After 100 Years, Why Black Frats Still Matter

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Two of America's oldest black fraternities will celebrate 100 years of brotherhood and civic action this month. Host Michel Martin discusses the relevance and history of these groups with Dwayne Murray, polemarch of Kappa Alpha Psi, and Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Two of the nation's oldest black collegiate fraternities are celebrating 100 years of brotherhood, community service and civic action this month. Kappa Alpha Psi - they're the guys sporting red and white - cite achievement as their fundamental purpose. Their brotherhood was founded in January 1911 on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

And Omega Psi Phi - they're the guys in purple and gold - have scholarship as their stated main goal. This brotherhood was founded in November 1911 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

We wanted to know more about these organizations and their centennial celebrations taking place this month. So we've invited two people who would have answers: Dwayne Murray is the grand polemarch of Kappa Alpha Psi. And Lawrence Ross is author of the book "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities." Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

DWAYNE MURRAY: Thank you.

LAWRENCE ROSS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Ross, I'm going to start with you. There were two black Greek letter organizations founded in the same year: 1911. What was going on? Did each know of the other at the time?

ROSS: Well, fraternalism, really, particularly amongst African-Americans, was a very hot idea. By the time we get to the beginning of the 20th century, African-Americans are starting to figure out that they want to come together in a way that allowed them to succeed on college and university campuses. And the members of Kappa Alpha Psi and the members of, the founders of Omega Psi Phi would have known each other, particularly since two of the founders of Kappa Alpha Psi were actual Howard students before they actually went to Indiana.

MARTIN: OK. Why don't we hear more - a little bit about how each of these organizations have sort of grown independently. But, Dwayne Murray, a lot of people might not know about black fraternities. They might have seen a step show, for example, they might have seen a movie. But for those who are not familiar, tell us, perhaps, something that we might not know.

MURRAY: Well, you know, fraternities and sororities are very special, particularly on the African-American college campus. They were founded at a time in the early 1900s where most African-Americans were not truly invited into society on the college campuses.

For example, Elder Diggs, the principle founder of Kappa Alpha Psi, oftentimes could not take certain classes, couldn't participate in contact sports, didn't have the true social environment that his peers enjoyed on the college campus. So he looked across the college campus and realized there was a need to work and do something a little bit different regarding the academic, the social and the economic opportunity for individuals on Indiana campus.

MARTIN: Dwayne, tell us some of the famous Kappas who people might know.

MURRAY: Well, let's just say, you know, when you think about...

MARTIN: And take up all the rest of the segment either.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MURRAY: I'll give a few that are really household names.

MARTIN: OK.

MURRAY: Probably America's number one lawyer, Johnny Cochran. When you talk in the area of sports, you say tennis, you think about Arthur. Everybody knows you're talking about Arthur Ashe. I mean, the list goes on and on. You got Cedric the Entertainer, Finesse Mitchell. In the business arena, Bob Johnson, Reggie Lewis, Mike Roberts.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Ross, I know you're an Alpha, but it's not your centennial, so we're going to ask you to - since you've done the history of all of the Divine Nine, tell us some famous Omega Psi Phi members.

ROSS: Oh, OK. If I could, I'll give you a little background about Omega Psi Phi. When they decided to actually form, one of the reasons they decided to form was to create the first African-American fraternity formed on an African-American campus. But some of the famous members of Omega Psi Phi are Bill Cosby, Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Langston Hughes, just to name a few.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the upcoming celebration of two African-American Greek letter fraternities, Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi. Both organizations are 100 years old this year and we're joined by Lawrence Ross. He's author of a book about black fraternities and sororities. It's called "The Divine Nine." That's who you just heard.

Also with us, Dwayne Murray, who presides over the Kappas. He's the grand polemarch. What about hazing? I have to ask. This is something that has not just been a blemish for African-American fraternities and sororities. But it does seem some of the more disturbing incidents that have been in the news have been related to African-American fraternities and sororities. So Mr. Murray, I'm going to ask you, what steps have you taken to address this?

MURRAY: What we have done in Kappa Alpha Psi is to try to let individuals know that we have a zero tolerance policy. We partnered at the Congressional Black Caucus last year with the entire Divine Nine in an effort to sign a joint resolution that declared that hazing is not a part of the process of becoming a true member of either of our organizations.

MARTIN: But, you know, last year there was a lawsuit against your fraternity for hazing a pledgee at Wayne State University in Detroit. What was the resolution of that? Do you know?

MURRAY: Well, the resolutions of these lawsuits are often found on one thing - that the corporate offices have not condoned the activities of an individual. What we do throughout the fraternities and sororities is that we have leadership conferences whenever we meet that stress the importance of risk avoidance, training individuals on how to go through our membership intake processes correctly.

You know, people think that the word pledging is a no-no. It shouldn't happen. In the real world, there's nothing wrong with pledging, there's something wrong with the concept of hazing.

MARTIN: Final question to each of you, and Mr. Murray, you can start, if you would. You know, we hear a lot that we supposedly live in a post-racial society. But I wanted to ask, do you feel that in the next century going forward, do you think that Kappa Alpha Psi will see another century?

MURRAY: Oh, I see a wonderful century. You know, I think for Kappa Alpha Psi, our history is beautiful, but the future will be so much brighter. For example, we are moving our organization not only being a social entity, but now to make sure that we are part of the entire community service of this nation. Kappa Alpha Psi just recently raised over $1.4 million for St. Jude's Children Research Hospital.

We're currently in a program to raise a million dollars for Piney Woods Country Life School, one of the last remaining African-American boarding schools. There are many things that Kappa men can do and we're looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of second century Kappa.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Ross, what about you? Can you just give us a final thought? Do you see all nine fraternities and sororities surviving into the next century? What do you think?

ROSS: I do. One of the main tenants of our organizations is obviously brotherhood and sisterhood. And it's very difficult to explain, but when you interact with our youngest members, our college members - our 18 to 21-year-olds - you don't have any question about the reason or the purpose of our fraternities and sororities. I mean, it really literally gives you chills and as long as we're always a step ahead, always leading, I think we'll always find ourselves being relevant in the next 100 years and the next 200 years.

MARTIN: Lawrence Ross is author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities." He was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Dwayne Murray is the grand polemarch of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated. He was kind enough to join us from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Happy 100th anniversary to you and all the brothers of KAPsi and the brothers of Omega Psi Phi. Thank you both so much.

MURRAY: Thank you.

ROSS: Thank you so much.

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