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African American Fraternities

By Greta Hendricks Johnson

Graduate Student, Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus

Definition

The formation of African American fraternities carries with it the roots established many years ago as evidenced in Free and Accepted Masons, and perhaps earlier via the Freeman's Bureau. Its implications for organized activity was developed at first to provide a social outlet, but then evolved to what is characteristic of ethnic fellowship. As individuals search further, the latter provides the foundation that many of the fraternities build membership today in an array of impressive service projects for which its members can volunteer. Black fraternities are a mainstay in African American Society not just for ethnic fellowship, but also by the same upward stance that its Caucasian counterparts share.


Historic Roots

These Greek fraternities have played a significant role in forming the lives of many African Americans to become part of society. The focus of this briefing paper will concentrate on the major "five" Black fraternities and what they have meant to African American culture including Alpha Phi Alpha (December 4, 1906), Kappa Alpha Psi (January 5, 1911), Omega Psi Phi (November 17, 1911), Phi Beta Sigma (January 9, 1914) and the newest Iota Phi Theta (September 19, 1963).

Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity, was established in 1906 on the campus of Cornell University in the midst of racial divide. Seven gentlemen forged a union, binding them together in order to ensure their survival. They have become known as the seven jewels of Alpha Phi Alpha. Despite the censorship that plagued their existence on Cornell's campus, they rose to be recognized in Black society. These jewels include Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.).

Kappa Alpha Psi was founded by Elder Watson Diggs, John Milton Lee, Byron K. Armstrong, Guy Levis Grant, Ezra D. Alexander, Henry T. Asher, Marcus P. Blakemore, Paul W. Caine, Edward G. Irvin and George Edmonds on the soil of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. They sought to form a democratic fraternity with a basis that took root from the United States constitution. Kappa Alpha Nu was adopted and incorporated in May 1911 prior to being changed to Kappa Alpha Psi.(Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.).

Omega Psi Phi, organized at a historical black college, was founded at Howard University on November 19, 1911. Many consider it the "first" truly black fraternity. Founders include Professor Ernest E. Just, Edgar A. Love, Oscar J. Cooper, and Frank Coleman. Omega Psi Phi concentrated on manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift as their cardinal principles. (Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.).

Following in the footsteps of Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma met the challenge of the time. In1914, three students including A Langston Taylor, Leonard F. Morse, and Charles I. Brown set out to create a Greek-letter fraternity that exemplified their ideas about brotherhood, scholarship, and service. They sought to be an integral part of their community. Their existence set them apart from many of the earlier fraternities and helped sound out the motto that still rings strong: "Culture for Service and Service for Humanity" (Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.).

The newest fraternity that has moved into the core of the top black fraternities is Iota Phi Theta. Iota Phi Theta was born outside of the traditional college student and was the brainchild of 12 older students including Alfred Hicks, Lonnie Spuill, Jr. Charles Briscoe, Frank Coakley, John Slade, Barron Willis, Webster Lewis, Charles Brown, Louis Hudnell, Charles Gregory, Elias Dorsey, Jr., and Michael Williams. The fraternity began on the campus of Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, on September 19, 1963 during some of the most turbulent times in American history. "Building A Tradition, Not Resting Upon One" is the motto by which this social service fraternity has matured and grown (Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.).


Importance

In the past, many individuals thought African American fraternities were just a "black thing" that would dissipate at the first sign of white disapproval, but their loyalty and perseverance has kept the fellowship alive and grown in numbers. This is especially evident in Boule, a respected inter-fraternal set of distinguished African American fraternity members who have set apart from the run of the mill frat brothers. The Boule maintains the upper class of Black society with service and philanthropic actions that build respect and initiatives amongst its members. Equally influential, One Hundred Black Men, Inc., is an organization of esteemed Black leaders who are committed to empowering others.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

It is impressive to examine the volunteerism in which African American fraternities have taken part. Many of the causes are issues that concern the African American community, and have resulted in changes effecting politics, philanthropy and society as a whole.

Iota Phi Theta was pressed into existence during tormented issues that plagued society in the 1960s and continues to echo the mentality of youth today. The organization was instrumental in establishing the modern day attitude of service mindedness. Members are encouraged to be engaged around issues instead of being passive. They are also encouraged to be individualistic in their actions, not following other fraternities. Some of the programs that Iota Phi Theta aligned helped define and develop the character of its members. They were considered the militant offspring even before the term began growing popularity in the late 1960s.

Iota Phi Theta sought to eradicate segregation with a protest that was organized against the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, Maryland shortly after its founding. Big Brothers of America was supported throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Their idealism continues to strive with service initiatives to involve the fraternity with the NAACP, The United Negro College Fund, The National Sickle Cell Foundation, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The National Federation of the Blind, and Project IMAGE. Most recently, the establishment of the National IOTA Foundation and Iota Youth Alliance helped extend Iota Phi Theta idealism regarding service and the building of traditions in the community. They have a strong commitment to bring about empowerment to the African American community.

The National Iota Foundation, founded by Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc., serves as a clearinghouse for monies and programs for significant endeavors. From its inception, the Foundation and its subsidiaries have provided assistance in the amount of over $250,000 in grants, aid, and services intended to edify the Black community. The Foundation's work includes the sponsorship of the yearly Spring IOTA Black College Tour. The tour is designed to introduce graduating High School Seniors to Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.).

Initially, Alpha Phi Alpha came into being as a study and support group to its members who were facing pressures of racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, while attending Cornell. The group expanded by adopting principles of scholarship, fellowship, good character, and the uplifting of humanity. Today, this commitment to humanity is focused through financial and volunteer contributions to the NAACP, the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and many other well-rooted causes.

The Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation, Inc. concentrates on scholarship, programs, training and development. The high ideals of the Education Foundation have expanded to include implementation of a host of programs including Go-to-High School, Go-to-College, Project Alpha, A Voteless People is a Hopeless People, the Belford V. Lawson Oratorical Contest, the Collegiate Scholars Bowl, Leadership Development Institutes, and the professional and personal development trusts of the Fraternity-Alpha University. In addition, the Alpha Phi Alpha Building Foundation is in operation (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.).

Kappa Alpha Psi believes in maintaining an outreach program by providing resource and service to its community via the Kappa Alpha Psi Foundation. The Foundation currently supports scholarships, after-school programs and national projects such as Habitat for Humanity.

Kappa Alpha Psi Foundation exists as the philanthropic arm of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Staying true to its motto of "Achievement in every field of human endeavor," its purpose is to assist the community service efforts of the more than 600 active undergraduate and alumni chapters of Kappa Alpha Psi. The Foundation is a springboard for scholarships, after-school programs and funding for national projects such as Habitat for Humanity (Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.).

Omega Psi Phi set out on the premise to be a strong partner within its community. It has harnessed this attitude by being a pioneer many times. In the 1950s, it contributed $40,000 through its various chapters to the NAACP. During the 1960s, during a shift in the struggle for social justice, the Omegas became active participants in demonstrations. They called attention to the plight of black Americans with activities that included "sit- ins." A fight for political recognition led to the "Operation Big Vote" in the 1970s and brought thousands of black youth to register to vote in the 1976 presidential election (Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.).

Phi Beta Sigma stands tall with its mission of "Rebuilding Bridges To Bridge The Gap between Brotherhood, Scholarship and Service." From its inception, Phi Beta Sigma has sought to enroll itself as an active participant in the community. It focuses on three national programs including Social Action, Bigger and Better Business and Education. The programs address five areas of concern and work to improve the conditions of society through mentoring, guidance, scholarship, grants, tutoring, donation of books, and empowerment opportunities. Some of the organizations in which they have become affiliated include the March of Dimes, American Cancer Society, The National Urban League, and the Direct Fund Foundation.

Phi Beta Sigma Educational Foundation promotes academic achievement thru scholarships and grants as well as leader development. The fraternity has also established the Phi Beta Sigma National Housing Foundation (Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.).

The following organizations represent a sampling of nonprofits associated with various fraternities:

  • American Cancer Society (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • Big Brothers / Big Sisters (Omega Psi Phi)
  • Boy Scouts of America (Alpha Phi Alpha)
  • The Children's Defense (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • Direct Fund Foundation (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • Habitat for Humanity (Kappa Alpha Psi)
  • Head Start (Alpha Phi Alpha)
  • March of Dimes (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People- (Iota Phi Theta)
  • National Federation of the Blind (Iota Phi Theta)
  • National Marrow Donor (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • National Sickle Cell Foundation (Iota Phi Theta)
  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Iota Phi Theta)
  • Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • United Negro College Fund (Iota Phi Theta)
  • Urban League (Phi Beta Sigma)
  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Alpha Phi Alpha)


Key Related Ideas

The idealism of each of the five fraternities is embraced in their mottos. Each is distinctive, yet has far-reaching and widespread implications of what true service means.

Concern for humanity is perhaps the most comprehensive term that can be used to describe them collectively. African Amrerican fraternities continue to carry the lamp to light the way for the masses of individuals who are unable to fight for themselves.

The consistency that binds all of the fraternities together is the common thread of building within the ranks of culture and society, while at the same time, initiating programs that provide the foundation by which other services can grow stronger.

Sharing information and concern is the overall focus for all five fraternities. This have been evidenced through the immersion that each has played in creating scholarships, study groups, widespread humanitarian programs that work to eradicate segregation, and control of the spread of disease. There is the notion that it is their duty to be involved and committed to the community, whether it is collecting canned goods, donating books, mentoring, tutoring youth, or providing financial support for education. They take on issues and causes that have turned society into something less desirable, in an effort to make society more civil. The function of black fraternities is to give back through individual as well as organized efforts.


Important People Related to the Topic

There are numerous people who belong to the five fraternities. Therefore, a sampling of the names and occupations that they have been involved is listed (Ross 2000).

  • Hank Aaron - Former Atlanta Brave (Omega)
  • Dennis Archer - Former Mayor of Detroit (Alpha)
  • Barry E. Beckham - Founder Beckham House Publishers (Sigma)
  • Guion Bluford - First Black Astronaut in Space (Omega)
  • Les Brown - Motivational Speaker (Sigma)
  • T. C. Carson - Television Actor, Formerly of "Living Single" ( Iota)
  • George Washington Carver - World famous Scientist (Sigma)
  • Johnnie L Cochran - Attorney (Kappa)
  • William H. Cosby - Comedian, Actor, Educator, Philanthropist (Omega)
  • Charles Drew - Doctor who perfected Blood Plasma (Omega)
  • W.E.B. DuBois - Author, Historian, Civil Rights Activist (Alpha)
  • Dr. Bernard Harris - Astronaut, First Black to walk in space (Kappa)
  • Robert Johnson - Founder & CEO Black Entertainment Network (Kappa)
  • Zemira Jones - President & General Manager, ABC/Disney Radio, Chicago, Illinois (Iota)
  • Michael Jordan - Former Chicago Bull (Omega)
  • Kwame Kilpatrick - Mayor of Detroit (Alpha)
  • Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. - Civil Rights Activist (Alpha)
  • Dave Leitao - Head Basketball Coach, DePaul University, Chicago (Iota)
  • Alain Leroy Locke - First African American Rhodes Scholar (Sigma)
  • Thurgood Marshall - Civil Rights Activist, Supreme Court Justice (Alpha)
  • Benjamin Chavis Muhammad - Organizer Million - Man March (Sigma)
  • Jesse Owens - Olympic Gold Medallist (Alpha)
  • Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. - Civil Rights Activist (Alpha)
  • John Singleton - Movie Director (Kappa)
  • Andrew Young - Former Mayor, Atlanta - former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Alpha)


Related Nonprofit Organizations
 

  • Black Elks is one of many African American fraternal organizations with similar missions to that of One Hundred Black Men of America, Inc. Formed in 1899, the Black Elks is a historically Black non- profit charitable fraternal organization still in operation. Formally named the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, they were founded in Cincinnati, Ohio because African Americans during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were denied membership into white fraternal organizations. The Black Elks served their communities and provided financial, spiritual and emotional support (http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2232/
    The_Black_Elks_a_home_away_from_home
    ).

     
  • Black Professional Men, Inc., based in Baltimore, Maryland, seeks to "ensure the future of the African American male." Programs include health, education, economic and community development (http://www.bpminc.org).

     
  • Circle Brotherhood Association, is committed to improving the lives of other Black men and youth by means of mentoring, economic development, promoting educational excellence and spiritual guidance (http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/circle/circle.html).

     
  • National Organization of Concerned Black Men, Inc., established in 1975, has chapters located in 22 states and abroad. Their enrichment programs focus on education, health and self-improvement through leadership development and community grass-root efforts (http://www.cbmnational.org).

     
  • Progressive Black Men, Inc. is a brotherhood of college students, alumni, faculty and veterans who have pledged their time, talent and treasure for the sole purpose of "promoting positive images for black men in the community and working to reconstruct and redefine the image of the Black Male through volunteer work, humanitarian aid, and community service." Founded on the campus of Florida State University in 1989, these role models excel in academic excellence, use their "collective knowledge, collective effort, and collective strength" to eradiate the stereotypes of African American males often portrayed as criminals, thugs, womanizers, ignorant and uncivilized in the media and entertainment (http://grove.ufl.edu/~ufpbm/history.html).


Related Web Sites

Black History.com Website, at http://www.blackhistory.com, provides a forum for African Americans to share their stories, articles, and research papers.

Black Collegian Online Website, at http://www.black-collegian.com, offers information regarding African-American Issues, a Job Bank, X-Tra Curricular Activities and much more.

Black Seek.com Website, at http://www.blackseek.com, provides a forum for articles, stories, news and personal Web pages for African Americans.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. National Website [Accessed 27 March 2004].
http://www.alphaphialpha.net.

Florida State University Chapter of Progressive Black Men, Inc. [Accessed 28 July 2004]. http://www.fsu.edu/~activity/pbm/aboutus.html.

Graham, Lawrence Otis. Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. Chapter 7. ISBN:0-06-018352-7j.

Iota Phi Theta Inc. National Website [Accessed 27 March 2004].
http://www.iotaphitheta.org.

Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc National Website [Accessed 03 April 2004]. http://www.kappaalphapsi1911.com.

Omega Psi Phi, Inc. National Website [Accessed 03 April 2004]. http://www.omegapsiphifraternity.org/.

Phi Beta Sigma, Inc. National Website [Accessed 03 April 2004]. http://www.pbs1914.org.

Ross, Lawrence C. The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. New York: Kensington Publishing, 2000. 5-160. ISBN:0-7582-0270-9.

University of Florida Chapter of Progressive Black Men, Inc. [Accessed 29 July 2004]. http://grove.ufl.edu/~ufpbm/main.html.