Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.'s Chesterfield chapter donate supplies to Falling Creek Elementary School.
The first intercollegiate fraternity founded by Black men was established more than a century ago, not at one of America’s most prominent historically Black institutions, such as Morehouse College or Howard University, but in the Ivy League.
On Dec. 4, 1906, seven Black male students at Cornell University formally created Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the oldest of the Greek organizations for Black men and women now commonly known as “The Divine Nine.”
They had initially come together to study, but also sought connection and camaraderie as they faced racial discrimination at an overwhelmingly white university. Their new fraternity moved quickly beyond merely hosting parties and other social events, enshrining a commitment to live as men of dignity and honor while addressing the needs of marginalized communities through service and advocacy.
Nearly a century later, on Feb. 4, 1999, a different group of Alpha Phi Alpha brothers recognized the growth of Chesterfield’s Black population and sought to establish a chapter in the county. Then known as the Greater Richmond Alumni Association of Alphas, they petitioned the fraternity during its general convention, then initiated the formal application process for establishing a new chapter: identifying community groups for future partnerships, creating a constitution and drafting bylaws. They also selected chapter officers and began holding meetings twice a month.
During the summer of 2000, a group of brothers traveled to the Millennium Convention in Atlanta, where they were informed that Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. had approved their application. The new Rho Iota Lambda chapter held its chartering ceremony at Chesterfield’s First Baptist Church Centralia in May 2001.
Fast forward nearly 22 years, and the Chesterfield chapter remains a vibrant part of a growing and increasingly diverse county.
“We’re focused on improving our community through service and leadership, advocacy, supporting our youth and making an impact through different avenues like scholarships and programs,” said Tyren Frazier, president of the Rho Iota Lambda chapter. “We come from all walks of life professionally. The fraternity and our beliefs in our mission as an organization is what bonds us together, in the work we do but also in how we lead our lives.”
There are two points of entry into Alpha Phi Alpha and the other eight historically Black fraternities and sororities that form the National Pan-Hellenic Council: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, Phi Beta Sigma, Iota Phi Theta and Sigma Gamma Rho. (The Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities each also have chapters in Chesterfield).
One is as a college undergraduate. After completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree, you can also seek membership in one of the many graduate chapters that have been established across the U.S. and internationally. Frazier, for example, had already earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees when he joined Rho Iota Lambda in 2015.
“We tell our younger brothers, it’s important that you get connected to a graduate chapter – there are not only opportunities for networking, there’s mentoring and then there’s value that we all bring to make sure we continue the work of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.,” Frazier said.
“We have brothers in the Chesterfield chapter who are as young as 23 years old and as old as 85,” he added. “When you think about the dynamics and the relationships, the learning and mentorship that occurs when you have such a broad range of ages coming together, it’s pretty powerful.”
Two senior leaders of Chesterfield County government are officers in Rho Iota Lambda: Dr. James Worsley, deputy county administrator for human services, and Director of General Services John Neal. Lt. George Turner with the county’s police department is also a member, as are Brandon Ashe, a senior recreation specialist for the Department of Parks and Recreation and Chesterfield School Board Attorney Wendell Roberts.
As of March 30, Worsley will have been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha for 21 years. He currently serves as leader of the local chapter’s Alpha Pioneers Academy, which provides mentorship to young men in middle and high school and helps them find purpose and direction in their lives.
“I joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. because I realized that the organization and I share commonalities like promoting education and scholarly opportunities, along with a desire to love all mankind, and being service-focused in the community for the uplifting of humanity,” Worsley said.
Alpha Phi Alpha is in Neal’s blood – his father is a member, as well as several cousins and a great uncle – and his interest in the fraternity started at an early age. His desire to join was confirmed during his time as a student at Virginia Tech, where he saw the organization as “a strong support network” for the university’s Black students.
“I could relate to what the fraternity’s founders experienced at Cornell University in 1906, being a minority student on a predominantly white campus,” Neal recalled. “Also, one of Alpha’s founders was a Civil Engineering major, which inspired me through the challenges of pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering. After graduation, Alpha continues to afford opportunities and experiences to mentor other minority youths, participate in unique community service projects and learn more about African American history.
“One unique service project is groundskeeping work at Evergreeen Cemetery, where the parents of one of our founders is buried. Through that service project, our chapter has learned about other prominent African Americans in the Richmond community,” he added.
Tyren Frazier, president of the Rho Iota Lambda chapter, speaks at the October 2022 dedication ceremony in honor of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker.
A well-known former member of the Chesterfield chapter, the late Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, was initiated into the Gamma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha as an undergraduate at Virginia Union University in April 1948. As he began his career in the ministry at Petersburg’s Gillfield Baptist Church, then became active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, Walker engaged with different graduate chapters across the south.
Walker is best known for his tenure as chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the same period (1960-64), he joined the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and worked as its first full-time executive director.
Walker went on to become the senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York. Following his retirement in 2004, he and his wife, Theresa Ann, relocated to Chester, where he joined the Rho Iota Lambda chapter and remained an active member until his death in 2018 at age 89.
Frazier delivered remarks on behalf of the local chapter, as well as more than 200,000 members of Alpha Phi Alpha worldwide, at an October ceremony in which Chesterfield dedicated the future Enon Library building in Walker’s name.
“In natural Alpha fashion, Dr. Walker stood ready to fight against the oppression of his people,” Frazier said during the ceremony, recalling Walker's 1960 arrest for entering through the “whites only” entrance of the Petersburg Public Library. “The symbolic nature of his name being raised on a public library is an intentional reminder of one of his first moves to stand for civil rights for Black Americans.”
Today, Chesterfield’s Rho Iota Lambda chapter has more than 85 members, who sit on boards and committees throughout the Richmond area. It partners with civic groups, nonprofits, churches and the private sector to provide community service and raise money for various charitable endeavors. Its Paul Robeson Scholarship, named for the well-known thespian, attorney, athlete and activist, is awarded annually to a local high school junior or senior.
One of the requirements to seek membership into the fraternity is a college education. A male student, in good standing with their university, may seek membership with a chapter located on campus. It doesn’t have to be a historically Black college or university. For Alumni Chapter membership, a college degree from an accredited university is required. While the fraternity was founded by and for Black men, those of other ethnicities are welcome, as well. But as Frazier noted, he and his brothers take the process of vetting new applicants very seriously.
“We realize we’re not the right fit for everyone, and we’re OK with that,” he said. “We’re always open to having conversations with men who are interested in the fraternity, but we don’t necessarily need numbers. We need people who are going to do the work that we committed to 117 years ago and has evolved since then.”
Fraternity brothers gather for breakfast and fellowship prior to the Chesterfield chapter's monthly meeting.