Phi Beta Kappa: The Oldest Greek Letter Fraternity in the United States

Phi Beta Kappa: The Oldest Greek Letter Fraternity in the United States

Melissa W.

There’s often a lot of disagreements on which fraternity or Greek letter organization (GLO) was the first-founded in the US, but Phi Beta Kappa holds the title, being founded in 1775 by five students at the College of William and Mary. According to its website, “[The founders] believed that a new nation required new institutions -- cultural as well as political -- and they were committed to intellectual fellowship shaped by the values of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor. Their legacy, more than 240 years later, inspires today’s students to pursue these same values through a 21st century education in the liberal arts and sciences.” 

The establishment of PBK came after the development of two other secret fraternity organizations on campus as early as 1750, with its first meeting occurring on December 5th, 1776 during a time of great political and social turmoil. The founders originally envisioned PBK as a secret society to “...give members the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Ever since, freedom of inquiry and expression have served as hallmarks of PBK.” The goal was to provide students with a more serious-minded club, setting it apart from the other college groups that were more focused on socializing -- what many view as “traditional” fraternities. On top of being the first fully-established fraternity, PBK was also the first collegiate society to be recognized with a Greek letter name, an oath, badge, motto, code of laws, initiation rituals, seal, and special handshake.

The organization has grown considerably over the years and has morphed into the nation’s most prestigious honor society, currently having more than 290 chapters in the US. Membership is by invitation-only and interested students must be working toward a bachelor’s degree with a heavy focus on liberal arts and sciences. On top of a list of other requirements, PBK states the last requirement as, “In keeping with the Founders’ interest in fostering not only academic excellence but also friendship and morality, invitation to Phi Beta Kappa should be extended only to persons of good moral character.”

PBK grads stand out on graduation day by wearing their pink and sky blue honor cords, the organization’s official colors.

pink and light blue honor cord from senior class graduation products

Are you a member of Phi Beta Kappa? Let us know in the comments!


Cover photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

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