ST. LOUIS, MO — A three-story house in North St. Louis, Missouri will become a museum honoring African American women.
It is well known in St. Louis that 2844 St. Louis Avenue is the family home of Ethel Hedgemon Lyle, the founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) the nation’s first African American sorority.
Organizers say the museum will be the first phase of a broader plan from the Gamma Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha to revitalize a neighborhood impacted by years of disinvestment.
“For over a hundred years, we have been providing service to mankind,” said Tracey Clark Jefferies, referencing the sorority’s mission. “Now the community will know where to find us.”
Gamma Omega, the St. Louis chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and the sorority’s nonprofit, the Ivy Alliance Foundation, are spearheading the $4 million effort to open the museum and build an adjacent 12,000-square-foot community center that will offer job assistance and skills training.
Ethel Hedgeman Lyle , was a Founder of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (ΑΚΑ) at Howard University in 1908. It was the first sorority founded by African-American college women. Lyle is often referred to as the “Guiding Light” for the organization.
Lyle had a 40-year career as an educator and was active in public life. She was National Treasurer of the sorority for more than 20 years. Ethel Hedgeman Lyle is the first president of Omega Omega, its first alumnae chapter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lyle also founded the West Philadelphia chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Mothers Club in the city. In 2000, the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy, a charter school in St. Louis, Missouri, was founded in her honor.
All these activities helped create social capital in the city in a time of rapid growth and population changes. Lyle demonstrated in her committed life how African-American sororities supported women “to create spheres of influence, authority and power within institutions that traditionally have allowed African Americans and women little formal authority and real power”.
Ethel Hedgeman was born in 1887 in St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout her educational career, Hedgeman attended public schools in St. Louis. In 1904, Hedgeman graduated from Sumner High School with honors. She received a scholarship to Howard University, a highly ranked historically black college. Hedgeman went to Howard at a time when only one in three hundred African Americans and 5% of whites of eligible age attended any college.
In 1904, Hedgeman enrolled Howard University. However, due to illness in her sophomore year, Hedgeman had to take a break from her studies. Throughout college, she belonged to Howard’s choir, YWCA, and the Christian Endeavor, as well as participating in drama plays. She was described as lively and charming, despite her delicate health.
Hedgeman was instrumental in founding Alpha Kappa Alpha, America’s first Greek-letter organization established by Black college women. She was inspired by the accounts of Tremaine Robinson, a faculty member at Howard who shared her sorority experiences at Brown University. To establish the sorority, Hedgeman began recruiting interested classmates during the summer of 1907. Hedgeman and eight other classmates founded Alpha Kappa Alpha on January 15, 1908. Hedgeman served as vice-president of the sorority, and designed the insignia for the sorority.
After graduating in 1909 with a Bachelor of Arts in liberal arts, Hedgeman moved to Eufaula, Oklahoma for her first job as a teacher. She taught music in Sumner Normal School between 1909 and 1910. She was the first African-American female college graduate to teach in a normal school in Oklahoma and the first to earn a Teacher’s Life Certificate from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. In 1910, Hedgeman moved to Centralia, Illinois, where she also taught in public schools.
On June 21, 1911, Ethel Hedgeman married George Lyle, whom she had dated in high school and college. They moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Ethel gave birth to George, III, her only child. George Lyle also worked as a teacher, considered by both to be a critical profession for the future of African Americans.
Ethel continued her education career in Philadelphia by teaching English at the Thomas Purham School and Chester A. Arthur School. She retired in 1948, after almost 40 years of teaching generations of students.
In addition to her work as an educator, Lyle was active in public life. She helped found civic institutions such as the West Philadelphia League of Women Voters and the Mother’s Club of the city. In addition Lyle was a member of the Republican Women’s Committee of Ward 40 and active in her church.
As national treasurer of Alpha Kappa Alpha from 1923 to 1946, Lyle helped lead the sorority through years of rapid social change, including the Great Migration of more than a million African Americans from the South to the North, the Depression and challenges of World War II. In Philadelphia 1926 she chartered and was the first president of Omega Omega, the first alumnae chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha in Philadelphia. (Eighty years old and with 400 members in the 21st century, the Omega Omega chapter continues to provide services to women and children in the city.)
Lyle’s leadership skills were called on in 1937, when the Mayor of Philadelphia appointed her to chair the Committee of 100 Women, organized to plan the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Adoption of the U.S. Constitution.