General History of Fraternities and Sororities in the United States
How It All Began
The first Greek letter organization was Phi Beta Kappa, which was founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, the second oldest institution of higher learning in America (Harvard is the oldest). The secret organization had been preceded by 26 years with the formation of the Flat Hat Club, a secret society which was literary and social in nature, but not Greek. Phi Beta Kappa had all the characteristics of today's fraternities: a motto, a ritual, a badge, principals of high idealism, a bond of friendship and camaraderie, and an urge to share the organization's values through expansion to other campuses. The society was formed for social as well as literary purposes and held regular meetings in which members discussed highly charged and controversial subjects such as taxation and freedom. In this period of revolution, these debates could only be held secretly. In December 1779, the parent chapter authorized the establishment of chapters at Yale and Harvard, and in January 1781, as the British and American armies battled along the Virginia peninsula it ceased it's own operations.
Owing to the prejudice against secret societies aroused by the anti-Masonic sentiment, which began in 1826 when a bitter Freemason, William Morgan, disappeared after threatening to expose the secrets of the Masonic Fraternity, the Harvard chapter revealed the secrets of Phi Beta Kappa in 1831. It was exposed that the Greek letters, FBK, were the initials of Filosofia Biou Kubernhthz, "Philosophy the Guide of Life." Soon afterward Phi Beta Kappa became the most prestigious honor society in North America.
Inspired by the Phi Beta Kappa's at Union College in New York, students formed the Kappa Alpha Society. The new fraternity was much like Phi Beta Kappa except that its purpose was social more than literary. Although the faculty opposed the new society, students embraced the new fraternity and founded two more Greek organizations: Sigma Phi on March 4, 1827 and Delta Phi on November 17, 1827. Together these three fraternities formed the "Union Triad" and were the basis for the expansion of the American college fraternity.
Sigma Phi was the first of the union Triad to establish a branch organization when it placed its Beta chapter at Hamilton College in 1831. One year later Alpha Delta Phi was founded by the students at Hamilton to rival the Sigma Phi's. In November 1833, Psi Upsilon was formed at Union, and that same year Kappa Alpha established a chapter at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, being followed one year later on that campus by Sigma Phi. At Williams the existing fraternities found a new rival in the form of an anit-secret society called the Social Fraternity which later united with similar organizations to become Delta Upsilon in 1834. Alpha Delta Phi made a bold move in 1833 by establishing it's second chapter at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which was the Far West at the time. This was the first chapter of any fraternity west of the Allegheny Mountains.
In 1839, Beta Theta Pi was founded at Miami University by students who, after a quarrel with the Alpha Delta Phi's, believed that a fraternal society could be a vehicle for moral and intellectual growth. Beta Theta Pi thus became the first fraternity founded west of Alleghenies Mountains. In protest against the current President of the university, students of Miami blocked all entrances of the main education and administrative building in the winter of 1847 in what came to be known as the Great Snow Rebellion. The President, determined to suppress the uprising, expelled a majority of the student body, among them nearly all of the members of the only two fraternities on campus. On December 26, 1848, Phi Delta Theta was founded and was the first fraternity beside Phi Beta Kappa to be founded on a campus without a Greek-letter organization. Sigma Chi was formed in 1855 from one faction of a divided Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter at Miami University. Together, Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi form the "Miami Triad." The importance of the triad comes from the expansion of these three fraternities throughout the West and South, making them the first truly national Greek organizations.
The Civil War interrupted most fraternity operations, and as Americans chose sides in the United States' most devastating war, fraternity brothers often found themselves pitted against each other. Fraternity bonds however, often accounted for many prisoners being exchanged or given better treatment. Only one fraternity was founded during this time, Theta Xi at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
After the war, northern fraternities were reluctant to expand to the South, so many southern Greek societies were founded during this period. Alpha Tau Omega, was founded at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA in 1865, as were Kappa Sigma in 1869 and Sigma Nu in 1869. Across town at Washington and Lee University, Kappa Alpha Order was founded in 1865. Other significant foundings are Delta Chi 1890, Tau Kappa Epsilon 1899, Sigma Phi Epsilon 1901 and Lambda Chi Alpha in 1909. Although the majority of Greek-letter societies were founded between 1865 and 1900, more chapters were charted in the 1900's than in the preceding century and a quarter. The American college fraternity rapidly spread to campuses across the U.S. and Canada.
Many obstacles appeared on the fraternities' road to progress, including two world wars, the Great Depression, and the sociopolitical upheaval in the 1960's, but fraternities have seen steady growth. Now, fraternity membership now numbers nearly five million. Charges of hazing, alcohol abuse and anti-intellectualism have challenged Greek societies to emphasize community service, scholarship programming, and responsible social events. Universities know, however, that fraternity members have a higher graduation rate compared to non-members. The fact that fraternity members show more loyalty to their alma mater, are more involved as undergraduates and alumni, and make more donations to their schools offers a convincing case for the worth of Greek organizations.
There are three firsts among women's fraternities. Alpha Delta Pi is counted as the first sisterhood, having been founded as the Adelphean Society in 1851. Pi Beta Phi came into being in 1867 as the first organization of college women established as a national college fraternity. Kappa Alpha Theta was organized in January 1870, as the first Greek-letter society for women.
While there were scattered cases of women elected to men's fraternities, it early became evident that there was a distinct field for similar organizations for women. For many years in schools for young women, societies bearing Greek or classical names were common, such as Adelphean, already named Euterpean, and Philmathean. These became founding chapters of national bodies and claimed precedence by virtue of the initial dates of their local organizations.
The I.C .Sorosis, similar in purpose to the Greek-letter societies, was founded at Monmouth College in 1867. In 1870 at Indiana Asbury University, now DePauw, Kappa Alpha Theta was born. In the same year Kappa Kappa Gamma was established at Monmouth, Illinois. Alpha Phi originated at Syracuse University in New York in 1872, and in 1873 Delta Gamma began at Lewis Institute for Young Women in Oxford, Mississippi. On November 9, 1874, Sigma Kappa was founded at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and on November 11 Gamma Phi Beta followed Alpha Phi at Syracuse. Alpha Chi Omega was founded at DePauw in 1885 and Delta Delta Delta was organized at Boston University in 1888. The same year I.C. Sorosis officially adopted the name Pi Beta Phi, which it had used from the beginning as a secret motto. Other women's sororities founded in the 19th century are Alpha Xi Delta in 1893 at Lombard College (now Knox) in Galesburg, Illinois; Chi Omega in 1895 at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; Alpha Omicron Pi in 1897 at Barnard College, NYC; Kappa Delta in 1897 at Longwood College in Farmville, VA and Zeta Tau Alpha in 1898, also at Longwood. Two other women's fraternities were founded at Longwood College: Sigma Sigma Sigma in 1898 and Alpha Sigma Alpha in 1901, but until 1947 they limited their chapters to teacher colleges. The National Panhellenic Conference was organized in 1902 and now includes 26 women's fraternities.
All of the women's groups were called fraternities in the beginning because no other word existed. Then in 1882, Gamma Phi Beta was named a "sorority", a coined word suggested by their advisor who was a professor of Latin, and who thought the word "fraternity" was ill-advised for a group of young ladies. However, the Greek-letter societies for women had already been incorporated as fraternities, and in 1909 the National Panhellenic Conference revised its Constitution to use the word "fraternity" throughout. This usage still prevails.
In the early days of fraternity expansion, there was bitter rivalry between the various groups, not only for members but for recognition and prestige. The women's groups were better than the men's about fostering a sense of fraternalism. In 1902, after several preliminary meetings, the seven women's fraternities met in Boston to form the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC). The Conference's mission was to encourage an inter-fraternal spirit among the members, to establish better relations with host institutions and to provide service to members' chapters.
In 1909, the men's groups formed the Inter-fraternity Council (IFC) aimed at the same goals as the NPC. The men, too had held several previous meetings to discuss inter-fraternity rivalry versus cooperation. Today, the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) sponsors a variety of fraternity programming aimed at educating Greek undergraduates on topics such as alcohol awareness, inter-fraternity recruitment, membership education, and other important issues.
*Information on Greek History was adapted from the Phi Delta Theta pledge manual.