You see them every quarter on Ring Road scouting for new members. ‘Party this Thursday!’ you hear one shout. Fraternities have been on college campuses as long as anyone can remember. But how exactly did fraternities come into existence? How did sororities get started? And why have they appeared on practically every university campus in the United States?
It all started in 1776 when John Heath, a student at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., sought to join an elite literary club on campus and was rejected. After being turned down from the club he had admired, Heath took matters into his own hands. A brilliant Greek scholar, Heath selected three Greek letters, Phi, Beta and Kappa, invited four close friends and created the first fraternity.
However, Phi Beta Kappa was no ordinary club. They were forced to meet in secrecy because they discussed many controversial topics that were far from acceptable at the time, and what better place to discuss controversial issues than the very spot where Patrick Henry cried out, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’?
Although Phi Beta Kappa was seen as a threat to society, its founding principles were far from dangerous. The men of Phi Beta Kappa sought to promote intellectual thinking, morality and fellowship.
Two years after its founding date Phi Beta Kappa felt it was time to spread the idea of fellowship to other campuses.
As time passed, more and more fraternities began to appear, most of them focusing on intellectual studies. In 1825, the first social fraternity, the Kappa Alpha Society, was formed at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Fraternities still met in secrecy, partially to preserve the traditions of older fraternities, and partially to go against what society felt was proper. It was not long before Union College became the home of six new fraternities and earned the title ‘Mother of Fraternities.’
While America began expanding westward the fraternities were not far behind. No tale of Western origin is quite as memorable as the Phi Delta Theta’s, who owe their creation to a ‘snow rebellion.’
The story goes that in the mid-1800s, two fraternities at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio were having some winter fun, when someone thought it would be funny to block all the entrance ways with snow. Both fraternities banded together to pull off the prank. However, things turned ugly when the students began to defy school authorities. The faculty was not able to reach their classrooms for two days. As a result, nearly every student in the fraternities was expelled from school.
Phi Delta Theta was organized not long after the expulsion, and with the competition gone, Phi Delta Theta had no problem obtaining new members.
At the start of the Civil War there were 20 fraternities in the North and six in the South. Many fraternities marched off to war together and even attempted to create their own units. When the war finally came to an end, several of the Southern fraternities had died out. Many were left with bitter feelings after the war. Now more than ever the idea of brotherhood and fellowship needed to be enforced.
Although some Northern fraternities did attempt to re-establish their fellow chapters, the lack of stability in the South caused Northern fraternities to hesitate undertaking such a large task. It was essentially up to the South to rebuild itself.
Men were not the only ones who sought an intellectual conversation as well as fellowship. Women wanted to get involved too. Thus in 1851, the first women’s fraternity was formed. Like its brothers, Alpha Delta Pi had to meet in secrecy because many members of the community did not approve of the group. The first public women’s fraternity, Kappa Alpha Theta, was created in 1867. However the very first sisterhood to use the term ‘sorority’ was Gamma Phi Beta in 1874.
Although the image of fraternities and sororities has changed over time, the appeal of brotherhood and sisterhood still draws students in every year. So who are these mysterious people?
They are individuals who are not afraid to go against the norm, who believe in creating strong bonds between their fellow men and women and who are striving to make their mark on the world.
Filed Under: Features