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Lynchings, Kappa Alpha Psi and the Black Struggle

by Naba’a Muhammad

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EJI  Black Man Lynched Today 110 Years Ago June 27  1911Good Brother Doug Owens, an initiate of the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at Morgan State University, sent me a link to an article about a lynching that happened in 1911 after a judge refused to protect those in custody of authorities. “Two Black Men Lynched by White Mob in Georgia After Judge Refuses to Protect Them:” https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/jun/27.

Today is the anniversary of this heinous, unpunished crime and act of genocide.

 I have always been struck by the history of Kappa Alpha Psi and being founded at Indiana University on January 5, 1911. All of the Black frats and sororities have interesting histories and we should all let those histories guide our work and commitments today. I was initiated into the Alpha Iota Chapter in 1981 following a year of college at a small, White school in Nebraska. (Imagine that. But that’s a whole different story.) So when I came to Morgan, I was not only impressed with the Nupes, who I saw as the koolest kats on Da Yard, but I read about the fraternity’s history and immediately could identify with the Founders being in a hostile environment and the fraternity mission of Achievement.

Kappa Alpha Psi Alpha Iota Chapter

There was a circumstance on the campus of Indiana University, and I am sharing that history, but there was also a greater history in the country. For example, according to documents from the Library of Congress, “sixty-seven black Americans are known to have been lynched in 1910” and “sixty black Americans are known to have been lynched in 1911.” That’s not to mention the “Red Summer” of 1919, “with 26 race riots between the months of April and October. These included disturbances in the following areas: May 10 - Charleston, South Carolina, July 13 - Gregg and Longview counties, Texas, July 19-23 - Washington, D. C., July 27 – Chicago and October 1-3 - Elaine, Arkansas. … Seventy-six black Americans are known to have been lynched in 1919.”

KAPsiCrestAnd, this is from the official website for the fraternity: “Kappa Alpha Psi®, a college Fraternity, was born in an environment saturated in racism.  The state of Indiana became the 19th state of the Union in 1816 and it founded Indiana University in Bloomington four years later.  This city was largely populated by settlers from below the Mason-Dixon line and therefore found many sympathizers of the Southern cause.  Consequently, the few Blacks who took up residence in Bloomington in those early years were socially ostracized and encountered extreme acts of prejudice and discrimination.  The state of Indiana became a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan.  Their intolerance toward Blacks fueled the negative mindset of other Whites residing there.  Vigilante lynchings of Blacks were commonplace.  This environment made day-to-day life for Blacks an arduous task and attempts to successfully achieve in school, nearly impossible.  Despite the growing hostility of Whites toward Blacks in Indiana, some Black students sought a college education at Indiana University, as it was a tuition-free university of the highest quality.  However, few Blacks could remain longer than a year or so without having to withdraw in search of employment.

“The campus of Indiana University at that time did not encourage the assimilation of Blacks.  The administration maintained an attitude of indifference, as Blacks slowly matriculated and were likewise swiftly forgotten.  The percentage of Blacks on campus was less than 1%.  Blacks could go weeks without seeing one another on campus.  Blacks were not allowed to reside in on-campus dormitories, were not afforded off-campus accommodations, and they were also denied the use of all other university facilities, and were barred from participating in contact sports.  Track and Field was the only sport which Blacks were able to demonstrate their athleticism.

“In the school years of 1910-11, a small group of Black students attended Indiana University.

“Most of them were working their way through school.  The number of places where they might assemble was limited. Realizing that they had no part in the social life of the university and drawn together by common interests, they decided that a Greek-letter fraternity would do much to fill the missing link in their college existence.

“Two of these men, Elder Watson Diggs and Byron Kenneth Armstrong, had previously attended Howard University and had come into contact with men belonging to the only national Black Greek-Letter Fraternity currently in existence.  Their experiences at Howard gave rise to the chief motivating spirits which sowed of the seed for a fraternity at Indiana University and crystallized the idea of establishing an independent Greek-letter organization.

“Consequently, eight other men met with Diggs and Armstrong for the purpose of organizing such a fraternity.  The charter members were Elder Watson Diggs, Byron K. Armstrong, John M. Lee, Henry T. Asher, Marcus P. Blakemore, Guy L. Grant, Paul W. Caine, George W. Edmonds, Ezra D. Alexander and Edward G. Irvin.  The Founders sought one another’s company between classes and dropped by one another’s places of lodging to further discuss the means of formulating the fledgling fraternity in an effort to relieve the depressing isolation.  They found that through these close interactions, they had common interests and a close bond began to emerge.  The organization was given the temporary name of Alpha Omega, while they further developed the formation of the organization.  Diggs presided as president, while Irvin was assigned as temporary secretary of Alpha Omega.  Alpha and Omega, the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet correlate to Christ and the Founder’s relationship and connection to the church.

“The Founders were God-fearing, and serious minded young men who possessed the imagination, ambition, courage and determination to defy custom in pursuit of a college education and careers.  The ideals of the church were an important foundation of the Fraternity.  One of the 5 Objectives of the Fraternity is: ‘To promote the spiritual, social, intellectual and moral welfare of members.’  Many aspects of the Fraternity’s rites are engrained in Christianity ideals and contain excerpts from the Bible.

“It was clear at the outset that the new fraternity would not warm over principles or practices of other organizations.  Nor would the new Fraternity seek its members in the manner of other Greek organizations – from among the sons of wealthy families or families of social prestige.  These men of vision decided the Fraternity would be more than another social organization.  Reliance would be placed upon high Christian ideals and the purpose of ACHIEVEMENT.

“The Fraternity would seek to raise the sights of Black youths and stimulate them to accomplishments higher than might otherwise be realized or even imagined.

“On January 5, 1911, the Fraternity then became known as Kappa Alpha Nu, possibly as a tribute to the Black students of 1903 (the Alpha Kappa Nu Greek Society) who preceded them at Indiana University.  These men of vision decided Kappa Alpha Nu would be more than another social organization. It would be the only Greek-letter organization founded with the concept of achievement.  Kappa Alpha Nu began uniting college men of culture, patriotism and honor in a Bond of fraternity.  Primarily, under the efforts and leadership of the calm, methodical, and philosophical Elder W. Diggs and the critical, and scholarly Byron K. Armstrong, the Kappa Alpha Nu Fraternity was founded.  Through their combined labors, the fraternity’s ritual and ceremonial forms, constitution, hymn and motto were created, and insignia and emblems were fashioned.  Taking careful attention to detail and to ensure the fraternity was rooted in authenticity, these Founder Diggs took courses in Greek heraldry and mythology and applied their combined knowledge to the development of these articles.  The idealist, John Milton Lee also contributed significantly to the fledgling organization.  For their works to establish the fraternity, Diggs was named permanent chairman, Lee was designated as secretary and Armstrong as sergeant-at-arms.  These three Founders are credited with guiding the infant Fraternity through the most perilous years of its life.  Able assistance provided by each of the remaining Founders furnished necessary sustenance for the embryonic group.  Kappa Alpha Nu became the first incorporated Black Fraternity in the United States once granted a charter by the Indiana Secretary of State on May 15, 1911.

“Born out of the vestiges of racism, Kappa Alpha Nu encountered another metamorphosis, partially related to action of bigotry.  One day as one of the Fraternity members, Frank Summers, was running the hurdles, Founder Diggs overheard a White student state, ‘He is a member of Kappa Alpha Nig’.  There was an additional misunderstanding being attributed to the acronym of the Fraternity’s Greek letters, KAN.  Some confused the abbreviation of the letters to refer to the state of Kansas.  The name of Fraternity and the image it portrayed was of paramount importance.  These incidents caused the Founders to change the name of the Fraternity.  The Greek Letter Ψ was chosen in place of N and the Fraternity acquired a distinctive Greek letter symbol and Kappa Alpha Psi ®thereby became an indistinguishable Greek-letter Fraternity.  The name was officially changed to Kappa Alpha Psi on a resolution adopted at the Grand Chapter Meeting in December 1914. This change became effective April 15, 1915.”