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Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Bring Their Founders to Life with Wax Figure Exhibit

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. presented wax figures of their founders and Zora Neale Hurston as part of a series of campus activities following the sorority’s founders’ day, celebrating 104 years of sisterhood.

Zora Neale Hurston, co-founder of The Hilltop, presented as a wax figure in the Armour J. Blackburn Student Center (Tionne Thornton/The Hilltop)

Members of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. gathered on the second floor in Blackburn to celebrate their founders’ day with wax figures of historic members. 

According to Wanda Smith, the chair of Founders’ Day for the Beta Zeta Washington, D.C., chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, it is the first organization in the National Pan-Hellenic Council to present all its founders – Myrtle Tyler, Pearl Anna Neal, Arizona Cleaver, Viola Taylor and Fannie Pettie – as wax statues.

A wax figure of Zora Neale Hurston, an early initiate of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and co-founder of The Hilltop, also captivated the audience. The figures were brought over from the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.

While Smith worked on the vision to create the wax figures for more than two and a half years, she said she couldn’t have done it without the help of Dr. Mary Breaux Wright, the 24th International President of Zeta Phi Beta. 

Smith said that Wright helped her with every step of the process. She said the two women worked tirelessly to perfect the wax figures, from exact height and weight measurements to matching the correct skin tones and selecting old archives to study.

Wax figure of  Fannie Pettie, one of five founders of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated (Tionne Thornton/The Hilltop)

 “We started looking at small things like their eye color, the clothing they were wearing, accessories and even the correct age,” Smith said.

Another woman who was heavily involved in creating the wax figures was Dr. Joanne Martin, the co-founder, current president and CEO of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

She founded the museum with her late husband, Dr. Elmer Martin, in 1983, making the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum the first African American wax museum in the nation’s history.

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“It starts with traditional sculpture, and we work mainly with photographs. Then, an image is created with clay. It is then molded in traditionally wax and other chemicals. After that, it is heated at very high temperatures and then cooled so the wax doesn’t melt,” Martin said. 

Mary Kimbrough, who was recognized as a “dove” for 50 years of service to Zeta Phi Beta, shared her gratitude to be the first in the National Pan-Hellenic Council to have all of its founders in wax. 

“It feels good to be the first, but one thing about Zeta Phi Beta…we were taught all Greek history. We had to know the names of the organizations, when they were founded and other things… So, we didn’t grow up in 1974 with the spirit of competitiveness,” Kimbrough said. 

Dawn Young Johns, another member who came to Howard in 1971, hopes the younger sorority members will be influenced to attend such events. 

“It is always important to know our history, and being able to see the five founders of Zeta Phi Beta is so important to our younger sorors. They’re learning more about the history of the sorority,” she said.

Copy edited by Jalyn Lovelady

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