By Verbal Adam | OBSERVER Correspondent
Few collegiate Greek organizations stand as prominently as time-tested Alpha Phi Alpha. Founded on Dec. 4, 1906, at Cornell University, Alpha Phi Alpha is the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by and for Black men.
The local chapter of the fraternity hosted a celebration at Cosumnes River College on July 15 to honor about a dozen members who have served for 25, 50 or 70-plus years in the cause of racial justice and social equity. Sacramento’s Zeta Beta Lambda chapter was established in 1954.
Originally founded with seven members, Alpha Phi Alpha has expanded to 290,000 members across four continents, with 730 active U.S. chapters. It is the world’s largest predominantly Black intercollegiate fraternity and one of the 10 largest in the United States.
In the early 1900s, segregation and systemic racism excluded Black students from fraternal organizations. Alpha Phi Alpha was born out of a desire to provide a supportive network for Black students. The seven visionary founders – Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy – aimed to create an organization that would foster not only brotherhood, but also promote academic excellence, social responsibility and the upliftment of the Black community.
Since its founding, Alpha Phi Alpha has championed civil rights and created many national programs. Among them are Voteless People Is a Hopeless People, My Brother’s Keeper, Go-To-High School, Go-To-College, Project Alpha, and the World Policy Council. Alpha Phi Alpha was directly responsible for the conception, funding and construction of the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., himself an Alpha Phi Alpha, next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
A Brotherhood For Social Change
Allan Gordon was born in Seminole, Oklahoma, in 1933. After four years at Land Grant College, he joined the Air Force. After training in San Antonio, he was stationed in Mississippi, then Greenland, then Sacramento. By that time he already had become an Alpha.
“When I was in high school, I had a homeboy who was two years ahead of me,” Gordon recalled. “He had gone to lengths to become an Alpha. He would come back telling me about the activities, etc. I also had a professor that I respected who had a group of us students. At some point he was telling these guys, ‘You’re going to be an Omega; you’re going to be a cowboy.’”
“I wanted to be an Alpha because my homeboy is an Alpha, and it just seemed like it was inevitable that I would become an Alpha. I’m glad that I did, because I can be associated with heroic men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.”
Indeed, many prominent Black men are counted among the fraternity’s ranks. NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Dick Gregory, Walt Frazier, Lionel Richie and Sacramento’s own Dr. Cornel West are Alphas. Gordon has the distinction of being one of the fraternity’s longest-serving members, having been active for 71 years.
“I think the important thing is the kind of brotherhood that you develop with the men that are Alphas. It gives you a sense of belonging to something bigger than you, an organization that stands for some serious things, and it seemed to fit in for me,” Gordon told The OBSERVER. “It would fit in with my lifestyle, with the kinds of things that I felt were important, the kinds of things that a mature adult would be interested in – certainly a Black American guy would be interested in.”
Gordon said Alphas empowered Black students to help build the kind of world they desired. “It gave them a sense of power for being organized,” he said. “It gave them a sense of belonging to something … that was important, that they could help develop goals. And that would be interesting and important for Black people in general that were not connected with colleges and universities or fraternities or sororities, but humankind in general.”
Throughout its storied existence, Alpha Phi Alpha has stood as a resolute advocate for civil rights and social justice. During the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s, fraternity members demonstrated their commitment to equality through protest and peaceful demonstration. Since then, the fraternity’s dedication to the advancement of African American communities has only intensified, with numerous educational programs, mentorship initiatives and philanthropic endeavors becoming integral to its mission.
Among Alpha Phi Alpha most renowned initiatives is the Go-To-High School, Go-To-College program. Launched in 1922, it aims to inspire young African Americans to pursue higher education and provides guidance and resources to help them achieve that goal. Over the years, the program has expanded, reaching thousands of students and encouraging them to unlock their full potential.
Also significant is the Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation, which focuses on educational support and advancement within the African American community. By awarding scholarships, grants, and fellowships, the foundation empowers students to overcome financial barriers and succeed in their academic pursuits.
Leadership And Professional Development
Theodore Hayes, another honoree, is one of the smoothest people you’ll ever meet. He’s known among Alphas as often being the best dressed in the room.
Alpha Phi Alpha caught his attention in 1970 as a UC Davis student. “They were doing a lot of things for Black people back then because we didn’t have too many. I think there were 22 of us altogether in 1970 when I got there,” Hayes recalled. “They had a tutoring program that was on campus and they were helping especially Black men.”
It had been only 16 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision ordering the desegregation of public schools. Alpha Phi Alpha helped Hayes navigate this new way of life.
“They told me how not to be when I go into a class, you know, because that was very important,” he said. “I was the only Black in my class for three years as far as English and psychology were concerned. I would sit by myself. They told me, ‘Sit with the white boys or sit with white girls, let them talk to you,’ and they didn’t have as much racism going on in Davis then.
“They were trying to be that eclectic type of community. So once they taught me how to do that, then I talked to my counselors and [fellow fraternity members would] go talk to my counselors with me, you know, especially Alpha William Johnson. That was my heart, big brother “Bones.” He got made [became an Alpha] in the Delta Omicron in Stanford.”
The Alphas gave Hayes a safe place. “We only had so many Black folks at Davis and I lived with two Alphas when I moved out of the dorms,” he said.
One of Alpha Phi Alpha’s hallmarks is its emphasis on leadership development. The fraternity provides its members with opportunities to cultivate essential skills through workshops, seminars and networking events. Additionally, the organization offers scholarships and financial aid to support its members’ pursuit of higher education, empowering them to become leaders in their respective fields. Many prominent figures in various industries, including politics, business, law and entertainment, credit Alpha Phi Alpha for contributing to their personal and professional growth.
Alpha Phi Alpha stands as a beacon of hope and progress, exemplifying the strength of brotherhood, leadership and service for Black men. Over the past century, the fraternity has proven its enduring commitment to making a difference in the lives of African American communities and beyond. As we celebrate its legacy, it is evident that Alpha Phi Alpha’s impact will continue to resonate for generations to come, inspiring young men to embrace its values and work towards a brighter, more inclusive future.