Black Fraternity Still Fighting the Good Education Fight

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."

The news of recent weeks across the country hardly escaped the Kappa gathering, and there was talk of the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. at his Cambridge, Mass., home. After a verbal confrontation with a white police officer, Gates was arrested and jailed for several hours. The incident unleashed a perfect storm of commentary from black radio to the op-ed pages. Charges against Gates were eventually dropped, and Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, were invited by Obama to discuss what happened over beers at the White House.

"We have so many young intelligent men who come into contact with law enforcement, and unlike Gates, who may not have reacted with intelligence," Murray says. "For so long in the black community, law enforcement has been seen as a threat. Clearly, more dialogue is needed. Obama won't be an instant fix for racial relations in America."

If young Kappas needed a primer on finance, they were treated to one shortly after landing in Washington.

The Historical Society of Washington initially picked up the $37,000 bar tab for a welcoming event for the Kappas held there on Monday night. The money had been given to the society by the city. There was jazz and a tasty menu of eats that consisted of, among other items, crab cakes and red velvet cupcakes. However, there was an outcry about Fenty's fraternity having such a posh to-do on the city's dime -- and the matter landed in the lap of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who deemed it not "proper" for the city to have given the money. The city has since been repaid for the bash.

Kappa Earl Tildon, 73, a native of Washington who now lives in Florida, was hardly amused by the dust-up.

"There has never been a city that has not hosted a reception for us," says Tildon. "I don't know if this was politics or not."

In 2011, the Kappas will celebrate their centennial.

This year's gathering concludes Saturday with a Grand Ball at the hotel.

And so they mingled on, old and young. "Our fraternity is based on achievement," says Dozie Amajoyi, 21, a senior and aspiring lawyer at the University of California at Davis. "President Obama holds the highest seat in the country. It epitomizes my fraternity because that's about achievement. Obviously, now anything is possible."

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