Black women lead march against slavery in Africa

May 22, 1999|By Gregory Kane

YOU probably don't know their names: Courtney Hutt, Tia Jackson, LaTasha Peele, Nikki Harley and Anissa Brown. They're members of the Mu Pi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. They attend the University of Delaware. And they're very concerned about the reports of slavery in Sudan and Mauritania.

So concerned, in fact, that they sponsored a forum on May 7 to learn more on the subject. They did some research themselves. Then they brought in a speaker. At the program, attended by some 40 to 50 students, they read from the testimony of one escaped Sudanese slave who told how she was captured by government soldiers, forced on a tortuous march in which she was raped repeatedly and then given to an Arab family as a slave. The woman testified that her sister tried to escape from slavery and had her throat slit because of her yearning for freedom.

Thus did the members of the Mu Pi chapter of the nationally renowned black sorority introduce their schoolmates to the subject of slavery in Africa. And they didn't stop there. They've started a drive to collect textbooks, notebooks and pens to send to slavery's victims in Sudan and Mauritania.

Contrast the actions of the 21 ladies of the Mu Pi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta with some of America's traditional liberal black leadership. Jesse Jackson went to Yugoslavia and negotiated the release of three American prisoners of war, but he has yet to take a stand, one way or the other, on the issue of slavery in Mauritania and Sudan. The crisis simply doesn't exist in Jackson's mind.

Several prominent black celebrities were invited to attend a February conference in Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Institute to learn more about slavery in the two African countries. Only former Los Angeles Rams football player and actor Rosey Grier, now a minister, bothered to show up. The issue of slavery in Sudan and Mauritania is one some black Americans wish would go away.

The notable exception is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who doesn't dodge the issue. He says outright that he doesn't believe slavery exists in Sudan. He's wrong, of course. But at least he's taken a stand. His position is far more preferable to that of other black leaders and celebrities who straddle the fence on the issue of slavery in Africa, as if you can be neutral about that sort of thing.

But back to the women of Delta Sigma Theta. As usually happens in black America when the menfolk chump out on an issue, it's the women who step forward. It happened in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott -- women started and sustained it -- and it appears to be happening on the issue of slavery in Mauritania and Sudan.

So perhaps it's not by coincidence that women from Delta Sigma Theta -- formed at Howard University in 1913 -- got involved. Brown, a graduate of Baltimore's Western High School and the Mu Pi chapter's vice president, is a senior biology-psychology major at the university. She put the chapter's concerns about African slavery in historical perspective.

"Delta Sigma Theta played a role in the civil rights and women's rights issues," Brown noted. "So something like this [protesting African slavery] wouldn't be anything new."

Hutt, a junior English major with a focus on journalism, said she learned of the issue when one of her sorority sisters handed her a copy of the March issue of Marie Claire magazine. Harley, a senior medical technology major, read the same article as well as The Sun's 1996 series on Sudan slavery. Then, at a chapter meeting, Harley told her sorority sisters about the articles and the issue as part of the group's focus on international awareness.

"We find out what's going on and bring it to a chapter meeting," Harley said Thursday in the university's Trabant Center. Focusing on African slavery "was an urgency for us," Harley said. "It was time to do something. It was time for more than just words."

Peele, the chapter president and a senior majoring in environmental engineering, said the slavery forum may have been a landmark event for her sorority.

"It was one of the most important [things] we've done," Peele said. "This is something totally new." She was referring to bringing the reports of slavery to the university's student body, few of whom were aware that such a thing still existed in the world. The ladies held the forum to inform students, in hopes that they would act.

The Mu Pi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority have already acted. Chapter members hope their forum leads the national organization to do likewise. Folks should not underestimate Delta Sigma Theta's influence, the University of Delaware women pointed out.

"Our sorority has tremendous, tremendous power," said Jackson, a sophomore psychology major.

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