It’s a powerful force to have a group of people who share the same values and goals as you do, and who will hold you accountable for living according to those values, and pursuing those goals. That’s what fraternities do. What is possibly more impressive than the work some fraternities do, is how some were formed.
Throughout history, black men of distinction have had few places to convene, share ideas, and lift each other up without critique and even attack from outsiders. These African-American fraternities formed and thrived despite that climate. Here are 8 of the oldest African-American fraternities, some with chapters across the world.
Prince Hall Freemasonry is the oldest and largest African-American masonry group in the world. It was founded by Prince Hall, a Barbados, West Indies native, born a free man. Hall moved to Boston, Massachusetts at 17 and after becoming a minister, he joined 14 black men as masons in a British Army lodge. Hall eventually petitioned to have the black masons live in their own lodge, and this spurred two more all-black masonry lodges. Today the fraternity has 40 grand lodges and tens of thousands of members, according to Blackpast.org. Most lodges are found in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Liberia.
The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks is the largest predominantly black fraternity in the world, with over 450,000 members, mostly in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, West Indies, Panama, and the Bahamas. The group was founded by three men who met in Cincinnati, Ohio, and shared goals of promoting self-worth within black communities. The group has an auxiliary body called the Daughters of Elks and works on causes such as AIDS awareness, battered women protection, and kidney disease awareness. They also organize summer camps for children, according to Ibpoew.org.
Sigma Pi Phi was started in Philadelphia where a small group wanted to provide a place for black men “of standing and like tastes to come together to know the best of one another.” Before the group existed, black men in government posts and other positions of power lived predominantly in isolation from black communities and white professionals. The group operates similarly to Rotary Club in that the members are responsible for helping each other in their ambitions, according to Sigmapiphi.org. Branches exist in the U.S. and the West Indies.
Alpha Phi Alpha was the first Greek-letter fraternity for African Americans. The group was founded at Cornell University in Ithica, New York. Seven young men started the group to support students dealing with racial prejudice on campus. The group operates on principles of scholarship, fellowship, good character, and the uplifting of humanity. Beyond encouraging academic excellence among its members, the group has long been involved in civil rights matters. The fraternity became interracial in 1945, according to Apa1906.net. and has since then sprouted chapters in London, British Virgin Islands, and all over the U.S.
Kappa Alpha Psi’s first chapter was established at Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana. The fraternity has chapters today in the Bahamas, Germany, and South Korea, as well as along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. The group works to “educate the young leaders of tomorrow, the leaders of today, and the leaders of yesterday in respect to political and social sanctions which affect the black race and culture.” Famous alumni include Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley; Inglewood, California Councilman Danny Tabor and University of California Los Angeles Vice Chancellor Winston Dobby, according to Thefoxchapter.com.
Omega Psi Phi was the first Greek letter fraternity for black students founded on a historically black college, Howard University in Washington, D.C. The group’s driving principals are “manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift.” The charter group had just 14 members. The fraternity opened its second chapter at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1912 and by 1914 had become incorporated. Today the fraternity has chapters in the Bahamas, Ghana, Bermuda, and throughout the U.S. Notable alumni include athlete Charlie Ward and Surgeon General David Satcher, according to Coed.com.
Phi Beta Sigma is another black fraternity founded at Howard University in Washington D.C. The group’s founding ideals were brotherhood, scholarship, and service. The group believes members should be judged on personal merits rather than family history or race. It defines itself as a group devoted to the idea of the “inclusive we” instead of the “exclusive we.” The fraternity works to create and maintain programs that serve humanity, according to Phibetasigma1914.org. Today the group has over 700 chapters in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean.
The Sigma Rhomeo group began as protectors. A group of young men set out to guard a school teachers who sought to develop “a platform for the black female educator.” The group was passionate about helping protect the dreams of those who couldn’t help themselves. As social and racial climates changed, the group gained stability and grew beyond defense. Eventually, a fraternity was formed and today it has chapters throughout the South, Midwest and eastern regions of the U.S. All chapters work on service projects meant to “provide a standard of academic, social and cultural excellence” according to Sigmarhomeoinc.org.
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