The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was the first Black Greek letter organization on an intercollegiate level, and it celebrates its Founder’s Day this coming Sunday, December 4th. The “Seven Jewels” of the fraternity formed the organization in 1906 on the campus of Cornell University, and it has since spawned a star-studded list of notable members.
Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy formed the fraternity, originally a support and social group for Black students at the school. It then morphed into an organization focused on brotherhood, building character, promoting scholarship and empowerment.
Each of the Jewels have a history of stellar accomplishments. Callis, a physician, was the only Jewel to be a General President of the Alphas. He also established several Alpha chapters nationwide. Chapman went on to become a professor of agriculture at FAMU. Jones was the first Executive Director of the National Urban League and was part of President Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet.
Kelley was the first Black licensed engineer in New York, while Murray went on to a career in education and Ogle was a staff member of the United States House Committee on Appropriations. Lastly, Tandy was a talented architect who famously constructed the mansion of Madam C.J. Walker.
Varying accounts claim that the fraternity’s original founder was Charles Cardoza Poindexter, a professor at Fisk University. As a graduate student at Cornell, Poindexter organized a study group of literary students which included women. Poindexter viewed the collective as an asset to Black Americans at the time.
Poindexter was Alpha Phi Alpha’s first president creating many of the traditions that stand today. However, it still wasn’t considered a traditional fraternity until a vote by Murray. Poindexter’s presence was instrumental in the fraternity’s early formation, but Murray decided that after the he left the group that he should be considered a “Precursor” to the original Seven Jewels.
Notable members of the Alpha Phi Alpha span across a variety of industries and fields, with many members using the Jewels’ early example to focus on the concerns of African-Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young and Paul Robeson were part of this honored tradition. Entertainers like Dick Gregory, the late Donny Hathaway and Lionel Richie are also brothers. In media, Roland Martin and the late Stuart Scott are Alpha men as well.
Alpha Phi Alpha is the first of the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities that include:
- Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Founded 1908, Howard University
- Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Founded 1911, Indiana University
- Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Founded 1911, Howard University
- Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Founded 1913, Howard University
- Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Founded 1914, Howard University
- Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Founded 1920, Howard University
- Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Founded 1922, Butler University
- Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Founded 1963, Morgan State University
Mark S. Tillman is the organization’s current General President.
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