Sorority turns founder’s north St. Louis home into a museum honoring Black women
Members of the Gamma Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's first Black sorority, plan to convert the north St. Louis home of Ethel Hedgemon Lyle, one of the sorority’s national founders, into a museum that highlights the achievements of Black women.
The chapter’s nonprofit, the Ivy Alliance Foundation, also plans to build a 12,000-square-foot community center next to the museum where people can take educational classes.
The museum and community center could bring more foot traffic into a neighborhood that is filled with vacant buildings, chapter and foundation President Lonita Blackmon said.
“We are just hoping that that part of the city can be a start to bring it back to life … because it did hold a lot of economic impact back in the day for African Americans,” she said.
The Lyle home at 2844 St. Louis Ave. is less than a mile from the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s campus. The three-story brick home will display sorority memorabilia and celebrate local, national and international Black women who have contributed to society.
The $2 million community center will serve as the foundation’s headquarters and a space where people can learn continuing education skills, children can participate in afterschool activities, and people in the community can host events.
The foundation is collaborating with Sensient Colors, which previously owned part of the land where the house sits, on a workforce development program that will hire area residents. Chapter members also will use the community center for collaborations with nearby schools.
“If you go over in that area, a lot of it is blighted if the building is still standing, it's vacant, or it's boarded up, or there's just vacant lots all together,” Blackmon said. “We want to empower our families.”
Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, who has seen the JeffVanderLou neighborhood deteriorate over the past few decades, hopes the project can help turn the area around. Bosley has lived in the area since age 7 and now represents the neighborhood. He said residents have been begging for improvements for years.
“It is good to see us reinvest in our communities and having the opportunity to do so, after all of these years of blight and seeing us be the facilitators of it and bringing things to the forefront that we know will be impactful to us,” Bosley said.
Gamma Omega chapter members searched for a foundation headquarters for years and stumbled upon information that listed Lyle’s address when she lived in St. Louis.
Lyle grew up in the city during the late 1800s and attended Sumner High School. After graduation, she furthered her education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black institution where she and eight other Black women founded Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1908.
The sorority has artifacts at college campuses and museums across the nation, but the former Lyle residence will be the first home that it will remodel into a museum. Kwame Building Group, a construction company owned by African Americans, will begin working on the projects this spring.
Black women have held the community together for centuries even during the most difficult times, and to celebrate them in St. Louis is rewarding, Bosley said.
“Having any way for us to look back and search the history that we created thus far and give our young children the ability to see themselves in greatness — because great people came before them, in their own neighborhood — can completely change the mindset of a young person and give them a totally different path in life,” he said.