Theta Eta: 50 Years of Service and Sisterhood
Written by Mikayla Gary
Last fall, Mikayla Gary was initiated as the first Black NPHC Member of Order of Omega, and she writes about the meaningful history of her Sorority Chapter, Theta Eta, which is celebrating 50 years of challenging the status quo on CSU’s campus.
Opening Letter to the Ladies of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Theta Eta Chapter
Sisterhood is one of the many beauties that thrives throughout Theta Eta. During my year within the working chapter, I have found myself amazed by how sisterhood can cause a domino effect on my life. Growing up as the older sister of two brothers, I never knew the impact of sisterhood. So as a result, in joining Theta Eta, I was thrilled to have the privilege to not only serve the chapter but gain meaningful relationships with members from Theta Eta in the form of lifelong sisterhood. Overtime, Theta Eta has taught me that sisterhood is a sacred bond and experience that all women should experience.
For us, sisterhood is a bond between women who share common beliefs or goals and join together to advance the missions of empowerment and social change. This connection is forged in love, wisdom, loyalty and acceptance. As a result of this connection that recognizes each woman’s uniqueness, we can work together toward reaching our full potentials.
Over the past year, due to being a member of Theta Eta, I've grown to see the importance of Black womanhood through the lens of sisterhood. As a result of joining, I gained several relationships and lifelong lessons that I will always cherish. I gained a family. The constant support and love from my sisters have impacted my life in several ways. The Ladies of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Theta Eta Chapter, has helped groom me into the servant-leader I am today. Even during trying times, my sisters in Theta Eta have always made sure to provide me with love and wisdom to face the many obstacles that come up in life. My chapter sisters continuously push me to grow as a leader and step out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to try new things and pursue my dreams. These lifelong relationships have granted me the opportunity to feel the true love and support of sisterhood.
I am honored to be a part of a chapter where many of the members have served the Greater Cleveland area as educators, entrepreneurs, prominent civil leaders, and much more. I thank Theta Eta for the many stories, poems and songs that help me combat the issues I face in life and the legacy the many trailblazing members have left for us. Fifty years of sisterhood is a rewarding and exciting milestone to reach!
As a result of this connection that recognizes each woman’s uniqueness, we can work together toward reaching our full potentials.
Small But Mighty: The Beginning of a New Era
Theta Eta’s constant strive for greatness is reflected throughout the chapter’s history. Since its inception, the dynamic women of this chapter have focused on the betterment of not only its members, but the community as a whole.
During the early 1970s, the sorority and its members championed several efforts in advocating for their respective communities. At the height of the Black Power Movement, Delta’s focus was combatting the racial tension sparked under Nixon’s presidency. As the sorority’s priorities focused on the equity of Black individuals, Sorority members in Cleveland were hard at work advancing these efforts in both graduate and undergraduate chapters. Barbra Lockhart Willis was the first collegiate member inducted into the sorority through the Omega Chapter (now the Greater Cleveland Alumnae Chapter, formerly chartered at Western Reserve College), followed by Renee Brooks, Royce Collins, Cecilia Robinson, Rose Robinson and Ruby Tufts. On April 3, 1971, these seven collegiate members answered their civic call. With the help of the Alumnae members in the Omega chapter, chartered the Theta Eta Chapter at Cleveland State University. Currently, Theta Eta Citywide Chapter is composed of eight schools:
Baldwin Wallace University
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland Institute of Art
Cleveland Institute of Music
Cleveland State University
John Carroll University
Notre Dame College
After establishing the chapter, the women of Theta Eta were extremely active in campus life and activities. In 1971, Willis was the first Black woman to sit on CSU’s Student Judiciary Board. The board assisted with campus issues that affect students. In this position, Willis was able to combat African American students’ issues and be a voice for the Black community. The members also used thier voices to speak out against the Apartheid, advocate for a Black studies program at CSU, and advocate for the Black student body’s general needs at CSU. Sorority members also participated at different rallies and marches to advocate for the Black community. Besides their civic engagement, these collegiate members also hosted social events such as dances to raise funds for the chapter’s operations for CSU students. These social gatherings allowed members to build relationships wit h several other Black Greek organizations and unify the Black community at CSU.
Professional development and advancing womanhood were constant goals that the members of Theta Eta focused on instilling in their new collegiate members and the CSU community. Willis, along with her sorority sisters, attended the Sorority’s 32nd National Convention in Atlanta, GA in April 1973. They stated, “All you saw was Delta Red, street after street, and being a part of that was exciting for us. I give credit to Lavonia Vander, who exposed us to the importance of womanhood and played a key part of grooming us into womanhood.” As a result of that experience, these collegiate women were able to experience sisterhood on a national level, and came back to Cleveland ready to work with Omega chapter to ensure that they had a strong campus presence and that their members were always ready to answer the call to action.
Building a Legacy
One of Theta Eta's significant components is the various thoughtful programming and events that chapter members held over the years. In the beginning, the campus community had a primary focus to continue to advocate against racism and social injustice within Cleveland. During the charter members’ time at CSU (1971–1975), the ladies from the Theta Eta Chapter helped to book activist Angela Davis as the speaker for one of the lecture series that CSU gave each year (1974). According to chapter members, “She was phenomenal and encouraged us to continue the fight for injustices against our people.” Not only was the chapter focused on the advocacy for equal rights at CSU, but also consciously worked on ways to provide service to the residents of the Greater Cleveland area. For example, starting in the mid 1970s, Theta Eta chapter held an annual Sweetheart Ball at the Host House to provide scholarships for rising seniors in the Cleveland Public School system. These awards provided assistance toward various tuition- or book-related expenses. Over the years, the chapter never lost its drive to continue advocating for the needs of the Black community. In the early 1990s, chapter members continued these practices to assist the Black community by hosting a series of events that catered to current social issues and trends within the Black community. For example, on Saturday, December 18, 1993, the Theta Eta chapter was the first Black Greek organization to have a formal scholarship dance “Nite Under the Stars” in the UC Cage (currently known as the Student Center). Not only did these events serve Black and underprivileged students fiscally and civically, but the chapter made sure that their programming highlighted certain aspects of arts and culture.
Fat Albert Film Fest/Film festivals:
On May 27, 1994, The members of the Theta Eta chapter hosted a series of Film festivals to celebrate the Arts and pay homage to popular cartoon shows from the 1970s. According to Melissa Keith,
“We showed episodes of the Fat Albert cartoon in the Keeva. We also had a 1970s film fest back when I was in the chapter; highlighting Black films from that time period. We had attendees dress in 1970s attire and showed various movies from that era. For the Fat Albert event we had a large banner in the UC Cage advertising the event. Another CSU student artist named Jomo drew the large banner that had characters from Fat Albert. Back then, organizations would put banners in the Old UC Cage to advertise events.”
Build a Brick project
In 1994, the Ladies of the Theta Eta Chapter Sponsored Buy-A-Brick Project, during the chapter's Habitat Week. During this event, students donated bricks to help build different Habitat houses.
Jabberwock was one national activity that the chapter has adopted into their programming. Jabberwock was an event where sorority members invited talented high-schoolers to perform to win various scholarships. “From what I could see in comparing organizations, Theta Eta was the only sorority with a presence in the city that was based on community service.”
With the many accomplishments that chapter has made for over the past fifty years, collegiate members are still making history for their chapter today. With the chapter functioning with two members, Mikayla Gary (FA 19’) and Jha’Tier Robinson (FA 19’), chapter members have continued their efforts to keep chapter operations going. During the summer and fall, collegiate members were actively engaged with both COVID-19 community check-in events with the Greater Cleveland Alumnae Chapter and the series of protests that occurred during the summer of 2020. President Jha’Tier Robinson was awarded Collegiate Midwest Jewel of the month for the Mighty Midwest Region in the Fall of 2020.
Theta Eta’s legacy has left a strong impact on Cleveland State’s campus and students. The women of this chapter have paved a way for me to be able to succeed and excel in any endeavour. I am proud to say that I am a part of a chapter that fosters both love and compassion to its members and to the community.