INDIANAPOLIS — When Butler University was established in 1855, its founder envisioned higher education being accessible to all, including Black people and women.
At the time, it was a radical idea. That vision was put to the test in 1922, when the school's first Black sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, was founded. Now, 100 years later, Sigma Gamma Rho's legacy lives on in Indianapolis and around the world.
Inside Hinkle Fieldhouse Friday afternoon, more than 1,200 Butler students made the transition from students to graduates.
But among the degrees being handed out, seven stand out. Butler University is honoring the lives and legacies of the women who founded Sigma Gamma Rho in 1922, establishing a Black sorority on a predominantly white campus.
"During that time, for those women to come together and unify for a purpose and, really, to see that education was to propel that community forward is very powerful. So they had a lot of help in organizing, but they did it," said Rasheeda Liberty, international president of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, "and it has grown to amass to 100,000 women worldwide."
"So if you think about the seven young women at the time in the 1920s, an era where it really wasn't a very diverse and open-minded era. They founded a Black sorority on a predominantly white campus in Indiana. It took amazing courage by them," said Butler University President Jim Danko.
"But they chose to face these issues. And they did what no other NPHC sorority had, came together as change agents despite their circumstances to build a sisterhood on a predominantly white campus mere steps from the home of a KKK leader," said Dr. Khalilah Shabazz, international secretary for Sigma Gamma Rho.
The legacy of those seven founders lives on in the 100,000 Sigma Gamma Rho members worldwide, including at Butler University. Now, a century after its founding, the university is granting honorary doctorate degrees to those seven trailblazers.
"Our seven pearls were aware of what needed to be done, brave enough to do it," Shabazz said.
Shabazz, the great-granddaughter of founding member Vivian Irene White Marbury, said the founding women used education, service and social activism all those years ago to spread lasting change and sisterhood all around the world.
"Your works, your life and your service certainly have spoken for you," Shabazz said. "To the Butler graduates, may you continue on with awareness, bravery and selflessness, so that one day the legacy you leave will be what speaks for you. Congratulations."
One-hundred years after its founding in Indianapolis, thousands of Sigma Gamma Rho members are coming to the city this July to celebrate the sorority's foundation and honor the founding members. For more information, visit their website.