Brothers in Arms
Fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha Celebrates a Century Of Black Brotherhood
In the early 1900s few majority-white colleges and universities in the United States admitted black students. And the few that did segregated black students from their white counterparts and often forbid them from participating in certain aspects of campus life. In 1906, seven black men attending Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., tired of being barred from the school’s all-white dorms, cafeterias, and literary clubs, founded an organization that would foster camaraderie, academic support, and friendship among black college men.
One hundred years later, that organization, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, has grown to nearly 185,000 members across the globe. Credited with being the first black fraternal organization for collegians, Alpha Phi Alpha, headquartered in Baltimore since 1989, is gearing up to celebrate its centennial. Thousands of Alpha members will meet in Washington, D.C., next week to reminisce, sing, socialize, conduct meetings, and prepare for the next 100 years. The 100-year anniversary, for which a documentary titled Alpha Phi Alpha Men: A Century of Leadership has been airing on Maryland Public Television, is stirring up old feelings for local members of the fraternity, and for members of other black Greek organizations that were founded on Alpha’s model.
The fraternity’s roots in Baltimore date back to 1919 when the first local chapter of the fraternity was started at Morgan State University. Since then, both undergraduate and graduate members of the fraternity have been initiating new brothers and conducting community-service projects in the city and state. The fraternity moved its national headquarters to Baltimore in 1989, and currently there are about 475 active members and a few thousand nonactive members in the area, according to the fraternity. Well-known local members include former mayor Kurt Schmoke,, longtime Afro-American newspaper editor Carl Murphy, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“All of the black men that I knew who were successful where Alpha men,” says Alonzo Paul Moss, who, at 96, is the oldest living member of Alpha Phi Alpha in the Baltimore area—and likely in the nation. “They were doctors, lawyers, and teachers. And you didn’t see much of that back in those days.”
Moss says it was a member of the fraternity who helped him, a poor boy from Ohio, decide to go to college in the first place. When Moss was in high school in the late 1920s, he says he didn’t know many black men who went to college. None of the eight children in his family even considered it after graduation from high school.
But Moss did. He says he met a member of the fraternity who sold him on the Alpha Phi Alpha slogan, “Go-to-High School, Go-to-College.” Moss enrolled at Bluefield State Teachers College in West Virginia, a historically black college, where he founded a chapter of the fraternity and learned that “Go-to-High School, Go-to-College” was more than just a saying—it was a national directive begun by Alpha Phi Alpha to encourage young black men to pursue higher education. Moss went on to become a success, serving as a YMCA administrator, an educator, and a civic leader.
To this day Moss is a member of Delta Lambda, a graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha based in Baltimore.
According to Alpha Phi Alpha executive director Willard Hall, who has been a member of the fraternity for 17 years, the organization moved its headquarters to Baltimore from Chicago for strategic reasons. Moving to Baltimore, where it owns a building on St. Paul Street, would bring the fraternity’s administration closer not only to the national headquarters of the NAACP in Northwest Baltimore, but also to Washington, where it could lobby Congress (currently home to eight Alpha brothers) on social justice and education issues.
Though things have changed significantly since the time of the fraternity’s founding, Hall says black men still face challenges that an organization like Alpha can address by developing relationships with those who shape public policy.
“One hundred years ago, we had issues that created a scarcity of African-American men in college,” Hall adds. “Today, African-American men are disproportionately represented in higher education, and we have a higher percentage [of black men] in prison than we do in universities.”
That point is reflected in the documentary film airing on MPT, which paints a picture of empowered black men of yesterday and today, such as the fraternity’s founders (now called “jewels”) and current National Urban League CEO Marc Morial. The National Urban League, Morial explains in the documentary, has been run almost exclusively by Alpha members.
“The world needs to know more about who we are,” Hall says, noting that the fraternity boasts attorneys, activists, and civil-rights leaders in its ranks. “We have individual brothers who need a broader understanding of the organization that they have joined. And just like with any 20-year-old, when you’re sitting in a world history class, you don’t get the full scope of all history in one course.”
But not all of Alpha’s history is glorious, of course. In the early 1990s, for example, the fraternity and eight other black Greek organizations came under fire for hazing and other humiliating, harassing, and dangerous initiation practices. The fraternities adopted anti-hazing policies, and Hall says hazing new initiates is now illegal for members of Alpha. Hall is quick to point out that although Greek-letter organizations are usually the ones accused of hazing, it’s a practice that permeates many other organizations as well.
“You see it in band organizations, honor societies, where everybody has what they consider to be rites of passage for membership,” Hall says. “Fraternities and sororities are just microcosms of the broader society.”
Critics of the organization also say that Alpha Phi Alpha takes credit for being the first black fraternal organization when another organization, Alpha Kappa Nu, was founded first at Indiana University in Bloomington in 1903.
“That fraternity didn’t have the longevity that Alpha did. but some speculate that it was the forerunner of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity,” says Jason DeSousa, associate professor of advanced studies, leadership, and policy at Morgan State. DeSousa has been a member of Kappa Alpha Psi since 1983. Further, another black fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi, began in 1904, but it was founded as a professional organization, whereas Alpha is collegiate.
“Nonetheless, Alpha Phi Alpha turning 100 is a significant milestone for all African-American fraternities and sororities,” DeSousa says. “Their longevity shows that fraternities and sororities are an integral part of the social culture of America.”
Such an integral part, Alpha members say, that although the segregationist policies that stirred the founders to begin the organization are a thing of the past, the frat is here to stay. Today, Alpha Phi Alpha has new battles to fight.
“One hundred years ago there were less educational opportunities, and now there’s a lack of focus on education,” says 36-year-old Demitri McDaniel of Baltimore, who pledged Alpha as a student at Morgan State. “As long as there is a need for service to the community, there’s going to be a need for our organization to be involved. That’s how we got started. . . . And in 100 more years, we’ll still be here.”
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