More than 10,000 Kappa Alpha Psi brothers are in Philadelphia this week for the historically black fraternity’s 84th Grand Chapter Meeting and Conclave, bringing more than a century of history, pride, community spirit, and, according to the fraternity, $3 million to the city’s travel and tourism industry.
Considered the sharpest frat in black Greek life, the Kappas will also surely bring the fashion. Expect a crimson and cream sea in and around the Pennsylvania Convention Center during this week of elections, social activities and serious Kappa business. And trust, the accessory of the frat that is the epitome of Kappa cool — the red bow tie — will be on display.
“Bow ties are a part of our tradition,” said Rodney Whitmire, 73, the official historian for the Kappa’s Philly alumni chapter. "When you see Kappas getting together for Kappa business … when we are taking pictures at an event … if you see a brother on the cover of [our] journal, he’s going to have on a bow tie.”
There are more than 150,000 Kappa men around the world in more than 700 active chapters. Black Greeks are down with their crews for life.
Well-known Kappas, also called Nupes, include the late filmmaker John Singleton, comedian Cedric the Entertainer, the late Arthur Ashe, and the woke Colin Kaepernick. Famous Philadelphia Nupes are the late Wilt Chamberlain, the late civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore, and former mayors Wilson Goode and John Street. Philanthropist and businessman Dr. Keith Leaphart, a member of the board of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, is a Kappa; so is author and scholar Marc Lamont Hill. Philadelphia Tribune president and CEO Robert Bogle is a Kappa, too.
The fraternity’s international headquarters is on Broad Street. In 2011, Philadelphia hosted a few events for the Kappa’s centennial. Philadelphia is Kappa strong.
Ask a Nupe about his frat’s dapper fashion history and you will get a sly, knowing smile. To a Kappa, being debonair is right up there with community service — a requirement of Greek life. Gentlemanly style is key in everything a Kappa wears including his official crimson blazer, the red carnation he may put in his lapel, the diamonds he may sport, and his white cane. (It’s worth noting here that turn of the century Kappas carried white canes with them, especially when escorting ladies home. It wasn’t until later that the cane became a part of the fraternity’s step show performances.)
“You will never see a Kappa man sloppy,” said Mister Mann Frisby, one of my journalism colleagues, and a former Daily News reporter, who is also a longtime member of Kappa Alpha Psi. “We put starch in our khakis.”
The Kappa bow tie, however, is the most defining symbol of the fraternity’s 108-year history. If you look closely at the Kappa Coat of Arms, you will see a laurel wreath held together with a bow tie, explained L. Douglas Harrell, the current polemarch, or president, of the Philadelphia alumni chapter. “The bow tie has been with Kappas since the beginning,” Harrell said.
Legend also has it that each of the organization’s founding members wore a bow tie to the Kappas’ first dance, added Whitmire. It’s also widely believed that in 1915, the fraternity’s founder, Elder Watson Diggs, chartered Lincoln University’s Epsilon chapter in a seersucker suit and a bow tie.
So over the years, through both World Wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the war on drugs, racial profiling, mass incarceration, hip hop and all the fashion changes that came with these eras, Kappa men stayed true to the bow tie. “With bow ties, there was always a sense of formality in our look,” Whitmire said.
Formality and respect are not things members of black Greek organizations take for granted. Black college students formed fraternities and sororities on the heels of Reconstruction when the only people who respected black people — college-educated or otherwise — were black people. The four other fraternities in the National Pan Hellenic Council, the organization that unites black Greek Life, are Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Iota Phi Theta.
The four black sororities are: Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Alpha Kappa Alpha, of which presidential hopeful Kamala Harris is a member. (Philadelphia is the host city of its Boule, the sorority’s biennial meeting, next July.)
The Kappas were founded in 1911 on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington, under the name Kappa Alpha Nu. Back then, explained Will Mega, Abington-Ambler chapter historian, two or more black men weren’t allowed to safely congregate on campus grounds without the cover of the fraternity.
“These brothers weren’t able to sit in some of the classes they were taking, they had to sit outside in the hallway,” Mega said. “Still they were dedicated to achievement,” he said partially quoting the fraternity motto: Achievement in every field of human endeavor.
In 1915, the members of Kappa Alpha Nu officially changed the name of the fraternity to Kappa Alpha Psi because white students at Indiana University took to calling the brothers: Kappa Alpha... (you fill in the blank).
Conclave events started last weekend with a health fair and community service event, a day party in Center City, and a gospel brunch. Over the weekend, the Kappas also donated more than $75,000 to the School District of Philadelphia, Harrell said.
This week’s business will likely include discussing the repercussions of the Curtis Jackson fiasco. Jackson, the fraternity’s Philadelphia-based longtime director of finance, allegedly stole more than $1 million from the fraternity and was busted during by the FBI.
The Kappas will sponsor a health summit that covers prostate cancer risks on Wednesday and on Friday the Kappas will vote in a new Grand Polemarch to replace Thomas L. Battles Jr.
But with business also comes shopping for Greek paraphernalia and art at the expo, a Saturday concert featuring Musiq SoulChild, Schoolly D, and dozens of parties to kick off, turn up and end Kappa week. That means lots of stylin’ and profilin’ in bow ties.
“The bow tie is what ties us all together,” Mega said. “It signifies the bond of our brotherhood.”