Recently, I attended a joint Founders Day event for Zeta Phi Beta and Phi Beta Sigma. The dress was Harlem Renaissance and I had two problems. First, I really had nothing to wear and second, I could not just grab a flapper outfit from the nearest party store to wear.
You see, my great-great aunts are Myrtle and Viola Tyler. And in 1920 they, by joining with Arizona Cleaver Stemons, Pearl Anna Neal, and Fannie Pettie Watts, founded Zeta Phi Beta at Howard University. But the answer to solving the second problem of my wardrobe fuss, was in the respectful representation of myself as the embodiment of my aunts.
At the time that Zeta Phi Beta was founded, my aunts would have been very aware of what was at stake, hence their pursuit of higher education. Their father, Richard, was born into slavery in 1854 in Virginia. After being freed from slavery, he remained on the plantation until moving north to Ohio. Richard then married Eveline and had nine children–Myrtle, Viola, Sara, Addie, Martha, Richard Jr., Earl, John and Paul–Paul was my great-grandfather.
My aunts, being very intelligent women, came from modest roots. Having parents who had endured slavery, they understood the stereotypes that hung upon the culture like damp clothes they wished to never wear again. My aunts were about modesty, social grace, knowing when to be public and when to be private, elegance and above all, education–not just “book learning” but common sense.
My challenge was that I had to take what I knew only through stories and make sure I represented them well.
I tried, in the construction of my outfit to stay as close to the times as I could, but to also pay homage to the Five Pearls of Zeta.
An interesting thing began to happen as I began to get ready for the evening. With the meticulous application of my false eyelashes and in the precise outlining of the cupid’s bow of my lips in a beautiful red, 1920 crept closer and settled in to my soul for what I thought would just be for the evening.
The transformation of one evening has surprisingly nestled itself into a bigger purpose in my life. To work to recreate the splendor of the Harlem Renaissance within the hearts, souls and minds of my culture. It was a time of great turmoil, yet so much bloomed from the scorched earth of slavery and racism. In the midst of many dressed in the fashion of the times, my spirit was renewed and breath taken away by the scene. I wondered if this was how my aunts had felt–touched by unforgettable stories and first hand accounts of racism, yet keeping their eyes open to the diamonds hidden in the coal of life.
In conclusion, I have chosen to stay the course. I will, in my own way continue to move forward and figure out where my place is, in the whirlwind of what started at Howard University in 1920 and is now an international organization of Finer Women dedicated to Service, Sisterhood and Scholarship.
I know that my Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Viola would be proud to see what Zeta is today.
Really, I just hope they are proud of how I chose to represent them on such a special evening, and what the Tyler family has always been and believed at its core.
A legacy that began in slavery, but never thought the impossible was as impossible as they say.
“So the brother in black offers to these United States the source of courage that endures, and laughter.”
–Zora Neale Hurston, Zeta Phi Beta Soror