Sigma Gamma Rho: Leading a legacy to remember

Sigma Gamma Rho was established at Butler in 1922. Photo courtesy of Khalilah Shabazz.


Black History Month gives people around the country the opportunity to highlight the impact Black communities have had on society. Right here on campus, organizational legacies have left imprints on Butler’s history — or as the Sigma Gamma Rho women say, her-story. 

A century ago, in a time full of conflicting ideologies on race with the emergence of harsh legislation limiting the mobility of African Americans, seven powerful women took a step forward to make their mark on Butler forever. 

History is happening

During the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan expanded throughout Indiana — an estimated more than 250,000 or one third of native-born white men in Indiana became members of the KKK. The Indianapolis Times began an initiative to expose the Klan to the public. They revealed key city and state government officials that were Klan members. In 1928, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative work against the Klan. In addition, the Tolerance newspaper, which was published by the Chicago American Unity League, exposed over 12,000 Marion County Klan members

While Butler accepted Black students beginning in their inaugural year of 1855, in the first decades of the 20th century, white supremacist ideologies strengthened. At least one member of the Butler University Board of Regents was known to support the KKK. In 1927, Butler established a quota of only admitting 10 Black students annually. African American students faced discrimination daily.

At the time of the founding of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., the Grand Dragon of the KKK lived right across the street from the new sorority’s headquarters. The founders of Sigma Gamma Rho proved to be resilient as they faced prejudice and hatred walking to and from school. 

Laila McClimon, sophomore youth and community development major and president of Butler’s ALMIGHTY Alpha Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, speaks on how this resilience even during pushback inspires her now.  

“[Their hardships] push me to continue to be successful,” McClimon said. “This empowerment allows our founder’s legacy to flourish through us.”

The founders

In 1922, seven young emerging Butler educators founded Sigma Gamma Rho here in Indianapolis. Their stories and ideals created a new future for women across the nation. 

Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little: Little is considered the primary founder of Sigma Gamma Rho. In 1918, Little earned her teaching certificate from the Indianapolis Normal School. She went on to attend Butler University, then Butler College,  part-time from 1919 to 1924. Little is credited with authorizing the pledge and serving as the first national president, also known as the Grand Basileus, from 1925 to 1926. As an educator, she taught in the Los Angeles School District for 35 years. Little died in 1992.

Dorothy Hanley Whiteside: While she was in high school, Whiteside worked as a newspaper carrier for the Indianapolis News. She was the first female carrier for the newspaper. During her time at Butler studying to be an educator, she met the other six founders. She entered Butler in 1922 and earned a teaching certificate, later obtaining a bachelor’s degree in education. She eventually retired from teaching in 1970 after working in numerous school districts such as North Vernon, Indiana and Indianapolis Public Schools. Whiteside died in 1985.

Vivian Irene White Marbury: Marbury earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Butler in 1941 and received her master’s from Columbia University. While she was an undergraduate, she became one of Indianapolis Public School’s first female and also first Black principals at School No. 87She also served as director of practice training of teachers at Butler. In addition, she assisted in establishing the Butler Minority Alumni Council and was a charter member. Butler University awarded her the Butler Medal, which is the highest honor given to alumni, for her unwavering service. Dr. Khalilah Shabazz, vice president and chief diversity officer, is Marbury’s great-granddaughter. Marbury died in 2000.

Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson: Johnson is credited with creating the official sorority pin. Enrolled as a transfer student, Johnson attended Butler University in 1925, where she went on to earn a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1932 and a Master of Science in Education in 1941. Johnson went on to become an educator for Indianapolis Public Schools starting in 1923. Later, she was named assistant principal of School No. 26 and served as principal of School No. 37 for a decade. Johnson retired in 1966 and died in 1986.

Hattie Mae Annette Dulin Redford: Redford received a bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teachers College and a master’s from Butler University. She spent 37 years teaching in Indianapolis Public Schools. In Sigma Gamma Rho, Redford took on numerous positions such as Grand Epistoleus, Grand Tamiochus and Financial Consultant. She received various awards and honors for her sorority service.

Bessie Mae Downey Rhoades Martin: Martin taught school for over 25 years — particularly at William D. McCoy School, IPS School No. 24, beginning in 1918. Throughout her years of teaching, she struggled with the declining health of her mother as she was the youngest of six children. She went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree of Science in Education in 1943 from Butler. Martin died in 1947.

Cubena McClure: McClure hosted the sorority’s first initiation at her home in 1922. She also assisted Johnson with the designing of the official pin. McClure taught at various Indianapolis schools for three years, and she was one of five instructors selected for a special supervisory project at School No. 24. In 1923, she attended Butler University for a single term. She was awarded the Gregg Scholarship, which she planned to use to attend Columbia University; unfortunately, she died a few weeks after an operation for appendicitis in August of 1924, preventing her from accepting the scholarship.

A royal blue and gold legacy

Just over 100 years later, the impact of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. stretches beyond Butler University’s campus. 

On Feb. 16, 2022, Sigma Gamma Rho received ​​the Ovid Butler Founder’s Award, which recognizes and celebrates individuals or organizations who embody Butler University’s values of innovation, excellence, diversity, equity and inclusion.

During the 2022 spring commencement ceremony, all seven founders received posthumous honorary degrees.

In July, Sigma Gamma Rho was presented with a plaza beside Atherton Union during the beginning of their centennial celebration. Inscribed on the monument is their slogan “Greater Service, Greater Progress,” a constant reminder on the campus of their legacy. 

In his speech, President James Danko discussed the importance of commemorating Sigma Gamma Rho’s history through the dedication of the Founders’ Plaza.

“This permanent addition to the campus landscape will forever celebrate the historical bond between Butler University and Sigma Gamma Rho,” Danko said in the speech. “It also serves as a permanent reminder that we are called to follow in their footsteps and fight against injustice and racism wherever it exists.

From Nov. 11-13, thousands of sisters from across the globe traveled to Butler for Sigma Gamma Rho’s centennial celebration. Beginning the week of celebration started with a street dedication ceremony. Boulevard Place between 49th Street and 52nd Street was officially named Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. Way.

Royal blue and gold covered Butler’s campus as alumnae and members shared stories while honoring the seven founders.

The future awaits

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. is a part of the Divine Nine, which is a collection of nine black sororities and fraternities. Each of the nine National Pan-Hellenic Councils was founded on predominantly white institutions and broke social barriers to create space for African Americans. 

As a Divine Nine, it means their presence looks different from the Greek life most students think of. For one, Sigma Gamma Rho does not have a house on campus. The new member process also looks different from traditional recruitment — plus, celebrities can become honorary members

Devin Hall, director of fraternity and sorority life at Butler, spoke on how the impact of Sigma Gamma Rho and talked about how to continue to support a legacy organization. 

“It’s more than just Greek letters or the plots outside of Atherton Union,” Hall said. “It is space and community that’s developing Butler women. How do we continue to empower those individuals to grow, to seek space, to advocate, to educate other students about their mission and how they differ from other clubs and organizations on campus?”

The original seven founders created an organization that lasted a century. Even with the ever-changing social climate, from the continual rise of hate during the 1920s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter Movement of today; Sigma Gamma Rho continues to support Black women to reinforce their names in society. 

Christina Kanu, International Public Relations Chair of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc, gave a statement on the importance of celebrating SGRho during Black History Month.

“As we celebrate Black History Month it is essential to highlight that several of the Sorority partnerships work towards uplifting the Black community,” Kanu said in an email to the Butler Collegian. “Some of these partnerships include the National Pan-Hellenic Council, United Negro College Fund, National Urban League and USA Swimming. As a premiere women’s organization, the Women of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. are trailblazers and a source of inspiration to professional women everywhere. We are a premier organization for women’s development. This is evident in the diversity displayed from careers to walks of life.”

Black History Month serves as a vital reminder to continue honoring the legacies that are here on campus — as “Greater Service” leads to “Greater Progress.” 


Related posts