100 Years of Brotherhood, Excellence, and Tradition: Pitt's Omicron Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2013

On a wintry evening in January 1913, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Samuel Black McCormick served as the principal speaker at a banquet hosted by Pitt’s alumni. The event celebrated the establishment of a new organization unlike any other group that had existed on campus: an African American fraternity.

Seven young leaders had banded together to found Southwestern Pennsylvania’s first chapter of the national Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Pitt’s Omicron Chapter was the 14th chapter of the fraternity that had been founded at Cornell University in 1906. Southwestern Pennsylvania was viewed as an ideal environment for the steadily expanding organization.

“Alpha Phi Alpha, at the time, saw that in the city of Pittsburgh, and at the University of Pittsburgh specifically, there was a significant African American population and that those students were doing very well there academically,” said Pitt alumnus Thomas Brooks (ENGR ’88), who was initiated into the Omicron chapter in 1985 and elected homecoming king in 1986.

At the turn of the 20th century, Pitt’s Schools of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Law, Medicine, and Pharmacy were granting degrees to African American graduates. Black students were involved in extracurricular clubs and leadership activities. At that Alpha Phi Alpha banquet in 1913, Chancellor McCormick recognized students who were helping to lay a foundation for what would become a bedrock institution in Black America—a highly regarded fraternal organization with more than 200,000 members, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall; and U.S. politician and diplomat Andrew Young. 

Omicron’s seven founders were strong student leaders whose sense of duty led some of them to serve their nation during World War I, and, upon their return from abroad, they became prominent citizens within their individual communities. They were:

Richard Mark Fowler Jr., chapter president and a native of Milwaukee, Wis. Fowler earned an MD degree from Pitt’s School of Medicine in 1913, and he lived a life of distinction as a physician in the states of Missouri and New Jersey;

William Robert Smalls, chapter vice president, a South Carolina native, and the son of Civil War hero and reconstruction-era U.S. Congressman Robert Scott Smalls. William Smalls earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitt as well as a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and he served as a professor at Morehouse College as well as a social worker in various regions of the United States;

Wray Martin Banks, chapter secretary and a native of Washington County, Pa. Banks earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1916 and became a prominent engineer in Southwestern Pennsylvania;

Arthur Daniel Stevenson, chapter treasurer and a native of Pittsburgh. Stevenson earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitt in 1915 as well as a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University in 1918. He settled in Pittsburgh and became a general practice attorney;

John Nathaniel Browne, a native of Washington, D.C., who attended the University of Pittsburgh from 1912 to 1915;

Joseph Price Dancy, a native of Wilmington, N.C., who earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Pitt in 1916. Following his time at Pitt, Dancy earned a medical degree at Howard University in 1920 and served as a physician in the states of Michigan and Pennsylvania; and

Theodore Wilson Primas, a native of Charleroi, Pa., who earned a degree from Pitt’s School of Pharmacy in 1915. Following his time at Pitt, Primas owned and operated two drug stores and received numerous honors throughout a pharmaceutical career that spanned more than 40 years.

These seven Pitt students set the stage for future generations of the Omicron Chapter, which has attracted leaders and those who are heavily involved within their communities, said Pitt alumnus David B. Washington (A&S ’57, LAW ’60), a federal administrative law judge in the state of Minnesota and 1953 Omicron Chapter initiate.

“Historically, Alpha Phi Alpha, as a whole, has always sought certain characteristics within our young men,” said Washington, a recipient of Pitt’s 2012 African American Alumni Council Distinguished Alumnus Award. “Integrity and high ethical standards, a dedication to serving others, intelligence both inside and outside of the classroom: These are the character traits that we’ve traditionally searched for in an Alpha man.”

Today, the Omicron Chapter continues its mission to uplift Pitt’s Black community and attract future leaders into its ranks. Working hand in hand with other student groups and various community organizations, the chapter routinely sponsors cultural and entertainment events, mentorship programs, and food and clothing drives.

Omicron’s dedication to hard work has earned dividends in the form of numerous awards and distinctions. In 2011, Omicron was named the Pennsylvania Association of Alpha Chapters’ Chapter of the Year. It has won first place in the University of Pittsburgh’s annual Steel City Step Show— a choreographed dance competition featuring Pitt’s other African American fraternities and sororities—in 2009, 2010, and 2011. In addition, Omicron Chapter member Huron Hill III holds the coveted title of Mr. Black University of Pittsburgh.

Omicron Chapter President Matthew Sauers said that as a freshman, he found the chapter’s commitment towards excellence to be the most impressive aspect of the organization. The senior finance major from San Francisco, Calif., who was initiated into the Omicron Chapter in 2011 and whose father, David A. Sauers, graduated from Pitt in 1977, noted that he was impressed with the students who comprised the fraternity’s membership. 

“I looked at the Alphas, and I saw young Black men, like myself, becoming doctors and lawyers and entering various graduate-school programs. That was the type of company that I wanted to keep,” said Sauers.

For some fraternity members, the company they kept during their college years has evolved into lifelong friendships. William Fisher (A&S ’48), a 1947 Omicron initiate and a 1948 OWL Hall of Fame inductee, attributes the chapter’s longevity on Pitt’s campus to a sense of sincere brotherhood.

The final living member of his initiation class, Fisher says that he still keeps in close contact with fellow Alpha men, many of whom he has known for more than 60 years, and he eagerly anticipates the chapter’s Centennial Celebration Weekend.

“We inspired each other to be the best that we could be, and I wouldn’t be the man that I am without some of them,” said Fisher, who served as the principal of Pittsburgh’s Allderdice High School for more than 20 years. “We have a motto, ‘First of All, Servants of All, We Shall Transcend All.’ We believed in those words and we lived by them.” 

Prominent Early Omicron Members

Notable Omicron initiates and Pitt alumni include the prominent Pittsburgh and Sewickley Businessman William J. Curtis Sr. (BUS ’18), who is the father of Pitt alumnus and Tuskegee Airman William Curtis Jr. (Class of 1946) and great-grandfather of Kyle Curtis (A&S ’11); William Curtis Sr. and Kyle Curtis appeared together in Pitt-published Blue Gold & Black: University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg Reports on the Pitt African American Experience.

H. Raymond Primas Sr. (DEN ’24), brother of Omicron founder, Theodore Wilson Primas Jr., was a distinguished Pittsburgh dentist, who was the first African American professional to reside on Pittsburgh’s North Side. He served as the resident dentist at the Home for Colored Children, what is now the nonprofit agency Three Rivers Youth. Primas’ son, H. Raymond Primas Jr. (A&S ’46, DEN ’47, GSPH ’69), followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a noted dentist and was a named a 2007 University of Pittsburgh Legacy Laureate.

Other notable initiates include 1936 Olympic gold medalist John Woodruff (A&S ’39), renowned journalist Frank Bolden (EDUC ’34), captain of Pitt’s renowned 1917 debate ream and Lincoln University of Missouri President Charles Florence (EDUC ’19, ’23G), and judge Paul Simmons (A&S ’46), President Jimmy Carter’s first African American judgicial appointee and the first African American U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania.