Omega Psi Phi: Marking 100 Years of Brotherhood, Leadership and Change
March 15, 2021, marks a milestone for Penn State. One hundred years ago, the only eight Black men on campus—two of them resuming their studies after serving in World War I—banded together to form the Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Their fraternity was the first Black organization on campus and would later become the first multicultural organization at Penn State. Their brothers went on to break world records, lead universities, and be appointed to positions by US presidents. But most importantly, these men have bonded under the motto ‘Friendship is Essential to the Soul,’ and after graduation, have gone on to spread Omega Psi Phi’s principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift in the communities where they live, influencing social change and mentoring the next generation of Black men.
“Omega Psi Phi was the first of its kind in so many ways,” said Darius William-McKenzie ‘18, who is currently pursuing his master degree in higher education at Penn State. “It was the first Black organization at Penn State, the first multicultural organization, period. Before Nu Chapter, there was no Black anything. You have to realize the cultural significance of that, and the effect that Omega Psi Phi had on influencing change on campus. And after 100 years, we are still here. We’ve made it work. We’re standing strong. That’s influence.”
Omega Psi Phi gets its start at Penn State
The national organization of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity was founded at Howard University in 1911 on the Cardinal Principles of Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance and Uplift.
“Omega Psi Phi Fraternity was the first Black fraternity founded at an historically Black College & University (HBCU),” said Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity at Penn State, past Omega Psi Phi Second District Corridor VII Representative, and one of the founding brothers of Omega Psi Phi’s, Iota Lambda Lambda Chapter (#912) located in State College, Pennsylvania. “As the fraternity began to expand to other universities, it selected Penn State as its 13th chapter (Nu Chapter) in 1921. This was significant in that there weren’t many Black students enrolled at Penn State in 1921.
In fact, according to Omega Psi Phi’s archives, there were only eight Black men enrolled at Penn State at the time. Most of them were engineering majors. Several were student-athletes. Two were just coming back from the war and resuming their classes.
An article about the founding reads: “Several of these students realized the necessity for some kind of organization among the Negro students at State College. … in order that the spirit of cooperation, loyalty and sincerity would be a vital factor in these young men’s lives, they needed a more binding organization, one with a broader foundation, from which they might receive inspiration … State College is located in the center of the state of Pennsylvania and affords an ideal opportunity for molding our men into firm, sincere Omega men.”
Dr. Andrew Jackson ’74 (BS Education, ‘2004, Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Studies) said that knowing the story of the early years of Black leadership at Penn State is extremely crucial for everyone. “We need to look at history and really understand it. Today, people don’t know what they don’t know, or they don’t want to know, and that just leads to so much hostility and hatred. The founding of Nu Chapter was the start of something significant. It was a place where Black students at Penn State found unity and brotherhood, and it was also a place to have a conversation. It became the first multicultural fraternity on campus when we admitted Caucasian and Asian members in the 1950s. Nu Chapter was the catalyst for some important changes at Penn State.”
Over the decades, the fraternity continued to attract Penn State Black students, providing a place of manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift. It was an organization that fostered strong friendships and even stronger memories. But every brother interviewed for this article pointed out something that makes Omega Psi Phi distinctive from other student organizations they were involved in. It wasn’t about what they got out of it…. it was what they put into it.
“Influencing the world around us”
“It was never about what we got out of Omega Psi Phi, or how it influenced us,” said Brian Dozier ‘92 (BS Marketing, ’05 MBA), who was an offensive lineman for the Nittany Lions from 1988-1991 and is now a wealth strategist. “It was what we brought to it, and how we could influence others around us once we graduated.”
In fact, it was that worldview that attracted Dozier to Omega Psi Phi in the first place. His high school offensive line coach Robert L. Crawford was an Omega Psi Phi, and was extremely influential in Dozier’s life.
“He used to say to me, ‘I don’t care if you play a down of football, just make sure you graduate, and remember that I am very proud of you.’”
“I wanted what he had,” Dozier says. So when he was being recruited for a football program, he looked for a place that was academically superior, and he also looked for a school that had a chapter of Omega Psi Phi. “Penn State checked all those boxes for me,” he says. “They had a great football program. And the Nu Chapter brothers who I met displayed things that I admired. So this is where I wanted to be.”
He says his story is not uncommon. “There are men walking around this earth right now who can tell the same story of coaches and teachers and mentors who influenced us. That’s what we shoot for. That’s who we are before we get to the fraternity, and it’s who we are after we graduate. We serve the community around us.”
Dozier’s ‘line brother’ at Omega Psi Phi is Willie Owens ‘91. The two pledged at the same time and keep in close touch today. Willie manages three businesses from his home office — personal coaching, Willpowerfitness and Proud 2 Be Black, along with a writing career. Owens agrees with Dozier. “My neighbor was an Omega Psi Phi. I remember asking him, ‘What’s that mark on your arm?’ and he said, ‘You are too young to know about that.’”
Owens initially attended Shaw University in North Carolina, but as soon as he transferred to Penn State, he pledged to Omega Psi Phi and proudly donned the purple and gold. Today, his son Devan L. Owens is an Omega Psi Phi legacy at Indiana University.
“I couldn’t get him to transfer to Penn State,” he said with a laugh. “But at least he’s an Omega Psi Phi. He’d been around Nu brothers all his life and he knew he wanted to be one of us.”
Uplifting and Empowering the Community
Whitehurst echoes what Dozier said about the chapter’s purpose of reaching out and impacting change in communities and culture, and how it influences their outlook.
“Nu Chapter has always focused on uplifting and empowering the community through its programs,” said Whitehurst.
Here are some of the ways they are making a difference:
Local Talent Hunt: Andrew Jackson ‘74 (BS Education, PhD Interdisciplinary Studies ‘2004), joined Nu Chapter in the early ‘70s. He was the second ever Black member of the Blue Band (the first, Emmett Smith, Jr. was also an Omega Psi Phi), performing in every Penn State and away game all four years he was at Penn State, including the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl. He has maintained a lifelong commitment to the fraternity, founding three additional chapters across the US. Today, he helps to organize the Local Talent Hunt, a competition that searches for the best local talent in Happy Valley, and then helps them as they go on to state and district, and ultimately, International Talent Hunt Demonstration. Under his direction, they have had two first place winners, Larissa Woscob on piano, and Kyle Lampkin with dance, in the regional competition held for competitors in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Charles Drew Blood Drive: Another program that Jackson involved with, the Charles Drew Blood Drive, holds strong significance for him along with the whole fraternity. “Charles Drew was an American surgeon and medical researcher in the field of blood transfusions. He was the most prominent Black researcher in his field, and he proved that racially segregating blood lacked scientific foundation — it was blood type that mattered. This saved thousands of lives during World War II.” Each year, the fraternity hosts a blood drive in honor of Dr. Drew’s life achievements.
Miss Black Penn State: Omega Psi Phi Nu Chapter continues its great legacy by empowering respect for womanhood through one of its Achievement Week programs entitled Miss Black Penn State. “Nu Chapter has successfully organized this event since the 1980s, to showcase the intellectual scholarship, service, and talent of Black women students at Penn State,” said Whitehurst.
Social Action: Nu Chapter works throughout Penn State and the Happy Valley area to create positive change. Through their social action programs, they conduct voter registration drives for students, and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, assisting to build homes for those who have an economic need.
Scholarship: Nu Chapter Alumni has endowed a new scholarship for Penn State undergraduate students that is supported by the University’s Educational Equity Scholarship Matching Program, which has now concluded. The scholarship will assist students with financial need who contribute to the diversity of the student body.
“Scholarship is an integral and deep-rooted component of our organization,” said Lawrence Ball ’81, Chairman of Nu Alumni Association. “Our fundraising is an effort to provide a sustained endowment to minorities and students of color that oft-times have difficulty meeting their needs. Our vision, both now and in the future, is that this gift will establish an enduring legacy of service, both to the Penn State community at large, and perhaps more urgently, to minorities and students of color, so that their success at Penn State is never stifled because of a shortfall of funds. By matching our contributions, the University demonstrates its shared commitment to this vision.”
Founding of Graduate Chapter Iota Lambda Lambda: Since the founding of Nu Chapter in 1921, there have been Omega Men in the Penn State community. In 2001, they decided to form a graduate group, to continue carrying out the ideals of the fraternity. Today, that group has over 50 members. They say they are honored to mentor the undergrads in the Nu Chapter. “They deserve to have us give back to them,” said Willie Owens.
“For me, it’s the leadership”
The past few decades have not been without trouble for Omega Psi Phi. After a hazing incident in 2012, the chapter was suspended for numerous years. Darius William-McKenzie ‘18, is the Basileus, or chapter president, of Iota Lambda Lambda. He said that the journey back was hard, and so, so worth it.
“When you think of where we were five years ago to where we are today, it’s like going from Death Valley to Mount Everest. We’ve been able to reinstitute the chapter and initiate over a dozen new brothers just in this past year,” said William-McKenzie.
“For me, it’s the leadership,” he said. “You won’t find this kind of leadership opportunity for someone of my age anywhere else. To have the opportunity to be the kind of leader who needs to make sure that everything goes right… it’s rare to find. Omega Psi Phi has allowed me some valuable real-life experience.”
Owens, who said that he was a brother during “the best decade ever,” said that the chapter is more needed now than it’s ever been.
“Being in the chapter in the ’90s was awesome – it was before cell phones and social media … we got to just get to know our brothers and exchange knowledge. It was that last great decade. There’s a different task today that’s just as critical: there are all these social issues and today’s undergrads aren’t content to wait for change. They want it now. In the ’90s, I don’t feel like we were worrying about that as much — our parents had been part of the Civil Rights Movement. But today, here we are again, circling back, dealing with social injustice. And we need each other,” he said.
“I believe I’ve added to my fraternity rather than just my fraternity benefitting me. It has a way of making you feel like there is nothing in society that can stop you. You have connections to the brotherhood as a whole—Fortune 500 company, capital, connections and networking. We want to keep adding to that fraternity, adding people of high character who are going to take the chapter to the next level,” said Owens.
William-McKenzie agrees. “Our job now is to move forward and continue the tradition. We want to be a positive influence on Penn State campus for the next 100 years.”