RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1961, LeMonte Mitchell was a student at Johnson C. Smith University looking for a fraternity experience that would last long after his days on campus.
He found it in Omega Psi Phi.
Mitchell, now 71 and recently retired as choir director at Raleigh’s Davie Street Presbyterian Church, is as active and committed a fraternity brother as ever. He swears by the organization’s core principles of volunteerism and community service. His voice bears no trace of hyperbole when he declares: “It’s God, family and Omega. That’s the way I look at it.”
If you’re in downtown Raleigh later this week, you might get a better idea of what Mitchell is talking about.
Omega Psi Phi, the first black fraternity founded at a historically black university, is bringing its biennial Grand Conclave to the Raleigh Convention Center starting today. The national convention is expected to draw as many as 5,000 people for a series of meetings and activities stretching for a week.
The heavy turnout isn’t an accident. Omega and other black fraternities encourage long-term involvement through graduate chapters that keep alums as active as if they were still on campus.
Omega is one of the nation’s largest black fraternities, with more than 100,000 members. Its alumni rolls have star power, including athletes Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, actor Bill Cosby and political activist Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But it has also produced plenty of leaders in politics, civil rights and higher education. Carter G. Woodson, considered the founder of Black History Month, was an Omega. So is Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to former President Bill Clinton and former head of the National Urban League.
But Omegas, while proud of those members, tend to think less about individual achievement and more about total impact, said Warren G. Lee, the fraternity’s national president.
“That’s what gives us legs,” said Lee, whose organization and its 619 chapters donate more than $1 million a year to charities. “It’s not the individual members but what we do collectively as a group.”
The brothers of Omega Psi Phi are a proud group. They call themselves “Omega Men” and extol virtues such as manhood and scholarship. The organization is national, but it preaches local action, urging members to lift up the communities that produced them.
Mitchell is still clearly entranced, 49 years after he joined in college. Since graduation, Mitchell has been active with the graduate chapter in Raleigh, where he helps raise money for scholarships to support the Red Cross, the local Boys Club and other charities. For a dozen years, he organized a Raleigh talent show that sent winners to regional showcases.
Next year, when the organization celebrates its centennial, Mitchell will happily accept his 50-year pin.
“I love what it stands for,” he said.
Embracing the mandate
Just four years out of college, Chad Moore is also embracing Omega’s service mandate. He joined Omega while a UNC-Chapel Hill student “to put myself in a network of positive people,” and he spends his free time these days volunteering with local Omega chapters. He has worked on Hurricane Katrina relief, voter registration projects and at local food banks and retirement homes.
“Stuff like that, it needs to be done,” said Moore, 25 and living in Raleigh. “A group of people get more done than one person.”
Abdul Cole was attending Omega events long before he even got to college. His father, also an Omega, was active through a graduate chapter and brought the whole family along to social events.
“It’s all I knew growing up,” said Cole, 29, who joined Omega while a student at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. “I liked the camaraderie and fellowship.”
Cole graduated from St. Augustine’s in 2004 and now works with members of a graduate chapter in Durham who volunteer at homeless shelters every other weekend.
For Cole and plenty of other Omegas, fraternity membership is about fiercely strong bonds and the feeling of being part of something larger than themselves. And it provides many young members with contacts in business, politics, law and other realms of working life.
“I’ve got a network of brothers in pretty much every avenue of life,” Cole said.
Friends and leaders
Omega started small, a trio of Howard University undergrads in 1911 that met in their biology professor’s office. They created Omega Psi Phi with the motto “Friendship is essential to the soul,” and the fraternity took flight.
It wasn’t an easy path at first. Howard, though a historically black institution, was led by a white president slow to embrace the fraternity’s desire to become a national enterprise.
“There was a lot of resistance at the institution at the time,” said Walter Kimbrough, author of “Black Greek 101: The Cultures, Customs and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities.” “Omega had to really fight at the beginning.”
As it grew, Omega emphasized the recruitment of young men with leadership potential. Many played key roles in civil rights-era struggles, such as Benjamin Hooks, who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Benjamin E. Mays, the longtime president of Morehouse College who had taught Martin Luther King Jr. and would later deliver the civil rights titan’s eulogy.
“Some just legendary people have come through that organization,” said Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. “A lot of organizations say it, but they have had some truly iconic figures in terms of leadership.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Omega’s national organization used the strength-in-numbers approach to make a difference by requiring that all chapters purchase a life membership with the NAACP, a financial show of support.
“It was a mandate,” said Burnel Coulon, a former national president of the fraternity and its unofficial historian. “And it did make a difference. Every dime counted.”
The Que Dog thing
When the Omega conclave arrives, you might hear some woofing. It’s an Omega calling card of sorts, a loud and boisterous way fraternity brothers greet each other.
It is also the voice of the “Que Dog,” a persona some Omegas subscribe to and others wish would go away. Pronounced like the letter “Q”, the Que Dog is the party-hearty alter ego to the Omega Man. Some Omegas identify as a Que Dog, woofing loudly, the life of the party.
But for an organization that relentlessly promotes a positive and professional image, the Que Dog, generally adopted by college-age members, has become something of a necessary evil. The organization’s leaders would prefer its members pattern themselves after the Omega Man behavior.
“You still have a lot of people who buy into the Que Dog thing,” said Kimbrough, the college president and member of Alpha Phi Alpha, another black fraternity. “It has its place, but it can diminish what the organization really stands for.”
Young fraternity members proudly declare themselves Que Dogs but eventually move past it when they leave college and focus more on the fraternity’s core mission, said Cole, the St. Augustine’s graduate. It’s part of a maturation process, he added.
“A lot of us refer to ourselves as Que Dogs, because we like to bark and it’s one of our callings,” Cole said. “But the expectation is an Omega Man. We expect the best.”
The News & Observer of Raleigh