On Jan. 16, 1920, Fannie Pettie joined four other Howard University coeds in founding Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. In their organization, sorority elitism and socializing would take a back seat to the primary mission: defeating the prejudices and poverty that acutely affected the Black community.
Intent on doing things differently, the women began their expansion by granting chapter charters to historically Black colleges and universities in the segregated South rather than on White campuses in urban areas. They distinguished themselves in other ways by becoming the first National Pan-Hellenic Council organization to charter a chapter in Africa, centralize its operations in a national headquarters and be constitutionally bound to a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc.
As the decades passed, founder Pettie Watts, as she became known after marriage, organized two additional Zeta chapters, doing her part to help Zeta grow to 100,000 members with 800 chapters worldwide. After teaching junior and senior high schools in Savannah, Georgia, she returned to Brooklyn, New York, where she was an active member of the Delta Alpha Zeta chapter. In 1982, a Zeta perspective would knock on her door.
“This short little woman came to the door and said hello, and I was speechless,” said Valerie Hollingsworth-Baker, who is leading Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. into its centennial year in 2020 as the 25th international president. She was pledging at the time and, realizing founder Fannie Pettie Watts lived only seven blocks from her family’s home in Brooklyn, volunteered to walk over the chapter’s Founders Day bouquet.
“She invited me in, and she was so gracious and kind. We had a little chat, and I told her I was an interest who was trying to get into the organization, and she told me a little about it. She said, ‘I hope you make it in because we’re a nice group of women.’ When I came back and told her that I was now official, she was so excited! That started a true love affair with Zeta,” Hollingsworth-Baker said.
Watts became a second grandmother to Hollingsworth-Baker, who visited the elder every week to clean and do things like decorating a room with her Zeta memorabilia. Their families became close, sharing dinners and celebrating Watts’ birthday.
For Hollingsworth-Baker, Zeta set the standard for “sisterly love,” which had previously eluded her. “I’d enrolled at Fordham University at 14. When you are the smartest, you’re not always the more popular. I got skipped several grades, so I could never do what my peers did. I had a few friends, but I couldn’t stay out late,” she said.
There was no Greek life on Fordham’s campus, but after she graduated and turned 18 and was able to stay out until midnight, her friend Joyce Moses suggested she try out.
Inspired by her years with Watts and determined to return the love Zeta had given, Hollingsworth-Baker dedicated herself to service within the sorority.
Early on, she learned from her chapter’s seasoned members, collecting her ideas in little blue books. Eventually, Hollingsworth-Baker served as president of her local chapter three times and then as an officer on the state and regional levels. In 2014, she was elected first vice president for membership. For four years, she literally signed off on every application and led Zeta’s international expansion, chartering chapters in Belgium, England, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago.
“I went above and beyond to show the members that they deserve responsiveness. We are a dues-paying organization, so these women are my customers and deserved top-level service,” said Hollingsworth-Baker, who is also responsible for managing multimillion-dollar projects and programs at New York Life Insurance Co. “I do this in her honor. I miss her up until today.”
Hollingsworth-Baker and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority are not done paying it forward. “When we open up our centennial celebration, we will have launched a national talent search with a goal of awarding a $100,000 scholarship to one girl every year for five years in honor of our five founders,” she said.
Founder Fannie Pettie Watts would be proud.