Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity
Phi Beta Sigma was founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. on January 9, 1914, by three young African-American male students with nine other Howard students as charter members. The fraternity’s founders, A. Langston Taylor, Leonard F. Morse, and Charles I. Brown, wanted to organize a Greek letter fraternity that would exemplify the ideals of Brotherhood, Scholarship and Service while taking an inclusive perspective to serve the community as opposed to having an exclusive purpose.
The fraternity exceeded the prevailing models of Black Greek-Letter fraternal organizations by being the first to establish alumni chapters, youth mentoring clubs, a federal credit union, chapters in Africa and a collegiate chapter outside of the United States. It is the only fraternity to hold a constitutional bond with a historically African-American sorority, Zeta Phi Beta (ΖΦΒ), which was founded on January 16, 1920 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., through the efforts of members of Phi Beta Sigma.
Motto: “Culture For Service and Service For Humanity”
Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
Colors: Royal blue; Pure white
Member number: over 200,000 members
World War I and the Sigma call to arms (1917–1919)
Phi Beta Sigma responded to a “call to arms” in 1917 as the United States entered the First World War. Alpha chapter had about seventy members in uniform. During the war, many members entered the service or war work. Many fraternity chapters were depleted, and the National Office ceased to function. As a result of deaths and other dislocations resulting from the war, the General Board was forced to re-organize.
Incorporation and the founding of Zeta Phi Beta (1920–1933)
By February 1920, Phi Beta Sigma had expanded to ten active chapters. During the December 1919 Conclave, Phi Beta Sigma’s first conclave after the war, A. Langston Taylor was given approval from the General Board to assist in the organization of what was to become Phi Beta Sigma’s sister sorority.
In the spring of 1919, Sigma member Charles Robert Samuel Taylor, a student at Howard University, discussed with fellow student Arizona Cleaver his idea for a sister organization to be established. Cleaver presented this idea to fourteen other Howard women. With the help of Charles Taylor and A. Langston Taylor, they began work to found the new sorority.
Phi Beta Sigma’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance
The 1920s also witnessed the birth of the Harlem Renaissance – a flowering of African-American cultural and intellectual life that began to be absorbed into mainstream American culture. Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother Alain LeRoy Locke is unofficially credited as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” His philosophy served as a strong motivating force in keeping the energy and passion of the Movement at the forefront.
Sigma and the Great Depression
At the 1929 Conclave held in New York City, Dr. Carter G. Woodson was invited as a guest speaker and saw the creation of the Distinguished Service chapter. The fall of 1929 saw the crash of the nation’s stock markets. Like many other organizations during this period, Phi Beta Sigma faced financial difficulties. With brothers faced with financial worries, some members were forced to leave their respective institutions due to lack of funds to continue their educations; several chapters became inactive.
Social action and international expansion (1934–1949)
Fraternity brother A. Philip Randolph, who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, played a role in the amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934. As a result, railway porters were granted rights under federal law. This victory and the continuing work of Randolph and the BSCP led to the Pullman Company contract with the union, which included over $2 million in pay increases for employees, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay.
Sigma and the Civil Rights Movement (1950–1969)
As the struggle for the civil rights of African Americans renewed in the 1950s, Sigma men held positions of leadership among various civil rights groups, organized protests, and proposed the March on Washington of 1963. In Atlanta, A. Philip Randolph helped with the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Randolph and fraternity brother John Lewis would later be involved with the 1963 March on Washington, Randolph as a key organizer and Lewis as a speaker representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Bigger and Better Business
As told by Dr. I. L. Scruggs (excerpts from Our Cause Speeds On):
“Philadelphia, 1924, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity ‘arrived’. We had a mob of people at this Conclave. There were representatives from twenty-eight chapters -and all the trimmings. The introduction of the Bigger and Better Negro Business idea was made by way of an exhibit devoted to this topic.
The Bigger and Better Negro Business idea was first tested in 1924 with an imposing exhibition in Philadelphia.
The founders of Phi Beta Sigma were all educators in their own right. The genesis of the Education Program lies in the traditional emphasis that the fraternity places on Education. During the 1945 conclave in St. Louis, Missouri, the fraternity underwent a constitution restructuring which led to the birth of the Education as a National Program.
Phi Beta Sigma has from its very beginning concerned itself with improving the general well-being of minority groups. In 1934, a well-defined program of Social Action was formulated and put into action. Elmo M. Anderson, then president of Epsilon Sigma chapter (New York) formulated this program calling for the reconstruction of social order. It was a tremendous success. It fit in with the social thinking of the American public in those New Deal years.
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