Black Fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi Looks to a Future Beyond Obama

Fraternity brothers Jimmy Phinazee, left, of Richmond, and Andrew Price, of Alexandria, greet each other while shopping for Kappa apparell in the vendor area at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.
Fraternity brothers Jimmy Phinazee, left, of Richmond, and Andrew Price, of Alexandria, greet each other while shopping for Kappa apparell in the vendor area at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. (Bill O'leary - Washington Post)

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

Several thousand nattily dressed young and older men, distinguished by their crimson suit jackets, have been encamped at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel this week. They are members of Kappa Alpha Psi -- a predominantly black fraternity founded in 1911 -- and although they are holding their first large gathering since the election of the nation's first African American president, they're beyond swooning over Obama's achievement.

That's because they have serious work to do.

"Our membership is astute," says Richard Lee Snow, executive director of the fraternity, which drew more than 3,000 members to its 79th Grand Chapter meeting. "Obama can't turn around all of the ills this nation has built up since blacks were brought over here on ships. Obama is not a savior. But he is a breath of fresh air, and we fully embrace him and his administration."

Boosting philanthropic giving, reducing obesity, improving access to preventive health care and increasing financial literacy and college graduation rates for black men topped the convention agenda. In the coming year, the last two priorities will receive the most attention from the fraternity, which has almost 200,000 members spread across 700 chapters, some of them abroad.

College graduation rates are so low for black men "for all the reasons we see in society: They're caught up in the penal system, they're having families at young ages," Snow says.

Most black fraternities in America were founded during segregation. Although they were created in part for social reasons, there was really no way at the time to avoid becoming involved politically. Fraternity members would go to civil rights gatherings, engage in letter-writing campaigns and otherwise try to influence politicians and public officials on lynching and other matters.

Two of the 10 founders of Kappa Alpha Psi, Elder Watson Diggs and Byron Armstrong, were onetime Howard University students before they transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington, where the first Kappa chapter was formed, according to Kappa administrative officer Chuck Carr Brown.

The Kappas can count among their well-known members filmmaker John Singleton, talk show host Tavis Smiley, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Dwayne M. Murray is the Grand Polemarch of the Kappa organization, a title of reverence given to its leader. "I think the biggest challenges lie in the financial arena," Murray says, sitting in an office off the hotel's main ballroom, his red jacket decorated with brightly colored insignias. (Fraternity members have a reputation for sartorial splendor; college Kappas have been known to sport red and white canes.)

"When you look at the mortgage crisis and the auto industry and what has happened to unemployment, well, it affects every household," Murray says.

Murray lauds the fraternity's Greeks Learning to Avoid Debt (GLAD) program. "We've placed it on more than 100 campuses nationwide," he says.

Murray is also determined to change the perception that blacks have a lackluster record when it comes to philanthropy. "We want to be not always on the receiving end, but on the giving end," he says. "To that end, we've raised over $800,000, which we have given to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital."

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