Founding Father Kwameh Barnett
Founding Father Derek Bell
Founding Father Richard Bell
Founding Father Gregory Brown
Founding Father Charles Cameron
Founding Father Gerald Dixon
Founding Father Denis Jones
Founding Father Peter McClain
Founding Father Michael Mosby
Founding Father Daulton Tansil
It was the late 1970s, the transcendence of the black power and civil right movement, embodied in the greater activism among the black population and a conscious effort to promote self pride and individual empowerment. It was also a period where black students became more active on their various campuses and as a result African-American Fraternities were at their zenith. Each had its own particular culture and traits, but ultimately they all shared a common process of initiating members into their Fraternity that focused almost exclusively on physical subjugation so much so that the larger purpose and role of their brotherhood was subverted.
In the fall of 1976 two friends Kwameh Barnett and Derek Bell, were debating between themselves the merits of starting an entirely new black Fraternity. These two students who were attending Western Michigan University were athletes and already leaders within the student body. At that time they were brainstorming about different initiatives that could be offered to the existing African American student population. Like so many students at Western, Kwameh and Derek had exposure to the traditional Fraternities and have always felt that there was a feeling of disconnect between the tradition of their storied organizations and the manner in which they conducted their activities on campus. Far too much emphasis was being placed on overtly rigorous pledging processes that often crossed the boundary into hazing. This process did not necessarily achieve the purpose of forging the strong bond between brothers that was the ostensible goal of these organizations. Instead, it alienated pledges who could not appreciate the need for the overly onerous requirements that were mandated for initiation into what was essentially a social organization. Although they both considered joining these organizations and trying to effect change from within, Kwameh and Derek realized that it would be more effective to bring about complete change in the form of a competing ideology and approach. They wanted to present their fellow black students with a clear choice and consequently a greater diversity of options to choose from apart from the traditional four black Fraternities that were currently on that campus.
In an attempt to build further support and momentum for this nascent idea, they approached a number of their counterparts. Kwameh included his best friend, Charles Cameron, who he had known since high school and in turn Charles’s roommate, Dennis Jones was also invited to be a part of the group. Charles then approached Mike Mosby who had been a rival Track & Field competitor from their high school days. Kwameh also reached out to Daulton Tansil who was a fellow resident at his dormitory. Derek presented the idea of a new Fraternity to Gregory Brown and Richard Bell (Derek’s Biological Brother), he then called upon his high school friend Peter McClain who was a student from Michigan State University at the time and invited him to take part of this historic event as well. Finally, Gerald Dixon a resident of Zimmerman Hall like so many of the other Founders, who has biological brothers and family members who are members of another Fraternity and who had himself just attended a Fraternity smoker event made the decision to come on board. Here we have ten (10) young students, connected through friendships forged from High School, athletic competitions, and campus involvement come together with a common purpose to launch a new brotherhood that would be a vehicle for change and empowerment for their fellow black students, to encourage them to realize their individual potential for self improvement and service to the wider community.
The year 1977 was the time of the first airing of the mini-series Roots, a television event that engendered great pride in the hearts of black men on all campuses, and they were challenged to redefine their concept of manhood and the importance and purpose of brotherhood. This “band of brothers” were imbued with this pride and purpose and decided that their organization would promote the idea of empowering a man through a process of mental preparedness, physical acumen and strength of character. In their initial meetings, the first decision was to come up with a name for the Fraternity. This discussion revolved around the use of the Greek letter “Delta” which symbolized their push for change from the status quo. After rigorous research and several rounds of trial and error the group eventually settled on the name Phi Delta Psi. Once this decision was made they all joined hands and chanted that name on at parties on campus for a couple of months. At that time, “Flash Light” by the Parliament Funkadelics was a very popular song, and they co-opted it to be associated with the Fraternity after changing words to “Phi Light”.
As leaders on Western’s campus, occupying positions on the Black Business Student Association (BBSA), Consortium of Ebony Concerns (CEC), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Students Against South Africa (SASO II) and even as Resident Assistant for one of the residence halls, these brothers knew how to navigate the onerous process involved in gaining official recognition and standing for their Fraternity from the University administration. They also went further and incorporated the Fraternity and its distinctive name. So that on March 21, 1977 Phi Delta Psi was born.
Phi Delta Psi was very well received on the campus and grew in membership quickly. Its emphasis on creating well rounded brothers resulted in the Fraternity having members with the highest GPA and graduation rates compared to the other organizations on their campus.
The Fraternity also held true to its premise of launching its first major community service initiative – the Sickle Cell Testing Initiative. Sickle Cell anemia is a disease that was found to be prevalent in African American populations in 1910; however, it was not until the 70’s that there was a proliferation of public education and screening programs that aimed to raise the awareness of this threat to the black community. Some of the founders had friends or family members who had been affected by it, and experienced firsthand the drastic effects of this disease. Phi Delta Phi’s took heed of this initiative and decided that they would focus on empowering their surrounding community with knowledge about sickle cell. They would consistently have booths setup for students on campus to provide immediate testing for anyone seeking it, as well as pamphlets to provide to family and friends. The second major community service undertaking was the Great American Smoke Out. Even the 1970’s there was some awareness of the dangers of smoking, particularly among young people. However, there was no systematic approach being undertaken at the time to make young smokers aware of the dangers posed to their health or to encourage them not to engage in this destructive habit. Phi Delta Psi also partnered with other Greek and non-Greek organizations on campus to carry out various community service programs that helped the surrounding communities, all the while spreading the word about Phi Delta Psi and its commitment to helping others. These pioneering efforts by the Founders were groundbreaking and directly paralleled the aspirational goals of the organization.
By fall of the following year, the Fraternity had grown from ten members to twenty. Each turning in superior academic work as well as being fully engaged in various initiatives on campus. Phi Delta Psi maintained its focus on the community by recruiting campus leaders to continue their goal of bringing about change. During the holiday season brothers would go out into the community dressed as Santa to provide gifts to children who may not otherwise receive gifts that year. Though these fun events raised the spirits of children, they only offered temporary relief from everyday struggles that faced our community. Brothers from that time often recall the rallies, marches, and events held in protest of the various injustices that still plague us even today. Specifically, Brothers of our organization were even arrested during a peaceful rally protesting apartheid in South Africa on campus in 1980.
These early initiatives that were spearheaded by Phi Delta Phi’s early built character within the organization, and garnered recognition on campus and throughout the community. The execution of such events and realization of set goals provided the foundation upon which our great brotherhood is built. It is the precepts of honor, leadership, and achievement that have and shall continue to propel Phi Delta Psi toward the future with great promise.