Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity: An Overview
RJR 19 June 2017
At the beginning of the twentieth century, national, state and local racial discrimination and segregation, legitimized by the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that called for separate but equal racial policies and practices, and further sanctioned by the passage of local and state Jim Crow laws throughout the nation, limited housing, education and employment opportunities for black Americans for more than half of the 20th century. Black citizens were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods with limited access to educational, economic and political opportunities, housing options, and community and health services throughout the United States. Yet, within black communities, social organizations, churches, benevolent associations, secret fraternal groups, private schools, newspapers and small entrepreneurial businesses were established to provide for individual and family support and sustainability.
Henry M. Minton
Such was the case in the city of Philadelphia, with a population of black citizens in 1900 of approximately 63,000. Here, in his home city of Philadelphia, Henry McKee Minton and a small group of his colleagues founded Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, the nation’s first black Greek-letter Fraternity.
Minton was acutely aware of the rather isolated professional and social world in which Philadelphia’s small but slowly escalating number of black professionals existed. He had no doubt witnessed the camaraderie and support members of fraternities enjoyed during his years as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy and at the University of Pennsylvania, although invitations for membership in them were not an option for black Americans. As well, he was aware of the support members received within selected non-professional secret societies and fraternal groups within the black community of Philadelphia. Thus, he reasoned that a special fraternity could effectively serve as the means through which desirable professional and social support for black professionals would be provided and maintained. Minton shared his vision of such a fraternity with a small group of his colleagues consisting of Algernon B. Jackson, MD, Edwin C. J. T. Howard, MD; and Richard J. Warrick, Jr., DDS.
Meeting on Sunday, May 15, 1904, at the home of Dr. Howard, the group discussed and agreed on establishing a fraternity and its purpose as envisioned by Minton, along with the prerequisites of membership: educational and professional achievement, commitment to addressing needs in the black community, and congeniality, cultural compatibility, and the potential to engage in good fellowship. Additionally, membership would be by invitation only. With these prerequisites agreed upon, the group elected to meet again in two weeks to discuss and approve the Fraternity’s ritual and its constitution. During that interval two other distinguished men were added to the initial group: Eugene T. Hinson, MD, and Robert J. Abele, MD. Together, the foregoing six men -- Henry M. Minton, PhG; Algernon B. Jackson, MD; Edwin C.J.T. Howard, MD; Richard J. Warrick, Jr., DDS; Eugene T. Hinson, MD; and Robert J. Abele, MD -- are the founders of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, whose purpose then as it is now is expressed in the words of the preamble to its constitution:
Whereas it seems wise and good that men of ambition, refinement and self respect should seek the society of one another, both for the mutual benefit and to be an example of the higher type of manhood,
Be it resolved that a Society be organized for the purpose of binding men of like qualities into a close, sacred, fraternal union, that they may know the best of one another, and that each in this life may to his fill ability aid the other, and by concerted action bring about those things that seem best for all that cannot be accomplished by individual effort.
Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity is also known as the Boulé, which in Ancient Greece was a council of chiefs. The meaning of the words Sigma Pi Phi, the titles given to its members and their wives, its officers and the names of its local units are derived from Greek history and tradition as well.
Algernon B. Jackson
In its early years Sigma Pi Phi could be viewed as a secret organization that consciously avoided publicity. It was not until 1982 that the Fraternity adopted a policy of limited and selected publicity. Although no longer “secret,” today it can be described as a fraternity that exists with little fanfare and one that actively seeks to improve the lives of the citizens in the communities in which the members are associated through its social action and public policy programs and initiatives. On the social action front, the Fraternity’s Boulé Scholars Program seeks to cultivate and reward academic excellence and school and community leadership displayed by young black males throughout the school years, and to award college scholarships to those most deserving, is being recognized for its effectiveness. So too are mentoring and student support programs that are administered by individual member boulés. As well, the Fraternity’s program to raise the awareness and support for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is a public policy initiative of consequence.
To generate financial resources to implement the Fraternity’s social action programs, the Boulé Foundation was established in 1980 and is supported financially by contributions from the Fraternity’s members. Since 1987 The Foundation, through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, awarded more than three hundred fifty college scholarships to deserving students. It has also made contributions to recognized civil rights, historical and educationally related organizations, and provided assistance to communities that experienced devastating natural disasters, both within the United States and in Haiti. Additionally, The Foundation and the Fraternity each pledged to contribute $500,000, making a total of $1,000,000, in support of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Administratively, the Fraternity’s highest officer is known as the Grand Sire Archon, who serves as its chief executive officer and is elected at the Fraternity’s biennial conventions, the Grand Boulés held in even-numbered years. As well, a Grand Sire Archon-Elect is elected at the Grand Boulés, and is automatically elevated to the position of Grand Sire Archon after serving in that capacity for two years.
The day-to-day business of the Fraternity is conducted in its central office, located in Atlanta, Georgia. It is managed by the Grand Grammateus-Executive Secretary, who is its chief operations officer and is also is elected at the Fraternity’s Grand Boulés. Similarly, the Fraternity’s treasurer, the Grand Thesauristes, is likewise its chief financial officer and is elected at the Grand Boulé. Significantly, reflecting the core belief that each member is capable of holding a position of leadership within the Fraternity, two officers are chosen biennially by sortition: the Grand Rhetoricos and the Grand Agogos, each with functions as assigned.
The Fraternity publishes quarterly The Boulé Journal, which features articles of interest to the membership, descriptions of the social action programs administered through the Grand Boulé as well as those by local member boulés, special accomplishments of and distinctive recognitions conferred members, their wives and children; and memorials for departed members. The editor of The Boulé Journal is known as the Grand Grapter and is elected at the Grand Boulés. The Boulé Journal is distributed to the Fraternity’s active members, voluntarily inactive members, emeriti members, widows of members, to the libraries of HBCUs and other selected institutions. Additionally, the Fraternity maintains an active website that provides selected information about its structure and programs for the general public as well as restricted information for its members.
Geographically, the Fraternity’s member boulés (chapters) are assigned to one of five regions: Northeast, Southeast, Central, Western and Pacific. Administratively, the regions mirror that which is found at the Grand Boulé level. The highest regional officer is the Regional Sire Archon, who is elected at regional biennial conventions held in odd-numbered years. Similarly, the Regional Sire Archon-Elect, who automatically assumes the office of Regional Sire Archon after serving for a period of two years, is elected at the Regional Boulés. The other elected regional officers are the Regional Grammateus, Thesauristes, and Grapter. Selected by lot are the Regional Rhetoricos and the Regional Agogos.
At the local level, member boulés are named in the order of the Greek alphabet with the exception of the last alphabet, Omega, which is the name assigned to the member boulé of our departed members. Local member boulés are administered by officers that bear the same functional name as those at the Regional levels. In addition, at the local boulé level a membership council of three members is elected biennially.
Edwin C. Howard
From its founding in 1904, with six members in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity has deliberately grown slowly, as the emphasis has always been on quality and not quantity. Yet, it currently has nearly 5,000 active members who are affiliated with 134 member boulés in cities across the breadth of this nation and in Nassau, The Bahamas, and London, The United Kingdom. It has welcomed and continues to welcome into its fraternal bond some of the most distinguished men in the world. Its members have included such men as W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin E. Mays, Ralph J. Bunche, James Weldon Johnson, Charles R. Drew, Daniel Hale Williams, Percy L. Julian, Charles H. Wesley, Oliver W. Hill, Paul R. Williams, John Hope Franklin, A. Leon Higginbotham, Ulysses Kay, Arna Bontemps, Arthur Ashe, David H. Blackwell, Robert C. Weaver, Ronald H. Brown, and the list goes on and on. Its past as well as its present members have been and are leaders in the struggle for civil rights, social justice, economic and educational equality, and in the implementation of public policy and health care initiatives that aid our underserved communities. Each member is committed to upholding the principles upon which the Fraternity was founded and thereby enriching the lives of our citizens. Each member strives to enhance the brilliance of its beacon light. Its over 100-year history is a testament to determination, dedication and a commitment to excellence.