Chapel Hill Zetas Make – and Inspire – History

Zeta 40thSee those balloons behind me in this picture? That’s 40, as in 40 years. (Not my age, but thanks for thinking that!)

That’s how long the Eta Phi Zeta chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority – also known as the Chapel Hill Zetas — has been in existence, serving the greater Orange County community by staying true to its founding principles of Scholarship, Service, Sisterhood, and Finer Womanhood.

Because Mayor Lavelle was out of town, I had the opportunity to attend and welcome chapter sorors and their guests to the 40th Anniversary Celebration, held in Carrboro on Friday, August 29. Sitting next to me in the photo is Angela Breaker, the 2014-2016 Chapter president.

It was a wonderful event featuring awards and recognitions, remembrances, song, prayer, and inspiring remarks by Reverend Dr. Rodney Coleman of First Baptist Church. The young women of the UNC campus chapter were integral to the celebration, as were members of the other “Divine Nine” historically Black Greek letter organizations.

It truly was a community celebration, and it was humbling to be there among so many amazing women and men known for their leadership throughout the Triangle. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the gist was this:

In 1974, when the Eta Phi Zeta chapter was founded, I was just six years old. About that time, I entered elementary school in Savannah, Georgia, one of the last places in the country to desegregate its public schools. All the white parents I knew were complaining, scolding, groaning and expressing deep anger about bussing, all while their young children, like me, listened. This bitterness left a profound impression on me.

In Chapel Hill things weren’t much different, but in the midst of conflict, negativity, and difficult, uneven change, five black women put their stick in the sand and founded a sorority chapter dedicated to service, in a time when the word service was a pejorative one for many members of the community, both white and black. They did so out of sheer love for their community, for each other, and for all the young women that would build on their foundation to make the Eta Phi Zeta chapter an enduring institution.

Pretty incredible to demonstrate all that love and positivity in the midst of a whole lot of bad feeling. And pretty incredible to pass it down and to grow more of it each year for forty years.

I learned a lot about this piece of Orange County history by participating in this event. It’s a history that deserves a broader celebration, a thoughtful examination in context with other aspects of our community’s history. None of that can happen without the voices, documentation and memories of the Zetas themselves. After all, history is not just a timeline; it’s the relationship between time and human experience, and this relationship is not always shared across race, ethnicity, gender, class.

It takes a village to tell and create meaning from its multi-dimensional histories. That’s what I’ll be thinking about as the Carrboro Board of Aldermen considers appointing a Town Historian for the first time. I know my colleagues will be, too. We know there are volunteer candidates out there that are as eager to document as they are to engage. I hope you’ll help us connect with them.

Meanwhile, congratulations again to the Chapel Hill Zetas. (And thanks, Barbara Foushee, for passing along the photo!)