The two men, separated by 23 years, 512 miles and different stations in life, have found themselves on this hot July day standing on the campus of Howard University in front of a memorial dedicated to the founders of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Morris Morton of Jackson, Tenn., is a veteran emergency room physician and a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Michael Miller, 28, is a caseworker from Columbus, Ohio, looking at other career paths. But on Wednesday, they called each other brother.
“I had never met this man before 30 minutes ago, but we have a common, now lifelong bond,” said Morton, as he clasped Miller’s hand. Pointing to the names of the fraternity’s founders etched into the granite memorial, he added: “And because of the four men whose names are right there, I now have a brother for life. And that’s what this pilgrimage is all about.”
The quiet moment between fraternity brothers was an informal kickoff for what will soon be a gale of purple and gold descending on Washington through Sunday evening. The fraternity, celebrating its centennial, is bringing about 10,000 “Ques” from more than 700 chapters around the world as part of its conclave, which will be packed from dawn to dawn with events, parties, step shows and memorials.
“It’s just amazing, overwhelming, inspiring to be at this spot, where it all started,” said Miller, gold boots on his feet, pointing around the yard where the memorial sits. “This is my one and only chance to share this with so many of our brothers.”
Indeed, the next four days are a time of fraternity for the brothers, much as it was a hundred years ago when three Howard University students and their faculty adviser established the first black fraternity at an all-black university. The two other all-black fraternities at the time had been founded at white institutions.
Conceived as a distinctive service and social organization by the founders and subsequent leaders and members, the fraternity counts basketball stars Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, entertainer Bill Cosby, and politicians L. Douglas Wilder — the nation’s first black elected governor — and Jesse L. Jackson among its members. The group also includes 20 military generals, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and media entrepreneur Earl Graves.
And while boasting such distinguished men, over the years the Omegas have gained — some may say encouraged — a reputation of being rowdier than the average fraternity; men who were more interested in partying than service. They were the men who embraced the “dog,” a term often used to deride pledges and later used as a term of endearment for those who crossed over.
For many leaders in the organization, this stereotype has swallowed the fraternity’s founding principles. They see the centennial as a time to recast their focus.
“One of my chief goals was when I was called in to lead was to do something about our image,” said Andrew Ray, 62, the grand basileus (national president) of the organization. “I took it as a personal challenge. . . . We are not going to allow whatever negative elements of our reputation determine who we are.”
He said that part of the work of this weekend will be organizing a capital fundraising campaign so that the organization can expand on its philanthropic activities. “I hope to lead us into the second 100 years where we are focused more on service to our community,” Ray said.
Indeed, in a recent widely read piece in UptownMagazine.com, Rodney T. Cohen, an assistant dean at Yale, wrote that all black fraternities need to refocus on their founding principles and “restore eldership.” He said of the Omegas: “On one hand, we have the Omegas who state that their fraternity’s principles are ‘manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift’ but we see the constant reference to the use of the ‘dog’ moniker as a form of identity.”
While the Ques (from the Greek letter Omega, which resembles a Q) will certainly party this weekend, there will be many solemn, reverent moments. The fraternity will honor standouts in several professional fields: the military, business and politics, science, education, religion, and sports and entertainment. On Wednesday, the recognitions began with a ceremony honoring Col. Charles Young, one of the first black men to attend West Point and an honorary Omega member who was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
For many members, this extended weekend will be focused on sharing in the collective pilgrimage. Dorsey Miller of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came to the convention with his son Dorsey Miller III. Like father, like son: The elder Miller said from the time he and his wife were married, it was clear that their home would be “an Omega home.”
The father pledged Omega at Morehouse College in 1966; his son would later pledge on the campus of the University of Florida. When asked what about the legacy he gleaned from his father, Dorsey Miller III said, “What it means is that he was a positive male role model who taught us right from wrong.”
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Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.