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BGLO's, The Boule', Masonry and Other Charges

For several years now, I have been hearing a lot of talk about the improper nature that the Black Greek Lettered Organizations (hereinafter referred to as BGLO's) play in the black community. A lot of the criticism seems to stem from the fact that we use Greek letters and often refer to ourselves as Greeks, much like our white counterparts.

Frankly, I grow tired of these discussions and accusations. It is almost as annoying as the constant harping on hazing and pledging. While the hazing points are valid, these others are not. However, once again I feel compelled to put these words down in an attempt to clarify certain issues.

There are several main cultural criticisms leveled against the BGLO's, and I will try to address them here. And while these accusations are neither new nor original, I guess it was fueled on the Internet by an article that appeared on a web site called "DA GHETTO TYMZ". The author of the article, a Mr. Jehovan (sp?) Buckner, claims to have been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, but denounced his membership in the fraternity after discovering what he found to be some "disturbing facts." (I would put up a link to the article in question, but apparently it is now a subscription site and I will not be a party to his or anyone getting financial gain off lies and half truths).

I should state here that I did send Mr. Buckner several e-mails regarding his articles, his claims, and what proof, if any, he had. He never responded to any of them. I have also been told from others who e-mail him challenging his articles, that he never responded to them either.

Note/Update: Since I posted this essay, Mr. Buckner has surfaced, mainly on the National Pan Hellenic Council listserv. He has denied getting any of my e-mails (along with several others). Since the time that he has been posting to the listserv, I have asked him several pointed questions to provide proof of his claims, and he has failed to do so. I also have been in an exchange with a Buckner supporter, asking him to back up the claims as well, as he leveled the same charges that Buckner did. I was going to post the e-mails, but I thought better of that. But for the record, I have the e-mails that I sent Buckner and a Mr. Brown, and despite my repeated requests, neither of them have responded with the proof that they claim they possess.

Note/Update 2:  While surfing the net one night, I ran upon a link in Yahoo! that had my name attached to it.  After looking at the link, I noticed it lead to "Da Ghetto Tymz" and it turned out, it was a response to a letter I sent to that magazine.  Never mind the fact that he never answered any charges, nor provided any proof I requested.  The only thing they did basically was try to impugn my nature for being a minister and a mason and subsequently, provided nothing more than rhetoric.  Again, feel free to search it our yourself, but I will not participate in their lies by providing a link to their site.

For the sake of both honesty and clarity, let me state for those who may not know that I have been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha since 1987. I am also a Master Mason in the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Illinois, though at the moment, I am not active with the Masonic Order. However, I did receive degrees in the following Masonic "houses": Royal Arch, Knights Templars and the Shrine. In addition, I am also an ordained minister and former pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. I also at one time had an interest in becoming a member of Sigma Pi Phi, but I no longer hold that interest. I say all this because I want to be up front about why I am taking time to write this.

Am I biased? Certainly. I am very proud and make no apologies regarding my membership in Alpha Phi Alpha. And while some may think I am rather unfairly critical of my organization and the state of BGLO's in general, I am that way only because I believe in what we, as a group, stand for. And I despise it when things are misrepresented in the manner that they have been in recent times.

So with that out of the way, let's address some issues that have been raised. As others come up, I will address them in this space.

1. Why do BGLO's use Greek letters instead of African letters?

This is one of the most commonly used criticisms against the BGLO's. But the answer, no matter how many times it is given, is never an easy one to understand, nor accept.

We must realize and acknowledge that the first eight of what know makes up the bulk of the BGLO's were founded between 1906 and 1922. Three organizations (Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi and Sigma Gamma Rho) were founded on predominately white college campuses. The rest of the organizations were founded on Black College Campuses. We must also remember the social climate at the time. Jim Crow was in full force. Blacks did not have one tenth of the rights that we have today. No need to go over that history, but keep in mind, it was a totally different time period.

Prior to 1906, several black fraternities and sororities had sprung up. As I stated in the first essay, contrary to what we boast, Alpha Phi Alpha is not the first black Greek lettered organization. There were several before us, however, for the exception of one, none of them are currently in existence. That one exception is called Sigma Pi Phi (The Boule') which was founded in 1904. We will deal with them more a little later.

The fraternities and sororities that were founded prior to the advent of Sigma Pi Phi and Alpha Phi Alpha were founded primarily on white college campuses. For a black organization in the midst of white society at the turn of the 20th Century to have adopted African names on a white college campus would have been tantamount to suicide. Barely 50 years after the end of chattel slavery in America, whites still viewed blacks with suspicion, especially blacks who were seeking to get an education.

But there was a definite need for blacks to come together on something more than just a social nature. The need to form study and support groups as blacks entered this newfound era of freedom was critical to their academic success. The support services that are in place today were not even in the planning stages at the turn of the century. In 1906, there was no NAACP, no Urban League, no Boys and Girls Clubs, etc. The only support services that existed were for white students. Blacks had little or no chance of availing themselves of such services, so they created their own network, which wound up taking the form of Greek lettered fraternities and sororities.

The reality is it would have been near impossible for an black organization to gain acceptance on the campus of a white college or university with African letters and an African name. The founders knew this and adopted Greek letters. However, anyone who knows anything about linguistics and knows anything about Greek knows that the Greek language did not originate in Greece. We all know that the Greeks were (in)famous for stealing knowledge and making it their own. As a result, a large part of the Greek alphabet and Greek language has evidence of several African languages, Hebrew, Arabic, etc.

Therefore, the reality is that while the names of our organizations are Greek in nature, that is the ONLY thing that is Greek about us. In fact, speaking as someone who has seen the rituals of several other BGLO's, I can say that the African presence is an inherent part of our organizations. All anyone has to do is look at our crests or our shields to see the direct influence of Africans, usually from an Egyptian/Kemetian perspective.

Many people will bring up "Stolen Legacy" by George G.M. James. Let me state for the record that this is a great book, and should be read by anyone interested in the effects of the Greeks on African culture. However, it's relationship to BGLO's is negligible. BGLO members do not claim to be Greek. Sure, they may say "I am greek" in reference to their status as a BGLO member, but that does not in anyway support a relationship to the "ancient" Greek culture.

But in fairness, it would be unfair not to mention that the BGLO's were, in part, modeled after their white counterparts. One cannot deny the influence of other white organizations like Phi Beta Kappa (before it renounced it's secrecy). The founders of all of the BGLO's made a choice to adopt Greek letters. And that is a choice that we must live with. Maybe the founders could have been a little more bold in their choice to adopt a name, but that happened almost 100 years ago in a climate I, nor 99% of the people who are alive today, can relate to. We must acknowledge that 1998 is a whole lot different than 1906, and to judge a whole group of people based on a name that those who criticize us do not understand, is in my opinion, very short sighted.

The Afro-centric thought that is pervading the black community right now can be a very positive thing. However, I do feel that sometimes, it has picked the wrong enemies. I will not insult the intelligence of the readers by going on a long litany of what the BGLO's have accomplished and what distinguished and enlightened men and woman have come through our organizations. Suffice to say, that I do honestly believe there are more important issues facing our community than this one. But when lies and half truths are spread, they should be answered.

2. If you know Greek letters are inaccurate, then why not change the name to reflect something African?

There are several easy answers to this question. First of all, in my opinion, it would be an insult to the founders of all of our organizations to change the name(s) of our organization(s) simply because we think that now Greek letters are inaccurate. The founders of the organizations had a definite purpose in mind when they chose the names they did. To change the names would be an insult to their legacy and their memory.

The next response to the "changing to African" complaint is that even if we did decide to change to African names, what should we use? We all know that there are over 300 languages spoken on the African continent. What language would our critics have us use? Should we chose something more modern or more tribal?

The important thing about our organizations is not what you see on the outside, but what it represents to the members on the inside. The meanings behind our names represent what each of us strive for. It represents qualities in our organizations that we attempt to internalize and make a salient part of our experience.

So I think the calls to change our name to something more "African" is a bit out of place. As long as the members of the organizations know the real meanings behind out names, then that is good enough for me.

3. What is "The Boule'" and what is their connection to BGLO's?

Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, also known as "The Boule'" was founded in May of 1904. To be perfectly honest, it was started, by their own admission, as an elitist organization, somewhat modeled after the "Talented Tenth" theory once espoused and later renounced by W.E.B. DuBois, who was a member.

That notwithstanding, the charges that Sigma Pi Phi has been the lead in some grand black conspiracy to keep other blacks down is unfounded and no significant proof has ever been put forth. The one constant in the black community is that whenever you have an organization that claims to be secretive, they open themselves up to speculation and criticism. Such is the case with this organization, as is the case with the Masonic order and the BGLO's.

From what I have been able to ascertain, Sigma Pi Phi had a problem with their membership in the 50's, which prompted them to become more visible starting in the mid 1960's. This once heavily guarded organization began to open itself to the community on a more wide spread basis.

One of the more silly accusations that have been leveled against the BGLO's and their relationship with "The Boule'" revolves around their crest. There is one claim that their crest represents the eight BGLO member organizations, and therefore, represents their control over said organizations. This notion is preposterous. As stated, Sigma Pi Phi was founded in May of 1904. Their ritual, crest and constitution were all in place by the time Alpha Phi Alpha was formed in 1906. And if you know anything about how the following organizations were formed, unless the members of Sigma Pi Phi were psychic, there is no way that those men could have predicted or directed the formation of these organizations. Furthermore, after looking at the crest of Sigma Pi Phi, I fail to find where the eight BGLO's can be represented. I would like to chalk this up to mere paranoia, but part of me believes that it is more than that.

It is also claimed that the members of the BGLO's have to report to Sigma Pi Phi in some form or fashion. The ironic thing is that this is the same claim that has been made regarding the Masonic organization and the BGLO's. I have heard so many conspiracies regarding the formation and regulation of the BGLO's that often it makes it hard to take any of them seriously. But I will say I have been privy to many aspects of the BGLO's that are considered "secret." I have never heard or seen any information that would support the notion that there is some secret relationship between Sigma Pi Phi and the BGLO's.

In 1991, I had the chance to meet with and talk to Brother Raymond W. Cannon, one of the pillars of Alpha Phi Alpha, just prior to his death. Brother Cannon, who was initiated into Alpha around 1909-1912, was a very candid individual, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Sigma Pi Phi and the relationship with Alpha. He told us at the time that the founders of Alpha did not become aware of the presence of Sigma Pi Phi until sometime around 1909-1910, just prior to the Alpha's founding of Theta Chapter in Chicago. He, a member of Sigma Pi Phi, then laughed and said that the Jewels were a bit "hurt" when they realized that Alpha was not the oldest surviving black frat in existence at the time.

4. What about the charges that BGLO's are a part of an elitist conspiracy to divide black people?

This argument never fails to make me laugh. First, as dealt with in the previous question, there has never been any evidence or any corroboration of a secret relationship between the BGLO's and Sigma Pi Phi. But then there is the Masonic conspiracy, which a lot of people buy into totally separate from BGLO's. Masons have been blamed for everything from the Boston Tea party to playing some role in the major assassinations of this country. Masonry is perceived as this oh-so-secret organization which controls almost every aspect of the world, especially the financial ones.

It seems as if that the whole point and purpose of BGLO's has to been uplift the black race. From the earliest days of our inception, the aim of the eight (later nine) BGLO's has been to serve the best interests of the community at large. Whatever the service project or community involvement, BGLO's have had a much more positive impact on the black community than negative.

And while the criticisms regarding hazing are justified, these allegations are pure hogwash. No one in all of their ratings and ravings has ever shown an iota of proof (no pun intended). The problem as I see it comes from people like Mr. Buckner, Steven Coakley (another anti-Mason, anti-BGLO, anti-everything lecturer) and others who are not apart of our organizations and seek to tear down that which they do not understand. (For the record, Buckner claims to have been an Alpha, but has never furnished proof of chapter or date of initiation or anything of that nature, so his claims of membership are greatly in question.) Coakley is another person who has made a nice little piece of change lecturing to anyone who will listen about the ills of Masonry and the BGLO's. Again with no proof.

It is insane to think that every member of the nine BGLO's (numbering well over 1,000,000) is an active or inactive part of a conspiracy. Could I say the same thing about Masonry? To be honest, no. Because in the early history of America, there is reasonable doubt as to the activities of SOME Masons. However, BGLO's are a different story.

But I would be willing to retract anything I say here if someone could furnish tangible evidence (not opinions) of such conspiracies. But I doubt this will happen. In fact, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Buckner upon my first reading of his article and never received a response. Whenever I confront these people who make these allegations, they NEVER respond. One young lady sent out a very nasty, hate filled, error riddled e-mail in February of this year (1998), to which responded with many of the same things I said here. Two months later I received an e-mail from her saying she would respond soon, but she never has. I have only met one person, ironically a white woman on America On Line, who ever responded to anything I said. And that to me is sad.

I guess the thing that bothers me the most is that these people who make these charges in the interest of being true to our "African" heritage, have done nothing but divide another group of blacks. Instead of finding ways to work with us to further all of our causes, they chose to make enemies of us, once again dividing an already grossly divided community.

If black people are ever to come together, we must put aside this petty bickering over names and what we may or may not see. It is not conducive to creating a thriving culture that is approaching the 21st Century, nor is it productive. There are many, many other issues of far greater importance than why BGLO's wear Greek letters, or if we are "pawn's" of Sigma Pi Phi. I think if we focused our efforts and energies on those more critical issues and stopped worrying about items that in the grand scheme of things are really not that important, then and only then will we begin to be ready for the next millennium.

5. What about the relationship between the BGLO's and Masonry?

Again, as stated above, Masonry has been fairly and unfairly blamed for a lot of things since it's resurgence in England in the 1700's. And how accurate the charges are is still up for debate. But there are a few things that must be made clear.

First, it is a known fact that the majority of the founders of the BGLO's were involved in with the Masonic and Eastern Star organizations. While the specific memberships of the founders are still in question, I can say with certainty that there is some type of relationship due to the similarity of several BGLO rituals, most specifically Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi, to the first three degrees of Masonry. In fact, I have known several members of both Alpha and Omega who are Masons who remarked that they felt a sense of deja-vu when getting their Masonic degrees.

We must understand that traditionally, Masonry is a blue-collar organization. For many years, it was rare that a doctor, a lawyer, stockbroker, etc, would join that organization. Why this is, I do not know. Maybe it goes back to the bricklayers and builders and stone cutter Masons who were responsible for the building of the temples in the time of King Solomon.

Also, during the time of the founding of the BGLO's, the face of Masonry was very different. Masonry was extremely cautious as to who they conferred degrees upon. They did not want a bunch of college students to enter into their ranks for fear that it might muddy the organizations, something which appears to be happening today in Masonry. Therefore, the founders who were Masons (at least of Alpha Phi Alpha) were encouraged to start something that would cater to college students and provide the type of brotherhood they were seeking, just on a different level. This is the beginning and the end of the relationship between BGLO's and Masonry.

Now I should say that the lines are being blurred. More and more college aged students are joining the ranks of Masonry, and I must admit, I think this is a mistake. Part of the reason for this is the change in the pledge process of the BGLO's, with the Masonic lodges still doing their fair share of "physical activities." I have also seen the caliber of men in Masonry go down drastically since I joined in 1990. Here in Chicago, I see a lot of gang-bangers and wanna-be-frat boys in Masonic paraphernalia. I have been to BGLO parties where Masons step just like the BGLO's, where they chant and throw up signs, again, very much like the BGLO's. This is dead wrong! To me, it is a severe problem because the lodge was never meant to accommodate such persons, nor was it meant to take on the flavor of a college fraternity. But this is the direction Masonry has taken and I guess there is not much that can be done right now. But hopefully, this tide will turn and things will be in their proper place.

Conclusion (for now)

With all that said, there has never been any evidence or proof of any of these "secret relationships." Sure, there are some similarities, and some valid concerns, but in terms of actual involvement or proof, it has yet to be furnished. This goes for Masonry and Sigma Pi Phi. To me, these allegations are just a way for people to attempt to divide something that they truly do not understand. There is no argument that there are some serious problems in the BGLO's. However, it seems to be that there are people more concerned about creating division rather than solutions.

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