How the Country’s First Black Collegiate Greek-lettered Fraternity Changed the Nation - Higher Education
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How the Country’s First Black Collegiate Greek-lettered Fraternity Changed the Nation

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by Cornelius Gilbert


One hundred and eleven years ago,  the country’s first Black collegiate Greek-lettered fraternity was founded. On that Tuesday, in 1906, the decision by a group of young Black collegiate men at Cornell University was made to transform their organization into a fraternity. In doing so, Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy altered the landscape of America’s colleges and universities.

The founding of Alpha Phi Alpha remains a unique “experiment” because of its roots at a predominantly White campus. Establishing a forum where Black men could come together and share in fellowship and brotherhood in a space not designed for their inclusivity, remains acute to this day. Subsequent, many “Divine Nine” organizations were founded on the campuses of historically Black institutions of higher learning. Doing so provided spheres for intra-racial and intracultural differences amongst African Americans to convene, respectively with, perhaps, like-minded individuals who shared common interests to establish a sense of community and belonging.

As such, the various personalities of the organizations would seemingly situate them well on today’s college campuses. Questions, however, about the relevancy of collegiate Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO) have persisted. BGLOs have addressed their intake process(es), that has resulted in incredibly tragic outcomes, including death, and they must continue to treat whatever issues that negatively impact them, and their members. In doing so, BGLOs can, indeed, live out their purposes of making life better.

As we enter into one of the most joyous times of the year, we also reflect on when BGLOs recognize their founding, respectively. For example, Omega Psi Phi acknowledged their 1911 founding last month, making now an opportune time to take a fresh look at collegiate BGLOs. Doing so can deliver an extraordinary gift to current, and future undergraduates, who are often considered the lifeblood of BGLOs.

The gift BGLOs can deliver to undergraduates can occur when members promote their organizations’ distinguished histories. During BGLO promotional campaigns, accentuating the organization’s members in a way that highlight their educational backgrounds coupled with how those members served to shape their organization’s historical narratives by contributing to the betterment of American society.

Dr. John Hope Franklin, Paul Robeson and Dr. E. Franklin Frazier are just a few brothers who should be celebrated.

BGLOs possess a powerful and influential swagger that members take great delight in. As BGLOs continue to address their issues and strive to do much better, now is the time to find out if profiling the academic backgrounds and contributions BGLO members have made for enhancing undergraduate major selection can be of value, because as Alphas know, “college days swiftly pass.”

Dr. Cornelius Gilbert is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at University of St. Thomas.