Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kappa Alpha Psi in the Age of Accommodation

A few of the Founders are seated with Elder Watson Diggs over the "Psi"

CLICK HERE to hear the Brothers of the Kappa Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incoporated sing the Fraternity's Hymn.

The turn of the century for African Americans, particularly in the Southern and Border states was a world of Jim Crow.  This was a world denoted with signs of "white only" and colored only" to remind you of your place in society.  The Federal Government upheld these practices through the Supreme Court's opinion in the Plessy v. Ferguson case since 1896. Following this decision, along with other issues, prompted African American leaders to articulate an acceptance of segregation and that Blacks were best served by accommodating white supremacy, as a means of survival.  However, there was a new generation of African Americans (ten black men specifically) born during the 1890s, who would reject the spirit of accommodation and yearn for the social benefits promised in the American Dream.  These ten men would create a Black Greek-Letttered Organization that challenged the very idea of accommodation and the age in which they lived.  Kappa Alpha Psi's "Five Objectives" explains the membership's ability to undermine the Age of Accommodation.

The period that the Ten Founders of Kappa Alpha Psi was born into was the post-Reconstruction period.  The socio-political condition in the Southern and Border states for African Americans found them both socially and politically segregated through the passage of the Black Codes.  They were also terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and put to death by their terror tactics of lynching.  In fact, in the year 1900 alone, 815 African Americans and others were lynched.  In the midwestern states, where the Founders were born, all passed laws that upheld the practice of lynching.  This condition was allowed to worsen because as the memory of the Civil War faded, so did antagnonism between white Northerners and Southerners, along with sympathy some white Northerners held for former slaves, also hostility toward southern rebels began to subside.

Then in 1895, Booker T. Washington, assumed the mantle of Black leadership (at the death of Frederick Douglass in the same year) when he delievered his "Atlanta Exposition Speech.""  An address that articulated acceptance of segregation and submission to white supremacy.  "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" stated by Washington in this speech was warmly welcomed by whites but bugrudingly by African Americans (in particulary W.E.B Du Bois).  Most whites desired a more permenant solution to the "Negro Problem" and segregation was the answer.  They got their wish from the Supreme Court's opinion in the 1896 Plessy decision, when it declared that facilities could be separate but equal as to not undermine the 14th Amendment.  It did however usurpt it.  Following the ruling, Democrats with the help of Ku Klux Klan memebers and sypathizers passed the Grandfather Clause in Louisana, along with four significant race wars; Washington County, Texas (1896), the Phoenix Riot (1898), Wilimington Riot (1898), and New Orleans Riot (1900).  These events combined to leave African Americans without political rights (the suffrage) and pushed them out of communities, all of which allowed for the Democratic Party to rule the South and vanquish and reduced the Republican Party to a Northern Party.

African Americans had long since used the Church as their spiritual saviour but they now turned the schoolhouse to improve their lot in life.  Not all of America's colleges denied African Americans admissions to their schools, to include Oberlin, Cornell, Butler, and Indiana University.  However, once enrolled, African Americans were not heard from or their issues and concerns were not addressed.  Most African Americans elected to attend all Black schools, like Fisk, Atlanta, Hampton, and Howard.  It is at Howard that two of the would be Founders (Elder Watson Diggs and Byron Kenneth Armstrong) met in the in the 1909-1910 school year.

Given the level of violence in their respective states of Kentucky and Indiana, this may explain why they decided to attend Howard.  Despite the socio-intellectual promise that the District of Columbia and Howard may have possessed, these two men left the city and the school.  It may have been the inability to connect with Atlantic Coast Black Life, Howard's institutional barriers, cost of attendance, and/or their interaction with the Alpha Phi Alpha's Beta Chapter, these two men would reemerge at Indiana University in the 1910 school year poised to make a change.

Elder Watson Diggs and Byron Kenneth Armstrong arrived at the Bloomington campus and found an socially separated and disconnected Black student body.  More specifically they found ten other men (all that was enrolled that school year) who too were disconnected and working their way through school.  Frequent contact between the men sparked a need for a meeting.  Diggs and Armstrong shared their experiences of attending a Negro university, the intellectual capacity of an all Black environment, their experience with a Black fraternity, all which collectively sowed the idea of another more permanent fraternal movement at Indiana specifically and nationally, more broadly.  Though defunct by 1910-1911, Alpha Kappa Nu (1905) along with the existing white Greek lettered organizations had served as a proxy for what would emerge as Kappa Alpha Nu later changed to Kappa Alpha Psi (in name only).  Ultimately, Diggs and Armstrong, along with 10 other men created a fraternity on the premise of "achievement in every field of human endevour" and that there were five objectives that were necessary to achieve this end.  It would be these five objectives that undermined the idea of accommodation.

The objectives of Kappa Alpha Psi did the following; prompted integration, undermined the idea of Negro self blame, supported the idea of protest and agitation, promoted racial solidarity, and undermined the separtist ideology.  All of this against a backdrop of disfranchisment, lynching, jim crow laws, race riots both North and South, and the acceptance of vocational education over a professional and colligate

An examination of the both the Objectives and the demonstrated act:

1.  To unite college men of culture, patriotism, and honor in a bond of fraternity is an example of integration.  The Constituion and Statutes of the organization has never in practice or jurisprudence barred a man from membership due to race.  When World War I came, Founders Elder Watson Diggs and John Milton Lee served their country on the behalf of all Americans.  The Fraternity's Hymn's underlying message is brotherhood solidarity, reminds members of their connnections, and that their work is only done at death.

2.  To encourage honorable achievement in every field of human endeavor undermines the concept of the Negro blaming himself for his percieved lowly position.  Excepting the Delta Chapter (Wilberforce), nine of the Fraternity's first chapters were estabished at white institutions, where jim crow had the most chilling effect on the Black student population.  The Fraternity's first edition of the Journal (April, 1914) shows that "Kappa Alpha Nu has always manifested lively interest in Athletics," members were holding professorships, earned degrees, and were winning scholarships to attend  such schools like Harvard.  At Wilberforce (an all Black school) were vocational education and working with your hands was expected, Wilberforce had defeated Indiana University at a score of "7 to 6" in football.  What this demonstrated is if given the opportunity, African Americans can overcome thier plight if the playing field is fair and the rules are clear.

3.  To promote the spiritual, social, intellectual and moral welfare of members supports the idea of protest and agitation.  One of the Fraternity's first acts following the founding, was the holding of "three-day house party" in May of 1911.  This party introduced black students to the idea of a social affair of the highest order.  This party was noted in Indiana University's student newspaper the "Daily Student."  The Fraternity also purchased a house for the purpose of sustaining membership, survival and ensuring graduation at 721 Hunter Street.  Additonally, Diggs saw fit to create a fraternal magazine, naming it The Journal, that would be published for all membership to record and view the activities of the Fraterntiy.

4.  To assist in the aims and purposes of colleges and universities demonstrates the ability of the membership to work within the legal structures while launching a campaign of solidarity to overcome racism both social and structural.  The Fraternity's focus included establishing chapters at white institutions and all Black institutions of higher learning.  Prior doing so, a letter was sent, announcing the both the function of the Fraternity and the permission to form a chapter.  `Elder Watson Diggs (Grand Polemarch) fashioned such a letter in early 1914 believing that "every college man ought to belong to some such movement as this.   It broadend his horizons and brings him into vital touch and fellowship with college men everywhere."  Each chapter in the early years created activities for the student body to be affiliated with, to include swimming teams, debate clubs, and football.  The Fraternity did suspend members who did not follow University policy and/or the Fraternity's Constitution and Statutes.

5.  To inspire service in the public interest demonstrates the idea of undermining separatist ideology even held within the African American community.  In the beginning Elder Watson Diggs wanted the Fraternity to be a national organization.  This was achieved in May 15, 1911.  This allowed the Fraternity to openly conduct business both domestically and internationally.  It was in the public interest to know the plight and condition of African American people.  This was made possible by both initiating non-black members that became allies and supporting special commissions such as the American Council on Human Rights (an organization established to protect the rights of minority peoples, and to defeat all measures that were inimical to those interests).  Lastly, Elder Watson Diggs because of his World War I service helped to amend the Indiana's State Constitution to "permit the enlistment of Negroes in the National Guard."

In the end, the Founders understood the Age of Accommodation but they did not accept it.  They undermined its both brutal and hostile effects by creating a Fraternity that has  five objectives aimed at its dismantling.  This dismantling did not happen over-night.  What the Founders established and early members maintained, planted the seeds for the Civil Rights generation.  It has been 100 years (January 5, 2011) of the constant protest and agitation of what began with ten men has grown into over 150,000 men and 700 chapters world wide, that continue to smooth out the rough edges of American society and internationally.  It was the five objectives that saw this Midwestern fraternity undermine and defeat the Age of Accommodation.


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