Phi Beta Sigma shows commitment to community

4,000 members of 103-year-old fraternity to aid homeless, uphold fraternity’s principles of brotherhood and service during the conclave in Detroit.

Mary Chapman
Special to The Detroit News
Members surround the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. monument at Howard University in Washington, the site of the organization’s first chapter, during the Centennial celebration on Jan. 9, 2014.

It’s a good bet some of the 4,000 members converging on Detroit for Phi Beta Sigma’s international conclave Tuesday through Sunday will scarcely recognize the downtown that last hosted the meeting in 2001. But then, that’s largely the idea behind the fraternity’s return.

“We do see improvement in the city and we’ve been very impressed with the forward movement,” said Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity International President Jonathan Mason. “Sixteen years later, Detroit has truly changed for the better and offered the best opportunity.”

Held every two years, the convention is expected to contribute up to $5 million to the local economy, said Mike Bernacchi, a marketing and advertising professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. Chicago had been among the Midwest cities vying to host what is touted as the largest conclave in Phi Beta Sigma history. The organization last met in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2015.

Members and their families from as far away as Dubai, Germany, South Korea, Japan and the Bahamas will spend their time enjoying the city, serving the community and also electing new officers. Some activities will be open to the public.

The conclave, based at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, is being hosted by four alumni chapters of Phi Beta Sigma, including Nu Alpha Sigma (Metro Detroit), Xi Beta Sigma (Detroit), Epsilon Tau Sigma (Lansing) and Phi Rho Sigma (Ann Arbor).

Founded in 1914 at Howard University on the principles brotherhood, scholarship and service, Phi Beta Sigma has a membership of more than 150,000 — up 35 percent over the last four years — with at least 750 chapters globally.

Leon Wilkerson, first vice president of Xi Beta Sigma chapter, said he’s proud to have the fraternity back in the Motor City.

“It means a lot to us,” Wilkerson said. “Some brothers here are of the age where this could be their last conclave. They’ve been in the fraternity all their lives and now get to really showcase their city.”

Beyond official membership business, the agenda includes the opening ceremony, a golf tournament, the Miss International Phi Beta Sigma pageant; a step show competition and concert featuring Juvenile, Twista and Special Ed; a cookout and basketball tournament; induction ceremony; a closing banquet and ball. Motown legend Martha Reeves will receive an award.

“We’re very excited and happy about the brothers being here,” said Steven Foster, first vice president of Nu Alpha Sigma chapter. “The city has had its challenges, but we have great things to offer now, and our organization is stronger. So, it’s a great time all-around.”

A rejuvenated downtown notwithstanding, Detroit continues to face major issues including poverty and homelessness. Keeping with the fraternity’s motto, “Culture for service and service for humanity,” some members this week will work with the Detroit Rescue Ministries to feed and care for the area’s displaced population.

That effort will include pantry stocking and cleanup, and making and distributing care packages filled with food and personal items like toothbrushes and shavers.

“This is one way to give back to the city,” said Keith White, a member of Phi Ro Sigma chapter in Ann Arbor and director of collegiate affairs for the fraternity’s Great Lakes region. He’s helping to coordinate the activity.

Members of Phi Beta Sigma, Nu Alpha Sigma alumni chapter which represents the Metro Detroit area.

A Nu Alpha Sigma member for 35 years, Darryl Eddings said he particularly enjoys the service aspect of his fraternity.

“We give scholarships to local students and make Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for local families and donate to organizations like the American Cancer Society and March of Dimes, he said. “It’s very rewarding.”

The theme of the conclave is “transformation,” said Mason, an ordained Baptist minister and former president of the Delta Zeta chapter of Phi Beta Sigma at Norfolk State University. “We wanted to transform our organization, our community and our image. So what we’re really celebrating is Detroit and what they’re doing.”

Mason, who has been president for four years and, due to term limits, will be replaced this week, said fraternities and sororities are as relevant ever.

“Our experience in Greek organizations is not just a college experience, it is a lifelong experience,” Mason said. “Our organizations were founded around the same time as were the NAACP and the Urban League. We were founded for social action and to make the lives of our people better.”

Mary Chapman is a Detroit freelance writer.

Fraternity history

Founding: Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. was founded on Jan. 9, 1914, at Howard University in Washington, by three students A. Langston Taylor, Leonard F. Morse and Charles I. Brown, and nine other students who were charter members.

Membership: More than 150,000 members in 700 chapters in the United States, Germany, Dubai, the Bahamas, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland and Africa.

About the convention

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. International Conclave


Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center

The following events are open to the public. Tickets may be purchased at Call (305) 298-8050 for information.

■Tuesday: The Hon. Demetrius C. Newton Golf Tournament, Eagle Crest Golf Club, 1275 S. Huron St., Ypsilanti. Public welcome to join gallery. $110.

■Wednesday: Opening ceremony hosted by comedian/actor and Sigma member J. Anthony Brown, followed by concert featuring The Clark Sisters, Rencen Ballroom. The President’s Reception, in the Ambassador Ballroom, will feature vocalist Teresa Griffin. Free

■Friday: Step Show and concert featuring Juvenile, Twista and Special Ed. Rencen Ballroom. $40.

■Saturday: Three-on-three basketball tournament and Blue and White Cookout, Cadillac Square, free food and entertainment.

Notable members

Here’s a partial list of notable members, living and deceased, of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity:

■ Harry Belafonte, actor/activist

■ J. Anthony Brown, comedian/actor

■ Bill Clinton, former U.S. president

■ Bootsy Collins, singer/musician

■ Kurt Carr, gospel singer

■ Elijah Cummings, U.S. congressman

■ Angelo B. Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winner

■ Terrance Howard, actor

■ Ralph Johnson, musician/singer, Earth, Wind and Fire

■ Bobby Jones, gospel singer

■ John Lewis, U.S. congressman/civil rights activist

■ Karl Malone, NBA Hall of Famer

■ Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist/composer

■ Huey P. Newton, Black Panther Party co-founder

■ Charles Ogletree, Harvard Law School

■ Scottie Pippin, NBA Hall of Famer

■ A. Philip Randolph, union organizer/civil rights activist

■ Jerry Rice, NFL Hall of Famer

■ Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights activist

■ Richard Sherman, NFL Player

■ Emmett Smith, NFL Hall of Famer

■ Blair Underwood, actor

■ Hines Ward, NFL Hall of Famer

■ Maurice White, founder/lead singer, Earth, Wind and Fire

■ Verdine White, musician/singer, Earth, Wind and Fire

■ Malik Yoba, actor