A Contextual History of the Founding of
Sigma Gamma Rho
at Butler University
Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D.
Special Collections, Rare Books,
and University Archives Librarian,
utler University was founded in 1855 as North Western Christian University, and was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ (also called the Christian Church). Before Butler was founded, the next-closest Disciples church was in Virginia, a slave-holding state. Indiana Disciples were abolitionists and wanted a school where their children could go, as founder Ovid Butler put it, away from the ”pernicious influences of slavery.” Ovid Butler was a lawyer, newspaperman, land developer, and abolitionist. He owned the abolitionist Free Soil Banner newspaper, and a second paper in Cincinnati. Ovid Butler went on to found a school based on the values of equality and inclusivity, and from the beginning the university admitted women and persons of color on an equal basis with white men. Because of its abolitionist beliefs, the university did not keep track of students by race for many years, so we do not know for certain who Butler’s first African American graduate was. Butler’s first documented African American graduate was a woman named Gertrude Amelia Mahorney. She graduated with a bachelors degree in 1887 and a masters in 1889, and was a life-long educator.
In 1875 Butler moved from its first campus on the northeast side of the old downtown Mile Square, at what is today 13th Street and College Avenue, to Irvington, then a town on the east side of Indianapolis. The town has long been integrated into the city. Irvington was founded in 1870 and the city founders wanted Butler University to make its second home there. It was here that Gertrude Mahorney’s parents bought land so that Gertrude and her younger brother John could attend Butler University.
Sigma Gamma Rho was founded in 1922, when Butler was still on the Irvington campus, and shortly before Butler moved to its current Fairview campus in 1928. The women who founded Sigma Gamma Rho did so in the face of considerable discrimination in the state and even in Irvington. From 1920 to 1925 Indiana had the highest ratio per capita of Ku Klux Klan members in the country, and the Klan was well represented in Indiana’s General Assembly. Much of this was due to the successful promotional activities of the Indiana grand dragon, D.C. Stephenson. In 1923 Stephenson bought a house half a block from the university’s Bona Thompson Library; he had the former sorority house remodeled to resemble the Klan headquarters in Atlanta. During this period there was sufficient discrimination that the Indianapolis school board asked the university to allow adult education classes for African Americans to take place on campus because no other place in Irvington would host them. In 1925 Stephenson was convicted in the death of a young woman, and the Klan lost much of its grip on the state, though it continued to exert some influence.
It is important for people today to realize the historic context of the founding of Sigma Gamma Rho. The founders were living in a time and place where discrimination against people of color was rampant, and women were still very much second-class citizens. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was passed in 1920, only two years before the founding of Sigma Gamma Rho, but Jim Crow laws in the South and activities by the Klan prevented many African American women from voting. Indiana in the early 1920s was not an auspicious or even likely environment in which to create an organization of African American female educators.
Given this historical context, what a radical and courageous act these seven young schoolteachers committed by founding Sigma Gamma Rho! They did so at the height of Klan activity in Indiana, and a year later, as they continued to grow their newly-fledged sorority on the Butler campus, they had to contend with the grand dragon living only half a block away, his house clearly visible from the front steps of the library. The university did what it could to protect its students of color, but the Klan was everywhere, even in the quiet college town of Irvington. By looking at the historical context in which Sigma Gamma Rho was founded, these seven women quietly made a statement that still resonates loudly about the power and importance of education. The founders very likely did not consider what they had done as a radical act. No doubt they founded the sorority out of the wish to create a group of like-minded women who were dedicated to education, and to provide support in spite of the political and cultural environment around them.
Looking back on the founding of Sigma Gamma Rho from the vantage point of almost 100 years makes it clear that this founding was indeed a radical act, much like Ovid Butler’s outrageous idea of founding a university in 1855 that admitted women and persons of color on an equal basis with white males. Almost 100 years later, the quiet courage of women who acted on the strength of their convictions still resonates, inspiring Sigma Gamma Rho on for another 100 years.