Walk through a crowd of men convened in the District this week for the centennial celebration of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and you will find fellowship in the midst of thousands of Alphas, giving secret handshakes and calling each other “brother.”
“Brother Willis,” one says to another, “Have you met Brother Colyn?”
The lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel buzzed with men in suits, gathered for a purpose: to serve their communities by looking back and uplifting others.
Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity, was established at Cornell University in 1906 as a way to support black men in their intellectual and social lives.
History is full of famous Alpha men: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Paul Robeson.
More than 5,000 members were registered for the convention, according to a fraternity spokesman. The organization says it has more than 185,000 active members in nearly 700 chapters worldwide.
Like other African American fraternities on college campuses—the Kappas, the Q’s, the Sigmas—Alphas have their step shows and their “little sisters” and their parties. This week’s convention focused on the service side of their mission.
Hugh Price, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, former president of the National Urban League and an Alpha, told a luncheon crowd that the biggest time bomb in the United States right now is the state of elementary education. He said the reading gap by race and income was too wide, citing statistics that 58 percent of black fourth-graders read below grade level.
“Today’s society has little room for those who cannot read and write,” he said, citing high dropout rates among black children in urban areas, and noting that only 57 percent of black females and 44 percent of black males graduate from high school.
Darryl R. Matthews Sr., general president of the fraternity, wants at least 10,000 Alpha brothers to sign up with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America.
“We still have fresh wounds. . . It was less than 50 years ago when we could not vote because of poll taxes and domestic terrorism from people dressed in hoods,” he said in an interview. “Then we are alarmed at the pathologies.”
As a result, Matthews said, there is a long list of issues that affect the black community. “There are guns in our community. How did they get there? There are drugs in our community. How did they get there? How do they fix it? We can’t buy into victimhood. We don’t have time to be victims. We can’t sit and wallow in the pathologies and deficiencies. What we have to do is focus on our value systems.”