Alpha Phi Alpha – Ep.79

Human Trafficking Prevention – Ep.78
January 26, 2023
Omega Psi Phi – Ep.80
February 8, 2023

Lonnie Holmes of Alpha Phi Alpha shares the history of the first intercollegiate Black fraternity, starting a campus chapter at San Francisco State University and the organization’s impact on African American culture. 

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to the Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.

Hey friends, it’s Melyssa here. It’s Black History Month, so I thought this month might be the perfect time to incorporate some history that people may or may not be aware. I thought I would focus on organizations that have played a significant role in African American culture. I know there are probably many organizations, but I thought I would kick it off with the first African American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. They were the first African American Greek organization to organize on a college campus. They were the first of many that would follow, and many of you may hear people refer to the Divine Nine. These are the nine Black Greek letter organizations that make up the National Panhellenic Council, which consists of five fraternity organizations and four sorority organizations. The history of Black Greek letter organization starts back in the early 1900s, when African American students were excluded from Greek organizations at primarily white institutions.

So just to give you a little bit of history, and this’ll be really little because I just want to give you the order of those Divine Nine organizations, in order Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was founded on December 4th, 1906 on the campus of Cornell University. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. was founded on January 15th, 1908 on the campus of Howard University. Kappa Alpha Phi Fraternity, Inc. was founded on January 5th, 1911 on the campus of Indiana University. Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. was founded on November 17th, 1911 on the campus of Howard University.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was founded on January 13th, 1913 on the campus of Howard University. Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. was founded on January 9th, 1914 on the campus of Howard University. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. was founded on January 16th, 1920 on the campus of Howard University. Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. was founded on November 12th, 1922 on the campus of Butler University, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. was founded on September 19th, 1963 on the campus of Morgan State University.

Today I’m going to be joined by one of the most wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to know. I will make his introduction brief, but he is most humble and always working. Lonnie Holmes is a native of San Francisco, California, who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. He received a BA from the University of Washington and later went on to get his master’s degree in public administration.

Lonnie has spent over 25 years working in the law enforcement industry. He’s currently a wage hour investigator for the US Department of Labor, and prior to that he was the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department’s Director of Community Services, overseeing alternatives to detention programs, before retiring. This man is always doing something to leave his community better than the way he inherited it, and anytime I need him he is always right there.

I am so excited to be focusing on the Divine Nine for Black History Month. So I figured I would start with Alpha Phi Alpha, the original… I won’t say the original, but certainly the first Black fraternity. And I have Lonnie Holmes here with me, who has been not only a friend of mine I think for, gosh, maybe 30 some years.

Lonnie Holmes:  Yes, That’s about right.

Melyssa Barrett:  It’s been a while. But you are deep, so I wanted to reach out to you and maybe have you tell us a little bit about the fraternity, how they got started, why they got started, and really kind of shed some light on the Divine Nine this month. So thank you so much for being here.

Lonnie Holmes:  Absolutely. Thanks for inviting me, Melyssa. Yeah, I have a pretty interesting story myself as it relates to the fraternity, but let me just start with the Seven Jewels who are the founders of the fraternity that started at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. One of the reasons that these brothers got together, our founders, specifically our Jewel Brothers, is because if you look at historically what has happened on campuses of white institutions there hasn’t been a lot of support for African Americans in terms of success.

Some of that has changed obviously today, but we still have some of the same challenges. But back then, really it started out as a social club, brothers getting together for a common cause, and that is to achieve educationally. So as a result, then the notion of establishing a fraternity, in this particular case, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., was erected, and it evolved from there.

So what we have is Alpha Phi Alpha is the largest Greek lettered African American fraternity in the world, and we’re in probably most countries, definitely around the world, so we’re constantly expanding. But with that being said, I want to just kind of speed up to myself. As a gentleman who came out of a primarily Black high school, going to a college campus to play sports and what have you, there wasn’t a whole lot of support educationally speaking. Now when I first arrived on the campus of San Francisco State, which was my first college campus as an athlete, I quickly realized that there were a handful of us around, but when you looked in the classroom you may have maybe two or three individuals out of about 30 or 40, in some cases 50 individuals in the classroom. When I was approached as a first semester freshman, which is kind of an anomaly, right, I realized then I really need to get some support. I need some brothers who can back me up and support me. And so that’s kind of how my journey started.

Now there was no college chapter at San Francisco State, where I started my collegiate career at the time, so there were some brothers who came from Stanford University who subsequently came to recruit myself and about five other brothers. Now two of those brothers dropped, and it was myself and my three line brothers, who at the time I was a first semester freshman, they were all seniors, which I was extremely proud of. But what I soon realized is that all my Sans, as they referred to, all my line brothers, they had all basically graduated, so I was essentially on campus by myself. So what I had to do was… And my goal was really I needed to establish a chapter for brothers like me that are on campus here at San Francisco State, and so I did that.

So along the way I ran into a bunch of hurdles, if you will, and some of the hurdles involved the administration of the provost office, in this case the administration. The administration didn’t really want to have any Greek letter Black organizations recognized and solidified on campus, so I was going through many, many, many hoops. Now mind you, this is… And I would say probably 10 years before that, early ’70s, you had the start of the first African American ethnic studies program in the country that started at San Francisco State, so you would think essentially 10 years later it wouldn’t be an issue, but it was an issue, and it just goes to show you that while that battle was fought and won there was still battles to be fought.

And I fought that battle and I was able to establish a chapter Xi Rho chapter at San Francisco State once I was able to bring some other brothers into the fold of the fraternity, in which I had seven other brothers that we had pledged through Stanford University who were actually San Francisco State students like myself. So once we had the optimum number, which was seven at the time, then we were able to establish our charter after we basically jumped over all the hurdles that we had to go through, and the rest is history.

Quite frankly, one of the hiccups during this extensive pledge process that I went through is that… And everything was done by snail mail. There weren’t any cellphones and all those other kind of stuff. We didn’t have email and all those other kind of stuff. So essentially what happened was I would say about almost halfway into the process we got a letter back from the national office saying that I’m not allowed to pledge because I was a first semester freshman, which was basically right. So it was just one, those things that happened, right?

But, be that as it may, my line brothers was like, hey, if I can’t continue on the process, we’re all going to jump out, and so then there was an exemption granted for me from the national office. So we’re able to continue on that process until obviously we crossed those burning sands, as they say. And so with that, I’m kind of in the history books of Alpha Phi Alpha as a Jewel Member, or founding member, if you will just in layman’s terms for Xi Rho chapter of San Francisco State. So that was many, many years ago, and I will tell you now I’m going on my 44th year.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow.

Lonnie Holmes:Yeah, I mean, like I said, I was barely out of high school going through this process, and you can imagine. And so I tell you this story because this is one of the things that helped to shape my life. I’ve actually been in Alpha long than I’ve been anything in my life, longer than I’ve been married, longer than all this stuff.

But through that I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many prominent Alpha men, Andrew Young. I’ve met Norm Bryce. I’ve met all these brothers that are prominent Alpha men. I’ve had an opportunity to break bread in many cases with them and sit down and just kind of learn and what have you. So also then when I ended up transferring to University of Washington, where I essentially graduated from… And it’s funny, because as I’ve participated as a big brother and pledged individuals who have come and gone through the fold of Alpha Phi Alpha, they have matriculated to various states, and then at least once a month, if not more, I get calls from someone who is in Texas or someone who’s in New York or wherever that knows me because they knew some… You know what I mean? And so it’s that kind of thing. So I’ve been around that long, and because I came in at such a young age I’ve had an opportunity really to kind of not only to mesh with the older generation, but also the younger generation, right? And so I’m kind of unique in that arena.

Melyssa Barrett:  Well, I knew you were unique, and I knew you were like Mr. Alpha Phi Alpha, but this is all new to me. I’m amazed. I didn’t know you were a founding member at San Francisco State and all of that. That’s fantastic.

Lonnie Holmes:  Yeah, definitely a charter member. And I’ll tell you something, it was funny because when I would say soon as we crossed, we ended up established our own chapter, ten my line brother’s brother, who actually came from New York, David Johnson, was over at UC Berkeley. Now UC Berkeley had a chapter that had been… They just celebrated their hundredth year. However, that chapter had been inactive for a number of years. There was no brothers over there on UC. I mean it’s just the way it is when you see college campuses, right? You don’t see that many brothers in there, and sisters either, though you see more sisters than brothers. But anyway, the point simply was this, is that once he got there my line brother Greg Hunt, and God rest his soul, he had passed away about 10 years ago now, maybe a little bit more, he helped establish that chapter, and if it had been for him… Then you had a whole collection, a bunch of brothers who came from UC Berkeley.

So during that time you had chapters that… Obviously you had Black Family Day. That was just an historic event at UC Davis’ Campus, the campus at UC Davis. You had San Jose State University, Epsilon Mu, which we call the Empire down there. But those two chapters between Sacramento and San Jose had been kind of the mainstays. And then you started filling in the rest of the Bay Area, because you had ZI-CHI UOP, University of the Pacific. You had Cal State Hayward. Now it’s Cal State East Bay, and then UC Berkeley. Then we had us obviously, so San Francisco State, and then UC Berkeley. And then I can’t mention, ’78 you had Nu Sigma, which was started on Stanford University’s campus.

And so within probably about a three to four year span you had Alpha Phi Alpha chapters on all the major campuses in the Bay Area. Now it’s been a challenge since that time obviously because of how things are happening now, costs and so forth, and just the inability of these campuses to reach out to African American young males out of high school. And then the Bay Area is changing obviously, with the tech industry and the cost of living and all these other kinds of things. So that was kind of a rare time, if you will, a historic time in some respects as well. But, anyway, that’s kind of how that stuff happened.

Melyssa Barrett:  So then tell us a little bit about Alpha Phi Alpha and what they focus on, because I know all the Divine Nine has a service component.

Lonnie Holmes:  Yeah. So we have our national programs, and the national programs include let’s say Project Alpha. Project Alpha is a program, and in fact I used to do Project Alpha as a chapter president, the grad chapter president for Gama Lambda, which is a grad chapter in San Francisco, but that focused on primarily providing kids with information around STDs, safe sex, personal hygiene and those kinds of things. I remember the last time I did it, we had Dr. Agee, who was a prominent urologist here in San Francisco. He came out, provided examples and probably just everything, and it was just… Matter of fact, it was on KGO, and some of these other things. We had a lot of live coverage of those kinds of things.

But these are national programs that we do in addition to just some of the other stuff, Brothers Keepers Program to look after older members and stuff like that, and family wise and so forth, better wills and what have you. We have the voter people, getting out and assisting people with voter registration and really just trying to reiterate how important their vote is, to get them to vote on certain initiatives that are going to be more beneficial for the African American population and people of color in general.

And then you have go to high school, go to college. Now every year, incidentally, we have a nonprofit which is the Alpha Phi Alpha Scholarship Fund. So we give out scholarships to seven or eight, just kind of depends on the interest. We have a balance of around about 200,000, and we don’t touch the principal, but with the interest, we generally use the interest to give out scholarships on the interest every year. We’ve been doing that for about 30 years for deserving high school students. And a lot of it is not necessarily based on GPA, although GPA is a consideration, but we also look at individuals’ economic background. The individuals trying to go to school and they live in a low income area, or come from a low income family, a. A lot of times what we do is we say, okay, fine, they can use this assistance, and so we generally give them… Once we get their class schedule, send them a check right on for about 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 in some cases.

So I mean there’s just so many different things that we do, annual Turkey giveaways, just be there to assist when we can, how we can, given the fact that we can.

Melyssa Barrett:  What do you think that the focus that you all have and have been doing since 1906, if I recall?

Lonnie Holmes:  Yes. Yes.

Melyssa Barrett:  What do you think it has meant to our culture, the African American culture?

Lonnie Holmes:  One of the things in terms of… We talking about cultural relevance and things in that particular nature, and you can see it through social media and some of these other things, but obviously all the Divine Nine are known for their historic step moves and all these other kinds of things. There’s imaging of those variations of steps that are not only across the country, but across the world in some cases, especially now with the cultural icons that are utilized through social media and the various platforms and stuff.

But with that being said, and that’s just primarily for the young folks, but really if you look at the Divine Nine in totality you’re looking at individuals who have graduated from college and in many cases have multiple degrees, graduate degrees, doctorate degrees, and they went on to become very, very successful individuals. For example, some of the first Black doctors and business people who were in San Francisco, the Bay Area, were African American doctors. Dr. Collins, one of our founders, is one of the first Black doctors and dentists that serves the Bay Area.

So you have a lot of prominent Alpha men, you have a lot of prominent Divine Nine members who have done some monumental things across the country. And if you really begin to look at a lot of these individuals who may be in prominent positions, I can almost guarantee you that they are affiliated with one of the Divine Nine organizations.

And it’s not by luck, but what it is just that you have folks who seek higher education and seek the betterment of men and women through various platforms and mediums by looking at educational endeavors that are going to allow them to advance the various causes and advance the necessary steps to help uplift the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow, that’s fantastic. Well, do you want to talk about anything else?

Lonnie Holmes:  Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  That’s a whole lot.

Lonnie Holmes:  What I will say is that this prison pipeline is something that everyone is really concerned about. When you have more African American males in prison than you do on college campuses it’s very disturbing. It’s very disturbing. Now, listen, college is not for everyone, but at the same time you have to look at doing something. Now with the advent obviously of the internet folks have been very successful not going to college, and that’s perfectly fine. But at the same time, not everyone is going to be in a situation they can take advantage of the various platforms and the innovations of the internet. Some folks are going to have to get education by way of looking at some kind of a serious vocation so that they can advance themselves. And obviously when you start looking at how much money you can make with a high school diploma versus that of a bachelor’s degree, there’s a significant difference, and then it goes up from there.

If you have a master’s degree or a doctorate degree, all those make a significant difference when you start talking about compensation for wages. The other thing is that when you start looking at raising a family it’s extremely difficult, it’s extremely costly, and particularly if you’re having kids before marriage and these other kinds of things, and young folks are finding out the hard way. Then what you have is you have this perpetual cycle of poverty that young folks are coming up in, and then all of a sudden they’re subject to the street hustle and everything else. And it worked for some, but it doesn’t work for most, and what happens with the majority, they end up in prison. So obviously trying to push this narrative that you have to get your education in order so that you can open up more avenues of opportunity for you, your family and your children.

Melyssa Barrett:  That’s awesome. My exposure to the Divine Nine and the Greeks were much later in life. I didn’t have anybody in my family that followed this path. My mother, being an immigrant from Panama, and my dad ended up going to school in North Dakota from Missouri, so for him, he had a different path, but I tend to wonder if he was able to flow into a network like this or even have any support whatsoever, what life would’ve been like. And he was an amazing man, but the more I am involved with the Divine Nine, I just think there’s so many people that don’t quite understand what it truly has meant to the culture to have the type of focus, the network, the support, because it’s truly a bond that you’re creating across generations.

Lonnie Holmes:  Absolutely. It’s a lifetime bond. And I will tell you, for me, being one of nine children, I was the first one in my family to ever go to college and graduate from college, so I didn’t have any… And college in those days, things were a little bit different, and they’re still different. But I mean every generation has their ups and downs and what they kind of go through. And so we look at how young people are affected now from a mental health perspective, and mental health is becoming a real public epidemic. But if you realize and look and do an analysis, a lot of young folks, they can’t necessarily handle a lot of pressure in this world right now. One of the things that I heard that it is attributed to is the information overload of the internet, so how to manage the internet.

I look at that and I say myself it’s a real phenomenon, but at the same time I’m looking like wait a second, that versus where are you going to get your next meal from. If you grew up in a low income household, growing up on government cheese and everything else, it was like when will I be able to get some real meat or something instead of eating this spam? So the struggle is a little bit different, right? I can’t even tell my kids some of these stuff. It goes in one ear and out the other ear, because they’ll never know what that time was because they didn’t go through that time. So each generation has their own struggles in their own time, because you have folks who are constantly into and constantly looking at the educational trends and the analysis of how things were being navigated in and around the world just from an information standpoint to help people cope.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, that’s so true. It’s such a necessary component. I look back to 1906 and just you go what was going on at that time, and for these brothers to get together and say, “You know what? We’re going to do this,” I mean the courage it probably took to do that at that time is pretty significant.

Lonnie Holmes:  Because one wrong move would cost you your life, and wouldn’t nobody do anything about it. If you were the wrong color and come from the wrong side of the track it was a rap. The interesting thing, if we look at police violence against African Americans, and this has been studied for decades, and it’s still the same, it’s still the same. But again, from an educational perspective, sometimes we have to turn the other cheek, and then look at trying to fight on the backside once you have enough evidentiary information to substantiate what has happened to you, and then go through the courts.

So it’s easier said than done when you’re right in the midst of this stuff. But we have so many examples of what has transpired. But at the same time, I think that making yourself a target, whatever that means in the eyes of some of these other folks who are probably in the wrong profession to begin with, but also they’re of a different persuasion. They don’t know how to interact with us.

And that’s not only in the workforce from a diversity standpoint, but that’s also in the streets and anywhere that you essentially go unless they’ve been exposed. And what I find that now even more so down south, this is beginning to be a little bit more tolerant to a certain extent. And there’s more exposure obviously with the advent of the cameras and things like that on cellphones and all the other mediums that are used out there to record information and people in action doing various kinds of things, and you never know who sticks a camera anywhere. That’s why you have to be extremely careful, and that’s why even being a criminal these days you think you got away with it right now, but there’s so many cameras everywhere, they’re going to be able to track you down relatively quickly. In some cases very seldom, it may take some time, but with the advent of DNA and all these other kinds of things… And so crime doesn’t pay. Maybe in the short run, but eventually you’re going to get caught.

But that’s for everybody, whether it’s from the enforcement perspective, if you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to be doing from an enforcements to perspective, or if you are engaging in some kind of criminal activity, whether it’s white collar, blue collar, or whatever the case may be. We talk about these things, but then you look at the former president, former vice-president, the current president, looking at having confidential documents in their homes and all these other kinds of things, and not knowing this and all this other kind of stuff. Now the spotlight is coming out on this, so it’s like no matter where you turn, no matter where you look, someone’s been exposed for something. So get that education. Just walk the straight and narrow, man, and that way you don’t have to worry about looking over your shoulder.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Well, you are doing some fabulous work as you always have, so I so much appreciate-

Lonnie Holmes:  I’m my best. I’m not perfect.

Melyssa Barrett:  None of us are perfect, but it’s like you are always doing something. And I know how long you have been in San Francisco, and you are… I mean what you have put into young men, young women behind you is just amazing. I know how much you fill me up, so I can’t imagine how many people you and your family have touched over the years, so thank you for all you do.

Lonnie Holmes:  And that’s because people have… Well, no, thank you, Melyssa, and that’s because people have done that for us. Listen, there were times where, coming from a big family and not having much, and folks delivered, folks bought us turkeys, folks bought us… Everything that happened to me growing up by way of a handout and stuff like that, I’ve done the same thing and giving back, because that was the message that was given to me. So I just try to do the same thing.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Pay it forward. Pay it forward. That’s awesome.

Lonnie Holmes:  Exactly. Exactly.

Melyssa Barrett:  Well, thank you so much for coming to the Jali Podcast. You knew him personally, so this is a head nod to him. I know he would love to be able to connect with the Divine Nine, but it is truly a pleasure to have you join me.

Lonnie Holmes:  Melyssa, let me just say this to you with all sincerity. Your due diligence and persistence and really getting the word out to young folks has been second to none, and I applaud you. We love you, and any time that we can assist you, then just feel free to call us. And I would say text, but I’m not a big tech guy. Can you just pick up the phone call, because it may be a couple different days before I answer a text. But nowadays even my kids, they send text before they pick up the phone and call you, right?

Melyssa Barrett:  Right. Exactly. Well, I love you back. I love y’all, and I appreciate you so much. So thank you so much for joining me.

Thanks for joining me on the Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.