April 19, 2009
What is a fraternity? The definition found on Wikipedia.org defines a fraternity (Latin frater : "brother") as a brotherhood, though the term usually connotes a distinct or formal organization. The only true distinction between a fraternity and any other form of social organization is the implication that the members freely associate as equals for a mutually beneficial purpose, rather than because of a religious, governmental, commercial, or familial bond, although there are fraternities dedicated to each of these topics. In many instances fraternities are limited to male membership but this is not always the case, and there are mixed male and female, and even wholly female, fraternities. For example, for general fraternities; Grande Loge Mixte de France, Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, Grande Lodge Feminine de France, Order of the Eastern Star. Fraternities can be organized for many purposes, including university education, social, work skills, ethics, ethnicity, religion, politics, charity, chivalry, other standards of personal conduct, asceticism, service, performing arts, family command of territory, and even crime. There is almost always an explicit goal of mutual support, and while there have been fraternal orders for the well-off there have also been many fraternities for those in the lower ranks of society, especially for national or religious minorities. Trade unions also grew out of fraternities such as the Knights of Labor. The ability to organize freely, apart from the institutions of government and religion, was a fundamental part of the establishment of the modern world. In Living the Enlightenment, Margaret C. Jacobs showed the development of Jurgen Habermas' 'public space' in 17th century Netherlands was closely related to the establishment of lodges of Freemasons.
There are known fraternal organizations which existed as far back as ancient Greece and Rome and similar institutions in the late medieval period called confraternities, which were lay organizations allied to the Catholic Church. The development of Freemasonry in the early 1700s became a watershed moment in fraternal organization, and there have been hundreds of varieties of Freemasonry, and thousands of closely parallel organizations since then. Virtually all fraternal organizations today bear some debt to the models of organization first worked out in Masonic lodges. The development was especially dynamic in the United States, where the freedom to associate outside governmental regulation is expressly sanctioned in law. There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations in the United States, and at the turn of the last century the number of memberships was equal to the number of adult males, although, because of multiple memberships, probably only 50% of adult males belonged to any organizations. In 1944 Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the phrase "a nation of joiners" to refer to the phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville also referred to the American reliance on private organization in the 1830s in Democracy in America. As has been presented, while fraternities have historically been beneficial for a large portion of the population, for African Americans, the fraternity began as a need for survival on American college campuses. They provided a source of community for students who were segregated from the daily university life. At the start of the 20th century, black students attending American universities were often excluded from the personal and close associations the predominantly white student population enjoyed in existing fraternal organizations. During the 1905'' 06 school year, Cornell University witnessed the organization of the first Greek letter fraternity for black students, by black students. Alpha Phi Alpha was organized with the stated desire of providing a mechanism to build those associations and provide mutual support among African American students. At the...