The year was 1920. It was the start of the decade, shortly after World War One, and a time of great prosperity for the country. At the beginning of the decade, women still wore long skirts but the "Roaring 20s" brought a new look of short skirts and smartly coiffed shorter hair. The Ku Klux Klan was very active during this period meaning racial tensions were high. The Harlem Renaissance was acknowledged as the first important movement of black artists and writers in the US and the National Negro Baseball League was organized. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became effective, heralding the start of Prohibition and on August 18th of the same year, Tennessee delivered the crucial 36th ratification necessary for the final adoption of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The Great Depression would end this decade as the worst and longest economic depression of the 20th century.
It was within this environment that Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded on the simple belief that sorority elitism and socializing should not overshadow the real mission for progressive organizations - to address societal mores, ills, prejudices, poverty, and health concerns of the day. Founded January 16, 1920, Zeta began as an idea conceived by five women at Howard University in Washington D.C.: Arizona Cleaver, Myrtle Tyler, Viola Tyler, Fannie Pettie and Pearl Neal. These five women, also known as our Five Pearls, dared to depart from the traditional coalitions for black women and sought to establish a new organization predicated on the precepts of Scholarship, Service, Sisterly Love and Finer Womanhood. It was the ideal of the Five Pearls that the sorority would reach college women in all parts of the country who were sorority minded and desired to follow the founding principles of the organization.
Since the beginning, the sorority has obtained a number of firsts. Zeta Phi Beta was the first Greek-letter organization to charter a chapter in Africa (1948)and ; to form adult and youth auxiliary groups; to centralize its operations in a national headquarters; and to be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated.
Over the years since the sorority's inception, Zeta Phi Beta has chartered hundreds of chapters and initiated thousands of women around the world. Zeta has continued to thrive and flourish while adapting to the ever-changing needs of a new century. Zeta chapters and auxiliary groups have given untotaled hours of voluntary service to educate the public, assist youth, provide scholarships, support organized charities and promote legislation for social and civic change.
Zeta Phi Beta Sorority must also pay respect to our incorporators, Myrtle Tyler (Founder), Gladys Warrington, Joanna Houston, Josephine F. Johnson and L.O. Goldia Smith. These members thought to ensure of permanence as Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was first incorporated on March 30, 1923 in Washington D.C. and again in 1939 in the state of Illinois.
Despite the challenges the organization has faced, such as discrimination, and segregation, Zeta has continued to hold true to its ideals and purpose, for, as stated by one of the Sorority's founding members: "…I believe that no [other] organization could have been founded upon principles that were so near and dear to all of our hearts." (Founder Myrtle Tyler)
Arizona Cleaver was the first president of Alpha chapter and the first national president of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. She completed her graduate and post-graduate studies in the field of social work and was responsible for chartering numerous undergraduate and graduate chapters throughout the United States.
After graduating from Howard University’s Conservatory of Music, Founder Neal continued her studies at the Julliard School of Music. In 1938, she was the first black woman in New York to earn a master’s degree in music from Columbia University. An extremely accomplished musician, Founder Neal taught music in North Carolina public schools and served as a director of seniors majoring in music at Teachers College in Winston Salem, NC.
Myrtle Tyler was the second national president of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and blood sister to Viola Tyler. A high school mathematics and English teacher, Founder Tyler was an active member of Alpha Zeta chapter in Baltimore, Maryland.
Viola Tyler graduated from Howard University with a teaching degree and a major in math. She taught school in Ohio for many years and was always very active in community affairs.
Fannie Pettie graduated from Howard with a Bachelor of Arts degree in education and taught junior and senior high schools in Savannah, Georgia. She was credited with organizing two additional Zeta chapters and had active membership in Delta Alpha Zeta chapter.