Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity

Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, also known as the Boulé, is the first Greek-letter fraternity to be founded by African American men. Significantly, unlike the other African American Greek -letter organizations, its members already have received college and professional degrees at the time of their induction. The fraternity’s insignia is the Sphinx.

Humble Beginnings

At the dawn of the twentieth century black men of distinction had long functioned in various leadership posts, especially in the churches and benevolent association movement. Some, notably Frederick Douglass among them, had even served in high government posts. But by and large they lived lives separate from those of the black masses and the white professionals. In 1904 a small group in Philadelphia set out to create an organization that would provide a vehicle for men of standing and like tastes to come together to know the best of one another.

Henry McKee Minton & Algernon B. Jackson

Henry McKee Minton was the leading figure in the discussions about organizing a group for such purposes. Henry Minton was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on Christmas Day in 1871. He went to school at the Academy at Howard University and, eventually, Phillips Exeter Academy, from which he graduated in 1891. Minton studied law for a year and then went to pharmacy school at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, from which he graduated in 1895. Minton then received the M. D. degree from Jefferson Medical College in 1906.

Minton also spent considerable time contemplating the isolation in which accomplished black men lived and worked. He began to talk with other black professionals – Dr. Algernon B. Jackson (b. 21 May 1878) being chief among them – about their shared conditions and about his ideas for forming an organization that would bring them together in fellowship. Minton thought that black learned and professional men should have an organization that Woolsey_Hall_Memorial_Hall_University_Dining_Hall_Yale_University“should be a fraternity in the true sense of the word; one whose chief thought should not be to visit the sick and bury the dead, but to bind men of like qualities, tastes and attainments into a close and sacred union that they might know the best of one another.” Members would not be “selected on the basis of brains alone – but in addition to congeniality, culture and good fellowship; that they shall have behind them [at initiation] a record of accomplishment, not merely be men of promise and good education.” His fraternity would contain the “best of Skull and Bones of Yale and of Phi Beta Kappa.”

After months of conversation with Jackson and some discussions with Edwin C. Howard, M.D. (b. 21 October 1846) and Richard J. Warrick, D.D.S. (b. 29 December 1880), both physicians, the four men met together at Howard’s home on May 15, 1904. The men agreed that they would meet again in two weeks and recruited two other physicians, Robert J. Abele (b. 2 June 1875) and Eugene T. Hinson (b. 20 November 1873), to join their group.

In the first constitution the group proclaimed that: Whereas it seems wise and good that men of ambition, refinement and self-respect should seek the society of each other Both for the mutual benefit and to be an example of the higher type of manhood.

Be it Resolved that a society be organized for the purpose of binding men of like qualities into a close, sacred, fraternal union, that they may know the best of one another, and that each in this life may to his full ability aid the other, and by concerted action bring about those things that seem best
for all that cannot be accomplished by individual effort.

Establishing the Grand Boulé

From the beginning, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity was a learned society, a social fraternity and an advancement organization, albeit a quiet one. As well, the fraternity believed absolutely in the equality of standing of its members and insisted that anyone who was eligible for membership was eligible and qualified for leadership. The founders were so certain of this fact that the fraternity selected its officers by lot, a custom that continued for the most senior officer until 1970.

The founders’ devotion to equality and mutual respect stemmed in large measure from the devotion to democratic traditions that they traced to ancient Greece and to the traditions of leadership that existed there among free men. Central to this idea was the Boulé: the Council of Chiefs, or the leading noblemen of the society. Individual members of the Boulé were known as Archons. Thus Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity became the Boulé and individual members were designated as Archons. As the fraternity evolved and the spouses of members became an integral part of the organization as a family group, it adopted the Greek term Archousa (pl. Archousai) to distinguish Archons’ wives.

Shortly after the establishment of Alpha Boulé, the founders looked to other cities in which to expand the fraternity and thus establish a national organization. Indeed, in the original constitution of Alpha Boulé the framers pointed out that “when the Boulés shall number three, each Boulé shall send at such time and to a place designated by Alpha Boulé two delegates who shall meet and form the Grand Boulé.”

Upon inquiry, Minton found extraordinary enthusiasm for the fraternity idea in Chicago and in 1907 he, along with Algernon B. Jackson, led in the setting apart of Beta Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. Just as Minton and Jackson had initiated a new Boulé in Chicago, they and others soon set out to do the same thing in Baltimore. In that city on May 8, 1908, representatives of Alpha Boulé came to Baltimore and set apart Gamma Boulé, the third member Boulé. In recognition of that fact, and in keeping with the constitution, Sire Archon Minton of Alpha Boulé called the first meeting of the Grand Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity to convene in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 31, 1908. During a four-day meeting they established the Grand Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. In September 1908 Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity became a national organization.

When the leaders next set apart a member Boulé, Delta in Memphis, Tennessee, some members complained about the method of the chartering. Their complaint centered on an issue that lies at the heart of the tradition of expanding membership in Sigma Pi Phi. Indeed, such arguments trace back to the very first expansion of the Boulé. Archons Henry Minton and Algernon Jackson’s involvement in the setting apart of Beta Boulé is of major importance because it set the pattern for the establishment of member Boulés and the election of new Archons throughout the history of the fraternity. The fraternity is based on the idea that it will elect only men of superior qualifications and that all new members of the fraternity will be equal to all others. No one could apply for membership, and only individuals whom all members of the fraternity had an opportunity to approve could be considered.

The process of setting apart new Boulés or of the election of new Archons is meant to ensure that any member of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity who, for whatever reason, has to move from his home Boulé to the region of the jurisdiction of another member Boulé can be assured that he will join with a group of Archons who are the intellectual and social equals of the members of the Boulé from which he had departed. From the beginning the Boulé practiced high-class quality control of its membership, and the Archons jealously guard that right.

The fraternity secured a “Charter of The Grand Boulé of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity” on August 11, 1911, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the same year the Boulé established The Boulé Journal, which began publication as its official organ in 1912. The Grand Boulé in 1911 elected William C. McCard Grand Sire Archon. McCard would serve as Grand Sire Archon until 1919, thus making him the longest serving Grand Sire Archon of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. McCard served so long mainly because during World War I and World War II the Boulé did not meet.

Though a quiet organization, as early as 1915 the Grand Boulé established a Committee on Public Welfare to keep the fraternity informed of and alert to major issues and established an annual budget of $10.00 to pay for the activities of the committee. That session also resolved a “sense of the Grand Boulé” resolution that any Archon who offered his resignation in a subordinate Boulé should be expelled and affirmed that “an offer to resign should be considered sufficient grounds for expulsion.”

The Grand Boulé in 1919, the first meeting after the hiatus for World War I, witnessed a singular occurrence: Archon Harry H. Pace of Delta Boulé became Grand Sire Archon after Archon Alexander L. Turner of Iota Boulé drew the lot but declined to serve.

Between 1919 and 1926 the Grand Boulé set apart eleven additional member Boulés for a total of twenty-one, more than doubling the number of the earlier year when there were ten. It was the period of the most extensive expansion, in terms of new Boulés in relation to existing groups, in the fraternity’s history, except that during the 1980s the Grand Boulé grew faster in terms of the actual number of newly chartered Boulés. But that expansion rate before 1926 did not continue; between 1926 and 1938 no new Boulé was established and few Boulés took in new members.

It was with joy that the Grand Thesauristes reported at the Grand Boulé in 1921 that the organization had completed the biennium without a deficit, the first time ever. It would remain solvent from that point forward. The Grand Boulé made its first effort to provide some compensation for two of its officers in 1925 when it voted to pay a five hundred dollar annual honorarium to the Grand Grammateus and the Grand Grapter.

In 1929, after a significantly trying meeting, the delegates at the Grand Boulé turned their attention to ensure that all members understood and appreciated the meaning and importance of brotherhood. Writing in The Boulé Journal, Grand Grapter Davis summarized what had happened at the meeting:

Now the striking truth in connection with this forceful and memorable utterance is that it came in the most effective way; it grew out of a life situation. It was not a studied abstraction, emanating from the minds of Boulé philosophers; it was no finely spun theory, beautiful for contemplation, but impracticable when applied to the vexing problems that arise out of our relationship toward each other; it was not the result of an attempt of any kind away and apart from a real situation, to define a merely idealistic principle. The utterance of the Grand Boulé has all of the simplicity of a fundamental principle. It is earnest, straightforward, unequivocal. In so many words it says this: first of all every archon is a gentleman, or he has no business in the Boulé. He will, therefore, at all times and in all situations conduct himself as a gentleman; he cannot do less. He will realize, or at least assume, that every other archon along with himself is a gentleman; and therefore in all his social, business, political and religious relationships, subscribes to and practices the same high principles to which he is committed. This assumption will therefore make it impossible for one archon unjustly and viciously to attack another one even when he is in possession of facts sufficient to justify the attack. As brothers in the same circle, it would be his business to present his findings to the Boulé and let them deal with the apostasy from the spirit of the fraternity. Archons may, and should differ; they will, and should be subject to criticism in their public life, by any other archon who disagrees with the program or procedures involved. But this has nothing to do with vicious personal attack that questions the honor and high standing of a fellow archon. This is outside of the pale of the fundamental elements of “brotherhood.’

That the Archons further demonstrated endorsement of and commitment to the ideals in the statement on brotherhood was manifest in the quarter century commemoration. In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary, Alpha Boulé organized a party at the end of December and invited all Archons to attend. On December 27, 1929, Archons from six member Boulés, including Alpha, gathered with their wives, daughters and female friends for a sumptuous banquet and two days of delightful celebration. Indeed, the celebration was so successful that it established the tradition of annual Christmas parties by the memberBoulés and marked the beginning of the Boulé‘s affirmation that “Christmas is for the Archousai.

Just five years earlier, at the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Sigma Pi Phi in May 1924, Alpha Boulé had “resolved that the May meeting of each year [should] be set apart as a memoriam to the deceased Archons, that the head be bowed in reverence and that some form of tribute … be paid to their memory.” That action led to an annual observance for all member Boulés.

The meeting of the Grand Boulé in 1935 on the campus of Le Moyne College in Memphis also marked the first time that the Grand Boulé convened on a college campus. It would do so on numerous future occasions. At that meeting in 1935 the Boulé restated its participation policy such that “attendance at social functions officially under the supervision of the Grand Boulé or any local Boulé shall be restricted to Archons, their wives, their unmarried sons and daughters living within their household, other female relatives, or female friends, provided that no married female be invited whose husband is not an Archon. Unmarried widows of deceased Archons are eligible to be present at all social functions.” That Grand Boulé also elected Henry Minton Grand Sire Archon Emeritus. Further, at that meeting in 1935, the Grand Boulé passed a constitutional amendment that limited candidacy for the office of Grand Sire Archon to Archons who had attended at least two Grand Boulés before the one at which they were elected.

Though it did not meet during World War II, the Grand Boulé reconvened meetings in 1946. The decision to meet in 1946 had one permanent impact on the Grand Boulé: It would continue to meet biannually, but in the future it would meet in even-numbered years instead of in odd- numbered years as in the past.

Archon Percy L. Julian, in a speech in 1964 entitled “Faultless Prophets,” used the usually somber memorial service to join the sagacious critics and to issue one of the clearest challenges to the old order that members of the Boulé had heard. The most far-reaching step that came as a result of Julian’s speech was an amendment of the constitution, which established the office of Grand Sire Archon-Elect and ended the selection of the Grand Sire Archon by lot.

The schedule of meetings of the fraternity called for the Grand Boulé to convene at the end of July 1968 as the guests of Rho Boulé in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Members of Rho went about the business of preparing for the meeting, and it appeared that all was in place for the convocation. Then on April 21, just over two months before the sessions were to begin, representatives of Rho, over some bitter opposition within the local Boulé, informed Grand Grammateus George Redd that it would be inadvisable for the Grand Boulé to meet in Pittsburgh as planned and suggested that the meeting be cancelled. Rather than cancel the meeting, the Executive Committee looked for another site. It found appropriate hotel space in Philadelphia; it also found Alpha Boulé again willing to serve as host on such short notice. In one striking event in 1968 the Archons registered their final disgust with the system of selecting the Grand Sire Archon by lot. Members from the floor, under the leadership of Archons Percy Julian and A. Leon Higginbotham, amended the constitution to remove any reference to a Grand Sire Archon-Elect, which had been approved just two years earlier.

The most significant action was that it reestablished the office of Grand Sire Archon-Elect, but it pointedly determined that that officer would be elected by ballot, thus ending for all time the selection of major officers by lot. To complete the work the Grand Boulé in Miami elected both a Grand Sire Archon, Herbert T. Miller, and a Grand Sire Archon-Elect, J. Ernest Wilkins. Further, the meeting in Miami created the office of Grand Grammateus/Executive Secretary as its chief operating officer and established a central office for the Boulé in New York City. The Archons also took the first formal action on the regional system, a matter that was finally resolved in the constitution in 1972.

The delegates in Miami in 1970 also revised the constitution and guaranteed the right to universal transfer of Archons from one member Boulé to another and, even more significantly, it removed the restrictive blackball, which some had used for years to keep nominees out of the fraternity. Many Archons had grown weary of having the fraternity held hostage to a limited few. Thus, in 1970 they revised the constitution and established the one third rule for rejecting a nominee for membership into Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. And the rule was clear: rejection required a negative vote of one third of the active membership of the entire subordinate Boulé, not just one third of those present and voting.

Some have argued that the Boulé selects only sons of old line families to membership. But such is no where near the truth. One can look at the membership of member Boulés and find numerous Archons who are first generation college graduates. In choosing such men as Archons the Boulé has in no way lowered its quality because it has maintained its insistence on strict standards of excellence and congeniality. And such was not new to the Boulé. In his Memorial Service Address to the Grand Boulé in Miami in 1970, Archon Raymond Pace Alexander spoke to the point. He said in part:

Sigma Pi Phi should chart new methods of communications between the poor and the affluent blacks, for many among us, and I am not ashamed to admit that I am one, come from families much, much poorer and with much less education than 80% of the black boys and girls in American colleges today. How many in this room, and I am not ashamed to admit it, started his life as a bootblack or a Pullman porter and equally low employment.

It is true that there are sons, and grandsons in a few cases, of older Archons who are members of the Boulé. But they take their place in the fraternity side by side with the well educated, highly achieving first-generation college graduates, thus expanding the reach of those who get to “know the best of one another.”

The regions idea gained constitutional sanction in San Francisco in 1972 when the Grand Boulé amended the constitution to include the regional concept. But in so doing it pointedly insisted that “The Program of the Regional Convention shall be primarily social [and] would promote interest in activities of the Boulé as set forth in the preamble of the Constitution.” The action recognized five regions of the fraternity: Northeast, Southeast, Central or Middle West, Western and Pacific.

Meeting in odd years, while the Grand Boulé meets in even years, the regionals provide additional opportunities for Archons and Archousai to congregate and to maintain the Boulé spirit among a group larger than the individual Boulés. The regional system has become part and parcel of the social and political structure of the Grand Boulé.

At the meeting of the Grand Boulé in San Francisco in 1972 the delegates passed a social action tax by a wide majority vote and authorized the establishment of a Social Action Committee. Further it expressed its expectation that the Executive Committee would take appropriate action to get the initiative going during that biennium.

Officially established in 1980, largely as an effort to fund permanently the social action programs, under the chairmanship of Archon Harvey Russell and led in later years by Archon Robert V. Franklin who succeeded Russell as chairman, the Sigma Pi Phi Foundation, later renamed the Boulé Foundation, became one of the most successful and influential thrusts in the history of the Boulé. Indeed, the commitment of the Archons to the Boulé Foundation and to maintaining it and its good work in perpetuity is manifested by the fact that, by their votes, the members have agreed to pay an annual sum directly to the foundation as a condition of membership in Sigma Pi Phi. Even more importantly, many Archons together have given the foundation millions of dollars more from their personal wealth. The multi-million dollar Boulé Foundation has an ongoing program of giving to worthy concerns, including a national scholarship program for outstanding youngsters.

Grand Sire Archon Theodore A. Jones, 1980-82, set a fine record by initiating five Boulés, but Robert V. Franklin, 1984-86, far surpassed that record, setting apart sixteen new Boulés during his term as Grand Sire. He also led in the establishment of six more as chairman of the Growth and Expansion Committee. As Grand Sire Archon during the next biennium, 1986-88, Richard I. McKinney established seven more.

In 1995 voters in California outlawed affirmative action policies, especially for colleges and universities, and as a result the delegates at the Grand Boulé in Houston, Texas, in 1996 voted to boycott any meetings in California and thus not meet in San Diego in 1998 as scheduled. Following the signal of the delegates, the Executive Committee, which has authority to fix the date and place of meetings of the Grand Boulé, unanimously agreed to stay out of California. Alpha Omicron Boulé in Seattle, Washington, invited the Grand Boulé to come to that city instead, and in 1998 Alpha Omicron hosted a superb session there. The decision to stand on principle and boycott California had not come easily, nor was it cheap. Indeed, that vote was a major manifestation of the Boulé‘s social and political action.

In the late 1990s and the beginnings of the new century the Boulé undertook two other initiatives that would underpin the fraternity’s successful move into its second century. During the terms of Grand Sire Archons Anthony Hall, Eddie Williams and Thomas Shropshire, the Grand Boulé established a Public Policy Committee and initiated a study that resulted in a fraternity-wide strategic plan. At one hundred years of age, the Grand Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity is poised and well prepared for another century of service.

The original draft of this history was prepared by former Grand Historian William H. Harris.

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