Alpha Phi Alpha returns to UWO


Courtesy of Alphonso Simpson Jr. / After nearly two decades, UWO inducted five students into the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity founded in 1906 to support minority students

Josh Lehner, Staff Writer

Five UW Oshkosh students were inducted as members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during Saturday’s probate, becoming the first members of UWO’s chapter in nearly two decades.

The probate, which took place in the Reeve Union Ballroom, celebrated the new members with a high-octane induction ceremony and an after party, with Alpha Phi Alpha members from Indiana, Illinois and Iowa in attendance.

Founded in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. began as a support group for minority students experiencing racial prejudice at Cornell University, with many new chapters sprouting up across the U.S. in subsequent years.

Though its focus has always been academic excellence, Alpha Phi Alpha has been at the forefront of civil rights activism, with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois boasting membership.

Oshkosh’s chapter was founded in 1971, but the organization began to fizzle as membership intake classes declined. The five UWO students inducted this weekend were the first to be inducted into the chapter in almost 20 years, according to Alphonso Simpson, Jr., a UWO professor and Alpha Phi Alpha member.

The new members—Justin Smith, Josiah Benjamin, Amitai Wheat, Abdul Kareem Theeb-Lawal and Jelani Lawson—wore black clothes and golden masks, revealing their identities during the ceremony to the audience’s applause.

Simpson said that nobody knew who the new members were until Saturday’s probate.

“While they’re in their process [of becoming members], nobody knows that they’re doing it,” he said.

Inductee Amitai Wheat said that he was overwhelmed by the support and energy of his peers.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said during the probate. “We waited four years for this to happen; the pandemic set us back but we stayed focused the whole way through. I’m at a loss for words. There’s a lot of excitement and love here tonight.”

Wheat said that Alpha Phi Alpha’s presence at UWO is about more than just them or the fraternity and that they want to improve the campus as a whole.

“One of our main goals is to create cohesiveness between everyone on campus,” he said. “You have diversity and you have natural division on any campus, but we want to get rid of that natural division and create a cohesive diversity where everybody’s together—from every group, fraternity, sorority and team. That’s our goal.”

Simpson said that Alpha Phi Alpha has exposed the leadership qualities of the new members and that the return of the fraternity at UWO provides its members with a group that they can claim as their own.

“For a long time, these young men haven’t had a social and professional group to belong to that has roots in the African American tradition,” Simpson said. “Previously, they’ve had to acquiesce to other organizations—and that’s been okay—but they can’t really claim those as their own.”

He also said that Alpha Phi Alpha will benefit the whole campus and serve as a catalyst for potential future organizations.

“This is going to increase enrollment, and it has opened the door for other Black Greek Letter organizations,” he said, mentioning UWO professor Denae Powell and saying that she “knows there’s an impetus for a sorority.”

Simpson described the process of establishing a chapter in Oshkosh, saying that it was “way more than just deciding to do it.”

“When I came to UW Oshkosh in 2019, I began working on recruiting young men who would be interested,” he said. “We had to conduct a feasibility study and get letters of support for our national office, including letters of support from UWO Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and the Oshkosh mayor.”

Simpson also said that the men who became members this weekend had to write letters stating the need for Alpha Phi Alpha on campus.

“The document we had to submit to our national office was almost 100 pages,” he said. “That gave the region the go-ahead; the region had to give the state the go-ahead, and the state then had to give the district the go-ahead. Then we were able to move forward.”

The UWO members, who Simpson said will work with members from UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and other UW schools, will benefit both UWO and other campuses by occasionally traveling to do their service projects. He said that he ultimately hopes to promote change and inclusion wherever it’s necessary.

“There’s a lot of great things ahead for not just the Alphas but for the African American population on campus,” he said. “A lot of the fraternity’s service projects and social events will include all students. These young men are advocates for the change we seek to have on our campus.”