Alpha Gamma: A look back at 100 years
Two alumni illuminate the history and legacy of Brown’s oldest Black fraternity.
“Society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security,” said Henry Arthur Callis (Cornell 1909), one of the founders of the nation’s first African American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. “Out of our need, our Fraternity brought social purpose and social action.”
As the Brown chapter of this organization celebrates 100 years of service, we wondered: how did the local chapter originate? What work do they do locally? And what are alumni members doing today?
Alpha Gamma takes root at Brown
What would become Alpha Gamma originated in the early 20th century as a small Brown debate club. Soon after forming, the members recognized the need to create a more permanent allegiance for Black men on campus. Unfortunately, the University rejected their application for an on-campus chapter of the national Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, so on February 2, 1921 the eleven founding members chartered a Providence chapter, which was formally recognized by Brown University in 1974. Membership of the local chapter is city-wide and includes students and alumni from a variety of universities, such as Johnson & Wales, the University of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
“First of all, servants of all, we shall transcend all”
As Alpha Gamma celebrates its centennial, the ongoing service-centered work of this active group has not gone unnoticed. “The Brown Alumni Association (BAA) recognizes the Alpha Gamma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha for their 100 years of service to the Black community at Brown and in Providence,” says Sara Leppo Savage '90, P'22, president of the Brown Alumni Association. “Its members have made history as firsts in their fields, pillars of their communities, and leaders at Brown. We appreciate the fraternity's role in campus life and beyond and wish them continued success for the next 100 years.”
The group hosts organized events such as fundraisers, an annual walk in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (himself an Alpha Phi Alpha member from the Boston University chapter), and 11 Black History Month events in honor of Alpha Gamma’s 11 founders. Other activities are ongoing, such as the Go-to-High-School, Go-to-College mentoring program and voter registration drives.
A continuum of excellence
“Alpha Phi Alpha instilled a sense of 'limitlessness' in me as a student at Brown and beyond. The bar was set high on academics and extracurricular excellence by the brothers who came before me,” says Rodney Robinson '90. “As a third-generation Alpha, I proudly accepted the challenge to uphold our mission of manly deeds, scholarship, and love for all mankind.”
Through the years, you may have seen the mark of Alpha Gamma brothers on campus and beyond, such as:
- Russell Malbrough ’98, co-founder of the Inman Page Black Alumni Council and a newly elected Brown Trustee
- Academy Award-winning film executive Dorsey James '83, P’15, former Brown Trustee
- Football star Steve Jordan '82 LLD’21 hon. of the NFL Vikings Ring of Honor, former Brown Trustee
- Director of the National Institute of Health Griffin Rodgers '76 MMSc’79 MD'79
- Alonzo Moron '32, first Black president of Hampton University
- Fritz Pollard, Jr. '37, P’76, bronze medalist in the 1936 Olympics
- J. Saunders Redding '28 AM'32 DLIT'63 hon., P'56, first Black professor at an Ivy League University, former Brown Fellow
- Louis Lorenzo Redding (1923) LLD'73 hon., P'72 , who served on the attorney committee on Brown v. Board of Education and was the first Black lawyer in Delaware
- Football star Jay Mayo Williams (1920), one of the first Black professional football players in the NFL and founder of Ebony Records
- Fritz Pollard, Sr. (1919) LLD’81 hon., P’37, GP’76, one of the first Black football players at Brown, one of the first Black football players in the NFL, and the first Black head coach in the NFL
About Alpha Gamma
Originally founded in 1921 by 11 Brown students, Brown’s oldest Black fraternity is celebrating 100 years of service in 2021.
To learn more about how the fraternity continues to serve, how it fits into Brown’s history, and how it may evolve over the coming years, we sat down with two members, Walt Wilson '76 and Demitrius Burnett '13. Here’s a Q&A on their perspective of the fraternity:
What is one thing we should know about the Alpha Gamma chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity?
Walt Wilson '76: Drawing on the rich heritage of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity of which it is a part, since its inception the Alpha Gamma chapter is an organization that has been focused on providing service to the community.
Demitrius Burnett '13: I want people to know about our contributions to Brown's history. They are part of Providence's history, and in many ways, American history. There are monuments of infrastructure—both material and immaterial—and work, and contributions that brothers have made to the campus of Brown, Johnson & Wales, Providence, and beyond. For instance, you have Fritz Pollard, who was one of the first Black players in the NFL. Actually, I remember in my senior year on Brown's Football team, in the stadium locker room, I was able to choose the locker that was commemorated in honor of him. And that was something important and special to me.
Why did you decide to join the fraternity?
Walt Wilson '76: Alpha Phi Alpha literally is something that I grew up with. My father lived through the Depression and signed up for the Army in World War II. After he got out of the Army, he went to college on the GI Bill and pledged Alpha Phi Alpha in 1948. So I had seen things related to the fraternity, and heard stories about the fraternity and its members, my entire life. When I arrived at Brown, I noticed that there were many fraternities on campus, but none were attuned to Black students. It made me wonder why that was--and as it turned out, I was not alone. And then things took their natural course.
Demitrius Burnett '13: I wanted to learn to serve. Also, if I was going to join a fraternity, I wanted greatness affiliated with my name. In the fraternity, I saw the future person that I wanted to be. I saw my faith represented in the aims and motto. I saw a legacy that I could be a part of, and want to be able to extend in my own way. And my relationship with the brothers seemed to be authentic and genuine. It seemed like a great time, and great people, to be a part of.
There’s also a range of brothers to connect to across campuses. One important part about Alpha Gamma history, which is therefore Brown and Providence history, is that the seat of the chapter is actually in Providence. Because in 1921, when the charter members were looking to found a chapter on Brown's campus, structural institutional racism showed up and said there wasn't room, and said they couldn't found it here. So rather than settling for nothing, they founded the chapter with the seat being in Providence, and therefore even still today, it's a city-wide chapter. Really it's state-wide for Rhode Island, and a little bit of western Massachusetts.
What are your favorite memories of work you did in Providence or at Brown while a student?
Walt Wilson '76: What I recall vividly is one of our early efforts to reach out with support programs for the Providence community. It was just before Christmas 1975: we held a toy drive for kids that were otherwise not going to have a very merry Christmas. The culmination of the effort was a program in a local community center for neighborhood kids and their families.
We had planned to have one of our members dress up as Santa Claus to distribute the gifts, but on the day that we were going to have the event, we realized that the suit was too big for him. So without any preparation, I wound up dressing up as Santa Claus--in a suit that still did not quite fit. At the time, the hot toy was the Evel Knievel doll. So I got to hear many, many, many times about how the little guys wanted an Evel Knievel under their Christmas tree. But most importantly, we got to distribute toys and food to the kids and their families immediately. That was just a really wonderful thing to be able to do.
Demitrius Burnett '13: We hosted a discussion forum called “Am I Black or African-American?” on identity among the diaspora. I didn't realize until I got to Brown and Providence how wide my exposure to the diaspora would be—where most Black students at Brown have a direct connection or are one generation removed from a specific island or a specific nation on the continent of Africa. And so it was a great conversation: what actually is an African-American? What is Black? And exploring that together in a healthy dialogue.
Also, of course, the annual jazz social! It was a part of Alpha Week, which is always typically the week of December 4th, our organization-wide founders' day. It's typically on Brown's campus, and we have a live band, students come out, and there's food, and it's just really this beautiful experience of being enriched in Black culture, and music, and fellowship.
We had a good relationship with our graduate chapter in Providence, Mu Theta Lambda, and with them we tended to do the Go-to-High-School, Go-to-College initiative. Most oftentimes, we would go down to ACE (Academy for Career Exploration) in downtown Providence, where we participated in a Saturday mentor program, with Black and brown boys and high school students. It was a chance for them to be in a conversation with current Black male college students and professionals, to get a feel for what the college experience was like, to ask questions about college and life after.
We would also do an annual MLK walk of remembrance every January. Brown brothers actually return to campus early, before the semester starts, for this program. And this is in January, in Providence! But we do it with the city, with many college students from multiple campuses, and we have hot cocoa and cider afterward followed by a discussion on the legacy of Dr. King and its implications for us today.
What are some important lessons you learned from fellow members?
Walt Wilson '76: There are lessons that I learned from members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity I have carried through my life. In particular, I often shared my concerns and student frustrations with Tophas Anderson, Jr. ScM'73 who used to smoke a pipe and stroke his beard very wisely while I was busily complaining. And without fail, when I had finished protesting loudly about something that I couldn't do, or that wasn't fair, he would just shake his head and say, “I don't know, Walt, but this all sounds like nonsense to me.” And he would look at me, and I would look at him, and I would realize that my excuses were in fact nonsense--and more importantly, that there was no excuse for not moving forward and doing what needed to be done.
This highlights a core part of being an Alpha: the mutual expectation of excellence amongst all of its members. The enduring and overarching belief that there are no excuses, not only for not doing your best, but for being the best at whatever you have chosen to do. I have been fortunate to be around smart and highly motivated guys who are my fraternity brothers, and they have been a consistent source of motivation. The focus of our fraternity on excellence has helped me at many difficult junctures in my career when that “extra push” was what was required to achieve success.
Demitrius Burnett '13: There are many men who helped me navigate the real world, through conversation, connections, each making different deposits to navigate my way, until I landed where I am today.
One of the most vital lessons I've only more fully understood now is that developing authentic relationships with the community is the most central piece of true service and leadership. Most people don't come to events, support you, or even do social action together just because they received a flyer. They show up because of the relationships you form with them. Through my ministry, social advocacy, and professional journey, I've seen this be true over and over again. Our Dean, Adrian Philip Smith, a graduate of Johnson & Wales, placed the heaviest emphasis on that.
How do you think the fraternity has evolved or will evolve in the future?
Walt Wilson '76: I would say it's evolved in alignment with how our understanding of societal issues and necessary actions have evolved. Clearly, when one is in an organization that counts Martin Luther King, Jr. as a very preeminent member, the history of formal and informal community involvement is very long and very deep.
Demitrius Burnett '13: I see Alpha Gamma continuing to make contributions toward advancing a better society. Our mission is to develop leaders, promote brotherhood and academic excellence, while providing service and advocacy in our communities. Each brother—and each chapter—takes up his own way of implementing that mission. So I think you'll continue to see us build on our legacy, and what I hope will be vividly clear, is our contribution to social justice. Each movement you see, each protest, you see brothers, whether they're wearing their letters or not, and we will continue to provide the leadership that's necessary.
Do you have any advice for Brown students or new grads as they think about life beyond the Van Wickle gates?
Walt Wilson '76: What I would say quite simply is that they should remember to never be limited by others expectations. I think that is so important. And if they are not constrained by what others think they might or should or can do, but rather chart their own course, then they will be most well-served.
Demitrius Burnett '13: I would say take advantage of the network. Go to the reunions. Brown offers networking trainings. I was a part of one of the first January Lab sessions to go back early and actually get training on how to network and build relationships. That was one of the best experiences that I had at Brown. And I would say, take advantage of that as an undergrad, especially, but even as a recent grad.
When I was thinking that I would explore the music and entertainment industry, Dorsey James '83, someone who was in media and entertainment, talked with me about what the business was like. He was willing to connect me with people and help me get interviews. Also, John Bernier, who came through a graduate chapter in the Boston area, helped get me my first work opportunity out of school, working directly with him in gospel management. He brought me on board, and we've only met in person once, but we worked together for over a year remotely, and have stayed in a relationship off the strength of the brotherhood.
Also, build relationships with people who can help you understand what your next step is. Sometimes the best gift isn't necessarily connecting you in the career you think you want to go into. Sometimes the best gift is helping you understand that that's not what you want.
One of the best opportunities I had was to meet with an executive in New York because of the Brown connection. After talking with him, he looked at me and said, “I don't get the impression that music is your real passion.” He encouraged me to go back and really consider what my success and my paths were. And that was the best feedback I've gotten and a turning point for me, because I re-evaluated where my path was, what my passions were, and what I was actually called to.
The alumni interviews were lightly edited for brevity. The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.
Alpha Gamma background and information was provided by Rodney Robinson '90, Alpha Gamma historian.
Walt Wilson '76 was a part of the group of Alpha Phi Alpha members that rechartered Alpha Gamma in the 1970s and got it recognized on Brown’s campus. He currently serves as the vice president of operations for FleetZoo, an artificial intelligence software company. Wilson has held executive positions with companies in several tech industries. He began his career at IBM where he worked in many sales, marketing, and management roles. “Technology has been part of my life for the last 40 plus years. I continue to be involved with it--I love working with it,” says Wilson. “And I think certainly my experience at Brown instilled in me that innate curiosity that has allowed me to navigate the stream of new technologies over the years, and just have great fun with customers in the technology industry.” Wilson holds a bachelor’s degree in Engineering-Economics from Brown, and a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Demitrius Burnett '13 serves as the program officer of the Place Pathway at the San Francisco Foundation. There he works to advance equitable and just solutions to the regional housing and homelessness crisis through grantmaking and strategic partnerships with nonprofits, government, and other philanthropic/funding partners. “I use many of the foundational skills I developed as an undergrad in Alpha Gamma within my role daily,” says Burnett. He is also an associate minister at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, a historically Black church and pillar that celebrated 100 years in 2019. Burnett holds a bachelor’s degree in Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations from Brown, and a Master of Divinity from Pacific School of Religion.