November 21, 2005

First African-American Fraternity Celebrates 100

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In the low, faint, winter sun, a column of almost 1,000 black men marched silently, ten abreast, down Campus Road. In the chilly afternoon, women, children, and local journalists took photographs from the sidewalks. As the men passed the engineering quad and approached Ho Plaza, McGraw Tower came into view over the treetops and rooftops, and slowly, a visitor made out the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights anthem, being played on the chimes. At the front of the procession, three young men carried a banner across their chests, while the eldest men marched just behind. Most of the 1000 were dressed impeccably: long, dark wool coats over dark suits, gold ties, and gold scarves. Many of the older men wore fedoras, while some of the of the younger ones wore black leather jackets emblazoned in gold with images of Greek letters, sphinxes and pyramids, and phrases like “Lionheart,” “Aces,” and “Pharaohs of the Nile.” When the line reached Ho Plaza, the sea of people stretched from one end to the next.

The silent march this Saturday was a time of reflection and contemplation for college and alumni brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first Greek letter fraternity for African-Americans. The fraternity was founded here in 1906. This weekend, the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha kicked off their centennial celebrations with a “Pilgrimage to Cornell.”

Darryl R. Matthews, Sr., the fraternity’s general president, said that Alpha Phi Alpha’s goal for the weekend was a rededication to the fraternity’s traditional ideals of scholarship and service. “Our degrees and our educations are tickets not away from our communities but tickets back to them … to improve and enhance,” Matthews said in an interview with The Sun.

“In the era of hip hop it seems to be so uncool to be scholarly … We say, that’s not the case.” The march, Matthews said, was silent in order to be a time of reflection on scholarship.

At the march’s end, the fraternity held a ceremony unveiling and dedicating a memorial to its founders. The memorial is a J-shaped bench located near the footbridge between the Cornell Store and Barnes Hall and bears the fraternity’s motto: “First of All, Servants to All, We Shall Transcend All.”

The J shape represents the fraternity’s founders, known as the Seven Jewels. Members of Alpha Phi Alpha turn to the Jewels for their pioneering and scholarly spirits.

Among the fraternity’s founders were the first president of the Urban League, the first African-American Senate committee staffer, and the first African-Americans to be registered as an architect and an engineer, respectively, in New York State.

Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1930s track star Jesse Owens, and jazzman Duke Ellington were all brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha.

More modern leaders include Detroit mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick, Buffalo mayor-elect Byron Brown, former Sen. Edward Brooke (D-Mass.) and public intellectual Prof. Cornel West, Princeton, religion and African-American studies.

The fraternity’s website also boasts 31 college presidents as members.

Saturday morning, Ozell Sutton, a graduate of Philander Smith College, was among the past general presidents of Alpha Phi Alpha who toured Sage Chapel in preparation for an event later that evening.

As the early morning light streamed through the stained glass of the otherwise dim chapel and the swells of the pipe organ being practiced filled the room, Sutton told stories of the civil rights movement. Sutton was southeast regional director of the Community Relations Service of the U.S.

Department of Justice from 1972 through 2002 and implemented racial and ethnic conflict resolution during events from Ku Klux Klan rallies to race riots. Sutton, who has been cited four times by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential African-American leaders, was the Little Rock Nine when they integrated Arkansas’ Little Rock High School in 1957, and he was one hotel room over from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was assassinated in Memphis.

Sutton was the first African-American reporter on a white-owned daily paper in Arkansas, and one of the first in the south, working for the Arkansas Democrat newspaper starting in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that struck down “separate but equal.”

In Sage chapel, Sutton described a time when, during his tenure at the Department of Justice, he spoke at the University of Arkansas. Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, his white host offered to take him to church and called the pastor to give him a heads up about his black guest.  

“The pastor said, ‘You trying to start something?'” Sutton said. Sutton’s host explained that he just wanted to take a friend to church who would have gone were he at home that Sunday.  

The white pastor brought up so many questions that eventually, Sutton said, “I said ‘forget it,'” and took his host to the First Baptist Church, a black church in town. Sutton said that the difference in his white friend’s reception at the black church could not have been more different than his own at the white church. The black pastor, according to Sutton, was welcoming of the white man.

“Looks like we have a visitor here today,” he said, according to Sutton. “Come on down to the front.”

Sutton, who spoke at Cornell in 2003 as the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorative lecturer, is in many ways typical of the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, who have been distinguished both in history and today.

Speaking with The Sun, Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, vice provost of diversity and faculty development, also stressed academic excellence and service to the community. Harris joined Alpha Phi Alpha at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Still an active member, he serves as the fraternity’s national historian, and played an important role in this weekend’s events. Harris spoke on “Blurring the Color Line” at the fraternity’s academic convocation Saturday evening in Sage Chapel. In that speech, he said that while what W.E.B. DuBois called the color line has been blurred during the 20th century, it still exists today.

 “Although a fraternal organization, [Alpha Phi Alpha] is not strictly a social organization,” he said in his Sun interview. “Our degrees become a means of helping to improve our communities.”

Harris also said that strong alumni involvement in Alpha Phi Alpha make it different than other fraternities – nationwide, there are 350 college chapters and 350 alumni chapters.

“We maintain a strong affiliation with our organization after we graduate,” he said.

Harris said that molding successful African-American men is one of the fraternity’s top priorities. He said that the fraternity’s programs, such as “Stay in High School, Stay in College,” and “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People” are essential to its mission.

“To be a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, you have to be registered to vote,” Harris said. In light of the fraternity’s values, Harris said that one of the most important elements of Saturday’s parade was presenting an image of successful, engaged black men.

“You’re gonna have 700 or more college-educated black men, which is contrary to the stereotypical image of black men. And you can see them [marching across campus]. They’re all wearing dark suits, and ties, and they’re very successful looking.”

“The movie with 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die [Trying] – what values does that have? What values are being projected to our young people?” Harris said.

“Popular culture seems to run contrary to some of the ideas that [Alphas] advocate,” Harris said. Harley Etienne grad, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha’s local alumni chapter, said that the fraternity’s academic bent had served him well. Currently in absentia doing research for a dissertation in city and regional planning, Etienne came up for the weekend and said that a “network on campus of grad students and professors” who were brothers in the fraternity helped lure him to Cornell for his graduate studies, an
d helped him become acclimated once he arrived here.

Etienne also said that the fraternity’s ideals helped inform his research – a study of town-gown relations in Pennsylvania. Etienne said that the idea that scholarship ought to be of service to people and to one’s community was important to his research, and he hoped that it could be tweaked and applied to Cornell.

“[My] connection to this fraternity makes me even more loyal to Cornell,” Etienne said.

Coming back to see the first houses where the Seven Jewels, along with the help of Ithaca residents, first began their dream of a fraternity focused on black scholarship, achievement, and community service, was nearly a religious experience for many of the Alphas.

During his interview with The Sun, Harris displayed one of the gold scarves that the fraternity produced for the event in anticipation of chilly Ithaca weather. The scarves say “Cornell Pilgrimage” on one end and “2006” on the other. To the Alphas, Harris explained, “this really is a pilgrimage.”

Archived article by David Wittenberg
Sun Staff Writer