Delta Kappa Epsilon was founded in 1844 at Yale. The Whiffenpoofs will celebrate their 100 years this fall. Skull and Bones is the oldest secret society, established in 1832. Considered the most historic of undergraduate organizations, these groups evoke tradition and longevity that are synonymous with Yale.
And even though Edward Bouchet — the first black student at Yale — did not graduate until 1874, the traditionally black fraternity of Alpha Phi Alpha that formed 30 years later will celebrate the centennial of its founding this weekend. Despite the group’s rather quiet presence on campus, its active membership — ranging from five to 20 brothers in a given pledge class — has remained small but strong over the past 100 years.
“We emphasize quality over quantity,” said JuLondre Brown ’10, one of the current Yale chapter brothers. “All members have true Alpha spirit, and everybody really does their part.”
Alpha Phi Alpha began in 1906 as a “social study group” at Cornell University. It aimed to provide a resource for black students, who, at the time, faced difficulties within the University that led to a high student dropout rate, fraternity brother Jaison Oliver ’09 said.
This flagship chapter was such a success that new chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha sprung up in colleges around the country, Oliver said.
“It showed that the fraternity could be maintained and go into a university of predominantly white students,” he said.
In 1909, a representative from the national chapter was sent to introduce Alpha Phi Alpha to Yale, and the second Ivy League school became the sixth college in the nation to establish a chapter.
During his undergraduate years, Craig Foster ’69 said, the roughly dozen black students in the chapter experienced segregation, though, he added, not active discrimination.
“You hear about men who went away to war and became detached,” he said. “They bond together over their experiences.” Likewise, he explained, the chapter gave him and his classmates an opportunity to meet other black students in an intellectual environment.
“For many black students, integration was a new experiment, and there were still upheavals and difficulties on campus,” he said.
SMALL BUT GROWING MEMBERSHIP
The fraternity is one of the “Divine Nine” historically black fraternities and sororities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, five of which are now active at Yale. Alpha Phi Alpha, however, was the first of the “Divine Nine” to establish itself in the Elm City.
Unlike many other fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha has a strict no-pledging, no-hazing rule when selecting new members.
Instead, Brown said, the fraternity requires recommendation letters from current brothers.
Presently the Yale chapter has five members, but Brown said the number of brothers has varied over the course of the chapter’s history, with some individual classes having as many as 20 brothers.
“We want more!” said four of the five members in interviews yesterday. The chapter will hold “Alpha Awareness” seminars next week to encourage people to apply. Members agreed that they generally rely on the fraternity’s national reputation to recruit members.
“Freshmen who know about the fraternity have typically known a member,” Yale chapter historian Jeremy Harp ’10 said.
Foster, who graduated at the end of the civil rights movement, said one reason for the chapter’s traditionally small membership was that black students did not want to voluntarily segregate themselves from the rest of the Yale community.
“On a campus like Yale’s, there was a great impetus for black students to meld into the general institutions on campus,” Foster said. “Some would join the predominately white fraternities.”
WIDE NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Although all of the current students in Yale’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter are undergraduates at the University, the chapter’s brothers are closely linked with other alumni members in the New Haven community, including brothers who have graduated from the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University.
Harp added that membership can also be sought at any stage of life.
What results is a wide network of support, which includes college students, business and education leaders, and other New Haven professionals.
Many members of the chapter agreed that their experiences in the fraternity — today and in the past — transcend college affiliation.
“Being a member is not who you are. It doesn’t define you. We hope our actions speak louder than the organization we are in.” Harp said.
Likewise, Foster said, Old Blues in the civil rights era were brought together by a similar spirit of support: “It was a time in history when black people in America were establishing their identity. For me, the fraternity meant a form of camaraderie between myself and other black students.”