Monday, 18 February 2013



In the early 1900s, Black students at American universities were often excluded from associations, enjoyed by White students, in the form of fraternal organizations.  During the 1905–06 school year, at Cornell University, in New York, African-American students organized the first, intercollegiate Greek letter fraternity for Black students, by Black students. The objective was to provide an opportunity for association and mutual support among African-American students. 

Cornell University, 1906

At their first meetings, the men disagreed about the group's purpose: some wanted a social and literary club where everyone could participate; and others wanted a traditional, fraternal organization. The society decided to work to provide a literary, study, social, and support group for all minority students who encountered social and academic racial prejudice. They first organized in 1905; but initially, the group was unnamed. On October 23, 1906, Eugene Kinckle Jones proposed that the organization be known by the Greek letters, Alpha Phi Alpha, and Robert Harold Ogle proposed the colors be black and old gold. However for six weeks, the founders debated whether the terms "club" or "fraternity" should be used. On December 4, 1906, the decision was made: "fraternity"; and Alpha Phi Alpha became official, on that day. The visionary founders, known as the “Seven Jewels” of the Fraternity, were: Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy.

The Fraternity initially served as a study and support group for minority students, who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell. The Alphas’ Mission Statement is: Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity develops leaders, promotes brotherhood and academic excellence, while providing service and advocacy for our communities.

Original Charter, 1906

The Alphas were an instant success, with an aspirational brand. New chapters were established, very soon thereafter – many at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Howard University, where also, the first, general convention assembled.

First Convention at Howard University

The Fraternity chartered its first international chapter at the University of Toronto, in 1908. Other international chapters have been chartered in London, Frankfurt, Monrovia, the Caribbean and South Korea.  The first Alumni Chapter was established in 1911, in Louisville, Kentucky. By the end of the 1920s, the Fraternity had chartered 85 chapters throughout the United States and initiated over 3,000 members.

While continuing to stress academic excellence among its members, Alpha's leaders recognized the need to correct the educational, economic, political, and social injustices faced by African-Americans and the world community. Alpha Phi Alpha has a long history of providing scholarships for needy students and initiating various other charitable and service projects. It evolved from a social fraternity to a primarily community service organization.

The Fraternity's national programs date back to 1922, with its first initiative being Go-To-High School, Go-to-College campaign to promote academic achievement within the African-American community. During the Great Depression, The Alphas continued to implement programs to support the African-American community. The Committee on Public Policy, the Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation, and The Foundation Publishers were established at the 1933 general convention.

The Fraternity also began to participate in voting rights issues, coining the well-known phrase A Voteless People is a Hopeless People as part of its effort to register black voters. The Alphas registered hundreds of African-Americans during the 1930s and the slogan is still used during voter registration campaigns.

Alpha Phi Alpha has also been integral in supporting legal battles against segregation.  Some of its members, who were trial lawyers argued many of the nation's major court cases involving civil rights and civil liberties, including:  Murray v. Pearson, Gaines v. Canada and Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1945, true to its form as the "first of first," Alpha Phi Alpha opted to end racial discrimination within its membership. The use of the word "Negro" in the membership clause of the constitution, which referred to "any Negro male student" was changed to read "any male student." Bernard Levin became the first non-Black member in 1946, and Roger Youmans became the first non-Black member to address the fraternity at the 1954 general convention. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was made an Honorary Member.

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. King

In 1956, one thousand Alphas returned to Cornell University for their Golden Jubilee. Fraternity brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the keynote speech, in which he spoke on the Injustices of Segregation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (front row, right) as a young Alpha Phi Alpa at Boston University

In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, The Alphas proposed erecting a permanent memorial to him in Washington, D.C. The efforts of the Fraternity gained momentum in 1986 after Dr. King's birthday was designated a national holiday for which Alpha Phi Alpha had heavily lobbied. They created the Washington D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation to collect funds of $100 million for construction; and in 1996, The United States Congress authorized the memorial to be built.

Beginning in the 1970s, new goals were being introduced to address current environment, such as providing access to decent and affordable, low-income housing.  In 1996, The World Policy Council (WPC) was created as a think tank to expand the fraternity's involvement in politics, and social and current policy to encompass important global and world issues. The Alphas combine their efforts in conjunction with other philanthropic organizations such as the Alpha/NAACP Head Start Academy, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the March of Dimes Project Alpha, and Habitat for Humanity.

Project Alpha 2012, Philadelphia
In 2006, more than 10,000 Alphas gathered in Washington, D.C. to participate in the fraternity’s centennial. At that time, they erected the plaque to commemorate the groundbreaking of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, which is the first on the National Mall area to honor an African-American; and Dr. King is the second non-President to be commemorated in such a way.

Centennial Black & Gold Ball, Hartford, Connecticut
Martin Luther King Memorial Plaque
Forty-three years after dreaming of the King Memorial, it was completed in 2011; and a private ceremony for the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha was held on August 26, 2011. A formal dedication ceremony but was delayed due to Hurricane Irene. The memorial was formally dedicated on October 16, 2011, which culminated with a speech by President Barack Obama.  Click here to see a 1.5 minute news clip about the memorial dedication. 

Alpha Phi Alpha now has over 185,000 members, with over 730 active chapters in the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia. Some notable Alphas include: my father, Arnold L. Martin, Jr.; publisher, John Johnson; First African-American NFL Head Coach, Fritz Pollard; Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, singer; Lionel Richie; United Nations Ambassador, Andrew Young and Atlanta Mayor, Maynard Jackson.    

Fritz Pollard
Lionel Richie with Alpha Brothers

Ambassador Andrew Young with Alpha Brothers
The Founding Seven Jewels of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. were no ordinary achievers. Given racial attitudes in 1906, their accomplishments were monumental. As founder, Henry Arthur Callis, stated, “the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, were determined to bind themselves together to ensure that each would survive in the racially hostile environment.”  They also all accomplished great things after they graduated from Cornell. Today, Alpha Phi Alpha continues its commitment to members of the Fraternity and the African-American community through Alpha University

Via Alpha University, the Fraternity has dedicated itself to fostering the spirit of Brotherhood, training a new generation of leaders, building the technological capacity of members, bringing consistency to the implementation of the Fraternity's national programs and ensuring that chapters have the necessary preparation to implement fraternal initiatives and day-to-day operations. Here’s to the next hundred years!

Sources: Wikipedia, Alpha Phi Alpha, Google Images, YouTube

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