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Alumni Spotlight: 1909 CHS alumna a founder of the nation’s largest Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta

Written by Ali Hodge, Class of 2009

February 4, 2020

It is one thing to learn the skills needed to be a leader in your community, it is an entirely different thing to put them to use to build one of the largest service organizations in the nation. That is exactly what Madree Penn White, a 1909 graduate of Omaha Central High School, did. As one of the founders of Delta Sigma Theta, Penn put to use the leadership skills she began to build at Central High School to ignite change for many communities around the nation.

Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.,the largest predominantly Black sorority, is “an organization of college educated women committed to the constructive development of its members and to public service with a primary focus on the Black community.” The organization is so large that at its recent 51st National convention, held in Washington D.C., more than 38,000 members attended. The organization boasts the membership of many prominent Black female leadersincludingShirley Chisholm, the first Black woman member of the U.S. Congress, and the first African-American and first woman to run as a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States; Frankie M. Freeman, a noted attorney and the first woman appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by President Lyndon B. Johnson; Barbara Watson, the first Black woman to serve as chief of a State Department bureau; and Alexa Canady, M.D., who, at age 26 became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in the United States.

Madree Penn was born to John and Mattie Penn and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska alongside her siblings Elijah, Marshall, Noel, Jenny and William. She graduated from Central High School in 1909 with honors, then moved to Washington D.C. to attend Howard University. Her decision to attend Howard meant that she turned down scholarships to attend the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska.

According to the Alexander Street Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists, her tenure as a student at Howard was very successful:

“She was the first female editor of the Howard Journal, the campus newspaper. She was a member of the Classical Club, president of the campus chapter of the YWCA, vice-president of the student branch of the NAACP, vice-president of the Social Science Club, and class journalist, vice-president, and treasurer of her class during her years at Howard. Madree Penn graduated Cum Laude in 1914. Of her graduating class, she was voted Most Popular and came in third for Who Has Done the Most for Howard. She became an accomplished linguist, speaking German, French, Greek, and Latin.”

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Photo of the founders of Delta Sigma Theta, Howard University. Photo Courtesy of Delta Sigma Theta Inc.

Penn is responsible for being the first to conceive the idea of Delta Sigma Theta in 1912, and is the author of the organization’s constitution and bylaws. As a linguist, she selected the Greek symbols for the sorority. Beyond serving as President of the new Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Penn participated in the March 1913 Woman Suffrage March in Washington, D.C., which made her the first Delta ever to have an audience with a President of the United States.

As if superstar student, community leader, and suffragist wasn’t enough, Madree Penn was also an accomplished entrepreneur. She served as associate editor and business manager of the Omaha Monitor and also formed her own publishing and printing company, the Triangle Press Company in St. Louis, Missouri. Additionally, she served as Associate Editor of the Howard University Alumni Journal. In 1966, she was honored by the League of Women Voters of Cleveland in 1966.

Madree Penn married Dr. James White and had two children, James E. White AND Grace White Ware, who is a Delta. She passed away January 31, 1967, and was inducted into the Central High School Hall of Fame in 2019.

Sources: Alexander Street Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

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