A Brief History of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Since it’s founding on December 4, 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has supplied voice and vision to the struggle of African-Americans and people of color around the world.
Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans, was founded at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York by seven college men who recognized the need for a strong bond of Brotherhood among African descendants in this country. The visionary founders, known as the “Jewels” of the Fraternity, are Henry Arthur Callis, Charles Henry Chapman, Eugene Kinckle Jones, George Biddle Kelley, Nathaniel Allison Murray, Robert Harold Ogle, and Vertner Woodson Tandy.
The Fraternity initially served as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell. The Jewel founders and early leaders of the Fraternity succeeded in laying a firm foundation for Alpha Phi Alpha’s principles of scholarship, fellowship, good character, and the uplifting of humanity.
Alpha Phi Alpha chapters were established at other colleges and universities, many of them historically black institutions, soon after the founding at Cornell. The first Alumni Chapter was established in 1911. While continuing to stress academic excellence among its members, Alpha also recognized the need to help correct the educational, economic, political, and social injustices faced by African-Americans. Alpha Phi Alpha has long stood at the forefront of the African-American community’s fight for civil rights through leaders such as: W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, William Gray, Paul Robeson, and many others. True to its form as the “first of firsts,” Alpha Phi Alpha has been interracial since 1945
The Founding Jewels of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. were no ordinary achievers. Given racial attitudes in 1906, their accomplishments were monumental. As founder Henry Arthur Callis euphemistically stated—because the half-dozen African American students at Cornell University during the school year 1904-05 did not return to campus the following year, the incoming students in 1905-06, in founding Alpha Phi Alpha, were determined to bind themselves together to ensure that each would survive in the racially hostile environment. In coming together with this simple act, they preceded by decades the emergence of such on-campus programs as Affirmative Action and Upward Bound. The students set outstanding examples of Scholarship, Leadership and Tenacity —preceding the efforts even of the NAACP and similar civil rights organizations.
Jewel Henry Arthur Callis became a practicing physician, Howard University Professor of Medicine and prolific contributor to medical journals. Often regarded as the “philosopher of the founders,” and a moving force in the Fraternity’s development, he was the only one of the “Cornell Seven” to become General President. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., he was a medical consultant to the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Upon his death in 1974, at age 87, the Fraternity entered a time without any living Jewels. His papers were donated to Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Jewel Charles Henry Chapman entered higher education and eventually became Professor of Agriculture at what is now Florida A&M University. A university funeral was held with considerable Fraternity participation when he became the first Jewel to enter Omega Chapter in 1934. Described as “a Brother beloved in the bonds,” Chapman was a founder of FAMU’s Beta Nu Chapter. During the organization stages of Alpha Chapter, he was the first chairman of the Committees on Initiation and Organization.
Jewel Eugene Kinckle Jones became the first Executive Secretary of the National Urban League. His 20-year tenure with the Urban League thus far has exceeded those of all his successors in office. A versatile leader, he organized the first three Fraternity chapters that branched out from Cornell—Beta at Howard, Gamma at Virginia Union and the original Delta at the University of Toronto in Canada. In addition to becoming Alpha Chapter’s second President and joining with Callis in creating the Fraternity name, Jones was a member of the first Committees on Constitution and Organization and helped write the Fraternity ritual. Jones also has the distinction of being one of the first initiates as well as an original founder. His status as a founder was not finally established until 1952. He died in 1954.
Jewel George Biddle Kelley became the first African American engineer registered in the state of New York. Not only was he the strongest proponent of the Fraternity idea among the organization’s founders, the civil engineering student also became Alpha Chapter’s first President. In addition, he served on committees that worked out the handshake and ritual. Kelley was popular with the Brotherhood. He resided in Troy, New York and was active with Beta Pi Lambda Chapter in Albany. He died in 1963.
Jewel Nathaniel Allison Murray pursued graduate work after completing his undergraduate studies at Howard. He later returned home to Washington, D.C., where he taught in public schools. Much of his career was spent at Armstrong Vocational High School in the District of Columbia. He was a member of Alpha Chapter’s first committee on organization of the new fraternal group, as well as the Committee on the Grip. The charter member of Washington’s Mu Lambda Chapter was a frequent attendee of General Conventions. He died in 1959.
Jewel Robert Harold Ogle entered the career secretarial field and had the unique privilege of serving as a professional staff member to the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations. He was an African American pioneer in his Capitol Hill position. He proposed the Fraternity’s colors and was Alpha Chapter’s first secretary. Ogle joined Kelley in working out the first ritual and later became a charter member of Washington’s Mu Lambda Chapter. He died in 1936.
Jewel Vertner Woodson Tandy became the state of New York’s first registered black architect, with offices on Broadway in New York City. The designer of the Fraternity pin holds the distinction of being the first African American to pass the military commissioning examination and was commissioned First Lieutenant in the 15th Infantry of the New York State National Guard. He was Alpha Chapter’s first treasurer and took the initiative to incorporate the Fraternity. Among the buildings designed by the highly talented architect is Saint Phillips Episcopal Church in New York City. He died in 1949, at age 64.
Quotes by Our Jewel Founders
The chief significance of Alpha Phi Alpha lies in its purpose to stimulate, develop, and cement an intelligent, trained leadership in the unending fight for freedom, equality and fraternity. Our task is endless.
We must never lose sight of the fact that we must take part in the development, not only of ourselves but of all humanity… I want you to understand that there never was or has been or will be, in the minds of the founders, including myself, the thought of any reward any notice coming to us for this experiment in brotherly cooperation and comradeship, which we initiated and which has developed, not necessarily because of any efforts of ours, into one of the best regarded organizations in the Negro collegiate world.
Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest of Negro Fraternities, with all of its members presumably far above the average American and having a good practical understanding of the salient factors involved in the Negro’s problem, and which a membership upwards of eight thousand men, should be able to take into their hands the leadership in the Negro’s struggle for status.
We never founded Alpha Phi Alpha to be a light skinned fraternity or one in which fellows could trace their ancestry back for years and years. We chose Alpha Phi Alpha for men, regardless of family, for what they themselves are doing, what they can do for the future of the fraternity.
To say that your Founders met with discouragement is only putting the matter lightly. I can recall staying up with others as late as three A.M. trying to make some antagonistic brother see a point in argument, only to fail, and tackle the same again the following night.
Never before was it as incumbent upon every members to restate loyalty and exemplify fraternal obligation by consistent life and unimpeachable character. But these must be reinforced by a growing consciousness of the responsibilities that Alpha Phi Alpha faces in the world today, where, if ever the problems which beset us are to be solved and a way of deliverance discovered, it must be by the application of those principles upon which we are founded.
I went though hell founding this organization and I want something done about these problems. Think of it, we have over a hundred and twenty chapters and I ask what are we doing…We must fight till hell freezes over and then fight on the ice.
Founded on a platform of service, loyalty and reverence to God and our fellow brothers, we have learned that the greatness of any group of men lies not in the fine buildings they erect, or the numerous air castles planned but never erected, but rather in service to God and your fellow brothers, whether it can be in the fraternity house, on the street, on the school campus, at a public gathering, or in your own home.