is even more significant, members say.
The Utah chapter was launched in 1988 by 19 Black women along the Wasatch Front in various professional fields: Social work, computer technology, education and law.
Sarah McClellan, a project director at the Northern Utah Coalition, is a charter member of the chapter and got involved with the sorority in 1987.
Looking back at the beginnings, McClellan said she remembers a significant number of people showed up for their first fundraising event in Salt Lake City. It’s something she thinks about even today.
“That was important to me to know that we would make a difference in the Black community, especially with the young Black ladies and girls,” she said.
McClellan, who is originally from Florida, said Delta Sigma Theta gave her the connection to learn about what other Black women in Utah were doing. Working with the original charter members was the first time while in Utah that she recalled working with all Black women.
The sorority, she said, gives young ladies a sense of belonging. “You get to be able to work in a community, you’d be abreast of what’s really going on,” she said. “We’re so disjointed here in the state of Utah, because we don’t have Black communities, per se.”
The Utah chapter, McClellan said, jumped into the social action component: Getting involved with the Legislature, going to meetings and so on.
In a way, the very existence of Delta Sigma Theta challenges the narrative of what it means to be a Black woman in Utah.
“A big part of what Delta does,” said Kathleen Christy, another charter member and a retired administrator for the Salt Lake City School District, “is understanding the community and addressing the needs, so that became who I became.”
At first, Christy said, the national DST headquarters didn’t think there were enough Black women in Utah to sustain a chapter. Some Black women in Utah, she said, had never heard of DST.
“Black women here, they made a huge impact,” Christy said. “What Delta did was provide that space where the Black woman’s narrative is now a very powerful voice.”
‘What the real narrative is’
Denise Jeffery-Elbert, DEI & accessibility manager at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, is a U.S. Air Force veteran and based out of Clearfield, Utah. She said the reach of Delta’s network is global, in a way she never expected it to be.
It sounds crazy, she said, but Delta has taken her all over the globe in ways the Air Force didn’t. Her current job takes her to military bases across the country, and while talking at a base in Florida, she came across a young woman that her daughter once babysat in Utah. The young woman, she said, ended up joining DST.
“Our mission statement really says it all,” Jeffery-Elbert said. “We are an organization of college-educated women and we’re determined to be our best in every area.”
Claustina Mahon-Reynolds, a principal in the Murray School District, was elected the Utah chapter president during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Celebrating 35 years, she said, ”speaks to the struggle of Black women,” but also “speaks to the innovation of Black women” in Utah.
“[Delta] is a symbol of unity [and] a symbol of what the real narrative is,” Mahon-Reynolds said. When members are out in the community, helping out and setting an example, it dispels the harmful and false stereotypes often associated with Black women — that they’re loud, aggressive or fearful — she said.
“Those types of stereotypical views are hurtful and harmful,” Mahon-Reynolds said.
Small but mighty
Mooney, who works in the mayor’s office, said the Utah chapter is small but mighty — particularly with members like Rep. Sandra Hollins, the first Black woman in the Utah House of Representatives.
Hollins — a Democrat whose District 21 includes the Rose Park, Fairpark, West Pointe and Jordan Meadows neighborhoods of Salt Lake City, as well as Salt Lake City International Airport — said, “we kind of defy the odds of what people think. Black women are mothers and wives, but we are also elected officials. We are very involved in our community and we want to provide solutions in our community”
Delta Sigma Theta, Hollins said, is not just a sorority that one takes part in while in college and then forgets about.
“One of the differences with Black fraternities and sororities is that the expectation is that, after you leave college, it gives you a platform to continue to work on those issues and changing systems that are crucial to our community and address those barriers in our communities,” she said.
“One of the reasons why I chose to pledge Delta is because it’s a lifetime commitment, and it gives me a sisterhood of over 250,000 women worldwide,” Hollins said.
“When Black people are moving here, they’re looking for something that they can connect with — particularly Black women, and they want that support system from other Black women,” Hollins said. “So I just see us moving forward and continuing to grow in this state and continuing to make an impact over the next 35 years.”
Mahon-Reynolds said the sky’s the limit for DST in the next 35 years, because the group’s members — past and present — are trailblazers.