Chartered in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, Missouri S&T’s oldest African-American fraternity encountered obstacles on the way to its 50th anniversary, especially in the early years.
“There were some difficulties in getting the fraternity off the ground,” says Henry Brown, a 1968 civil engineering graduate of Missouri S&T and one of 18 founding members of the Epsilon Psi chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
There was pushback from the university when Howard Manning, a 1967 civil engineering graduate, and Louis Smith, a 1966 electrical engineering graduate, transfer students and Alpha Phi Alpha brothers from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, approached administrators with the idea of establishing a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha in Rolla.
Administrators questioned the need for a new, historically black fraternity when there were already a handful of nationally recognized fraternities at the university, Brown says. “But it wasn’t a realistic possibility for us to walk up and join one of the fraternities already on campus,” he says.
Using the clout of Lawrence C. George, who had agreed to be the fraternity’s resident advisor, the students eventually convinced school administrators to approve the new fraternity. George, a respected Rolla chemist, was an alumnus of Alpha Phi Alpha’s Beta Pi chapter at Dillard University.
With a resident advisor, the fraternity was now in need of a house. Once again, the fraternity got pushback – this time from local real estate agents.
“You have to think about what Rolla was like in the ’60s – a small, Midwestern town,” says Brown, a native of St. Joseph, Missouri.
The fraternity spent the spring and part of that summer contacting local real estate agents for house tours. Brown says that fraternity members had no trouble scheduling tours by phone, but when they showed up in person, they were almost always turned away.
With traditional housing options exhausted, George once again stepped in to help. He had an acquaintance who owned a former car dealership that was willing to sell the property to the new fraternity. It wasn’t ideal, but the fraternity brothers worked every day that summer to rehab and convert the building into suitable housing.
George, who only stepped down as the fraternity’s advisor in 2013, continues to help. “He’s been very influential on not just us, but the well-being of all black students in Rolla,” says Akil Hutchins, a senior in engineering management from St. Louis.
“He’s touched a lot of people’s lives,” adds Lister Florence, 1995 civil engineering graduate and the fraternity’s current advisor. “He’s been a father figure in my life.”
Through a half century of service at S&T, Alpha Phi Alpha has been instrumental in forming a number of student and faculty organizations focused on diversity and inclusion, including the Association for Black Students, National Society of Black Engineers, the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on African American Recruitment and Retention, and Black Man’s Think Tank. The fraternity also helped bring the Minority Introduction to Technology and Engineering summer camp to campus and created a number of scholarships for minority students.
With Alpha Phi Alpha’s continuing involvement in diverse service projects and organizations on campus, the fraternity promises to be a voice for minority students for the foreseeable future.
Florence says he certainly owes a great deal to the fraternity.
“I don’t think I would have become the man I am today without Alpha Phi Alpha,” Florence says. “They did a really good job, not just with the fraternity members, but everyone, of reaching out to African-Americans, Hispanics and students of other nationalities. The door’s were always open,” he says. “They understood what you were going through. They understood what it was like to be singled out.”
Nowadays, you may recognize an Alpha Phi Alpha brother as someone you emphatically high-fived last Friday at the entrance to the Havener Center, but the brothers of the Epsilon Psi Chapter do so much more than brighten your “Phriday.”
Every February, the fraternity sponsors a National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in conjunction with Black History Month. Members also organize outreach events in conjunction with their national organization, such as A Voteless People is a Hopeless People and Go-To-High School, Go-To-College. And they host Missouri’s longest-running collegiate dance competition, Dance XXXPLOSION. The 2015 event will be held at the ARK in Waynesville, Missouri, this April.
The fraternity will also be hosting a week long 50th anniversary celebration centered around the chapter’s charter day on April 27. More details will be posted to its website as the event nears.
By Greg Katski