Swing Monument Unveiling
This story originally appeared on: Winston-Salem Journal
Fifty years ago, almost to the day, 12 pioneering women demanded change, channeling their fire into creating an all-female social fellowship organization at what was then Winston-Salem State College.
Swing Phi Swing emerged on campus on the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death amid tumultuous times and quickly spread to other universities around the country.
This weekend, the organization celebrates 50 years with the unveiling of a monument on Winston-Salem State University’s campus, honoring the work of the 12 founders.
“We call ourselves ‘The 12 who dared to be different,’” said Beverly Dorn-Steele, one of the organization’s founders. “We went against the norm.”
‘Things were changing’
The roots of Swing Phi Swing can be traced back to a conversation near the clock tower of now-Winston-Salem State University.
A group of female students wanted to know why Groove Phi Groove, an all-male social fellowship organization, didn’t have any female members.
“They said, ‘Well, we never thought about it’ and that kind of spurred us into action,” said Dorn-Steele, who was at the time a sophomore and only 16 years old. “We thought ‘Why can’t we make our own sisterhood?’ and Groove Phi Groove then became our brother organization.”
Even before Swing Phi Swing was formed, the founders and other students had been active in different protests across campus as the civil rights movement reached its height.
After the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, students marched to downtown Winston-Salem calling for change.
“The police were pointing guns at us, and when we got to the courthouse, the powers that be in Winston-Salem met us,” said founder Anita Chase Watson, who participated in the march. “Things were changing and we were pushing back.”
Unrest and rioting had already occurred in the city as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the late 1960s.
Watson, like many others, wanted change, and was excited, she said, when she stumbled upon one of the flyers posted around campus for Swing Phi Swing’s interest meeting.
Many of the founders had aligned themselves with the Black Power Movement and the organization — founded on the one-year anniversary of King’s death — held the promise of innovation.
“It wasn’t like I set out to do something different that day, it was more like something different found me,” said Watson, who is now retired in Greensboro. “My parents would say I was a rebel without a cause, but Swing Phi Swing was a chance to do something different.”
As the organization took flight, its members focused heavily on community outreach, especially in the more impoverished areas of the city.
“Service is what guides us. That’s the engine,” said founder Roz Marshall Tandy. “Mostly, I went door-to-door tutoring little kids and going to houses to ask ‘Can I read to your child?’”
With an array of service opportunities, helping women emerged as a strong goal of the organization.
The name Swing Phi Swing became an acronym for “Sisters With Interest Never Gone, Promoting Higher Intelligence, Supporting Women In Need of Growth.”
The members frequently went into domestic violence and homeless shelters to offer help where they could.
“We were a group of young ladies going against the grain, so of course I was always asking myself ‘Is this the right thing? Will it have value?’” said Tandy, who lives in Greensboro. “It didn’t take long before we knew we were creating something beyond ourselves.”
Members went into some of Winston-Salem’s underprivileged neighborhoods and schools to offer assistance any way they could, Dorn-Steele said.
In recent years, service has stretched even further to encompass community walks for various diseases and giving back to schools.
“It kind of uplifts people living in certain conditions to have role models and mentors that can say ‘It’s OK, you can lift yourself out of poverty,’” Dorn-Steele said. “Service has always been a keystone for us.”
‘The domino effect’
As Swing Phi Swing began to thrive in Winston-Salem, other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) sought to add the organization to their own campuses.
Busloads of students from N.C. A&T University, South Carolina State University, Bennett College and other surrounding HBCUs began arriving each weekend to become inducted into the organization, Dorn-Steele said.
“It was like the domino effect. All these HBCUs were contacting us wanting to start their own chapters,” Dorn-Steele said. “It spread like wildfire across the country.”
Watson, who transferred schools after a year and a half in Winston-Salem, went on to start one of the first new chapters at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh.
The original organization had been created as almost an antithesis to the school’s Greek life, which made it an attractive alternative, Watson said.
When they created Swing Phi Swing, the founders said they did not want to be a part of the established sororities, instead chasing a frontier where they could make their organization inclusive and as groundbreaking as they wanted.
“One thing about Grooves and Swings is that we are accepting and inclusive, not a cookie-cutter organization,” Watson said. “We embraced diversity and it makes me proud.”
All 10 of the living founders are expected to attend the conference and monument dedication in Winston-Salem this weekend, some of them reuniting for the first time since they graduated in the early 1970s, Dorn-Steele said.
The sleek black monument, which will be dedicated in a ceremony at noon on Saturday, is a symbol of the organization’s roots and lists the names of the founders on one side.
“We figured, for the 50-year anniversary, it was only fitting we go back to what we call the motherland, where this organization all started,” said Dorn-Steele, who retired last year after 37 years at WTVI-PBS Charlotte. “Plus, we’re very excited to see the monument.”
While past and current members of the organization convene every year at various locations, the anniversary event — held in conjunction with brother organization Groove Phi Groove — is expected to draw about 600 people.
The convention kicked off Wednesday with a book donation at Mineral Springs Elementary School, in keeping with the organization’s community service mission, and continued with panel discussions with former Black Panther members.
The organization also announced the formation of the Supporting Women in Need of Growth (SWING) non-endowed scholarship fund, pledging $25,000.
Scholarships will be awarded to full-time female students at the university who are in good academic and disciplinary standing and demonstrate community service.
Tandy said it’s today’s students who must come together to continue their mission and make a difference.
“I always say it’s easier to get something started than to maintain it, so my hat goes off to the young ladies who have kept it going,” Tandy said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job.”
Swing Phi Swing’s Rukiya Busara Chapter, which serves Burlington, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill, has about 25 active members.
At WSSU, the Swing Phi Swing chapter is not currently active, but organization members said they are hoping this weekend’s conference will pique interest in renewing it on campus.
The first intake of new members could be as soon as spring, 2020.
Across the U.S., there are 50 active graduate and undergraduate chapters.
For the founders, the 50-year milestone is one imbued with deep pride that they were able to create something profound enough to withstand the test of time.
“Who would’ve ever thought that this little seed of 12 individuals would evolve into thousands of members?” Dorn-Steele said. “We created this. Now, it’s time for us to sit back and watch it grow.”