The First Men’s Fraternities in America

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Present day Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall entrance at The College of William & Mary.

Today’s Greek-letter fraternity has roots in Latin, or literary, societies in colonial America. However, the fraternity has evolved greatly since that time.

Fraternal organizations for men have existed in many different capacities for hundreds of years, in the form of trade unions, guilds, social societies, and religious/social orders such as the Masons.

As the American colonies began to grow and develop, colleges and universities began to establish themselves throughout the colonies. These institutions of higher education eventually led to the rise of the early versions of today’s men’s college fraternity.

Latin Societies

These organizations, also known as literary societies, sprung up in multiples at colleges and universities throughout the colonies. Similar in structure to today’s debate clubs, these organizations pursued non-practical avenues of study and encouraged the academic growth of the membership. Members would often recite poetry, engage in debates, or hold other academically-related functions.

The First Greek Letter Organizations: Phi Beta Kappa and Chi Delta Theta

Founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, the Phi Beta Kappa Society is regarded as the first organization to name itself using Greek letters, presumably representing the organization’s Greek motto. Soon after the society’s early development, the original group at the College of William and Mary initiated a student from Yale and quickly disbanded as the American Revolution closed in on them. The Yale student carried Phi Beta Kappa to Harvard and Yale, and the society continues to thrive and pride itself on being one of the most prestigious undergraduate socieities in the United States.

Chi Delta Theta was founded at Yale University in 1821 as a class society, or an organization consisting of members of the same graduating class. According to the Yale University Library, Chi Delta Theta existed independently until the early 1950s, when it became associated with the Yale Literary Magazine and Manuscript Society.

The First General Men’s Fraternity: Kappa Alpha Society

The Kappa Alpha Society, which differs from the organization named the Kappa Alpha Order, was founded in 1825 at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Much of the Society’s early history was shrowded in the fear of secret societies following the 1826 publishing of Freemason ritual, despite the organization being well-liked by students at Union College.

Union College later became known as one of the “Mothers of Fraternities,” the other being Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, because of the number of Greek-letter organizations that were founded there: Kappa Alpha Society, Sigma Phi, and Delta Phi, which are known as the first Union Triad. The Second Union Triad, consisting of Psi Upsilon, Chi Psi, and Theta Delta Chi also challenged the original three fraternities for members and prestige.

In addition, Phi Beta Kappa was also founded at Union College, making the institution home to seven out of the fourteen oldest Greek-letter fraternities in the United States.

Today, the Kappa Alpha Society has seven active chapters across the United States and Canada, with chapters ranging in size from six to sixty members. The Society, unlike many fraternities and sororities today, is governed largely by its collegiate members, whereas many others are governed at the national and international level by alumni members.

More Fraternity Firsts

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fraternities grew and developed at a rapid rate except during the American Civil War. There are a number of firsts throughout this time period:

  • First Intercollegiate Fraternity: Sigma Phi, 1831
  • First Non-Secret Fraterntiy: Delta Upsilon, 1834 (Delta Upsilon opens all of its rituals and proceedings to the public eye, making it different from almost all fraternities and sororities, who have several distinct closed events.)
  • First Fraternity to Publish Its Constitution: Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, 1839
  • First Fraternity with Residential Facilities: Sigma Phi, 1857
  • First Fraternity for Women to be Named with Greek Letters: Kappa Alpha Theta, 1870 (The first secret society for women, now known as Alpha Delta Pi, was founded in 1851.)
  • First Multi-Faith Fraternity: Delta Sigma Phi, 1899 (Delta Sigma Phi was the first fraternity to admit members of both Christian and Jewish backgrounds.)
  • First African-American Fraternity: Alpha Phi Alpha, 1906
  • First Latin-American Fraternity: Phi Iota Alpha, 1931

Fraternities and sororities have become a well-known institution on college campuses throughout the world. Despite their popularity, many of these organizations and key pieces of their development still remain debated among scholars and members alike.

Sources:

  1. Phi Beta Kappa Society
  2. Havemeyer, Louis. “Yale’s Extracurricular & Social Organizations 1760-1960” via Yale University Library Online
  3. Kappa Alpha Society
  4. Beta Theta Pi Fraternity