A Brief History of the Gamma Lambda Chapter

The year 1919 introduced Detroit’s Gamma Lambda Chapter to the ranks of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. at the offices of Dr. M.E. Morton and Dr. J. Gregory at 1721 St. Antoine Street. The organizers were J.H. Alexander, C.H. Campbell, U.S. Carey, E.J. Cheeks, P.B. Gamble, J.L. Henderson, C.L. Henderson, L.E. Johnson, C.H. Mahoney, M.E. Morton, C. Rowlette, C.H. Roxborough and S.D. Sparks.

The first President of the chapter was James Langston Henderson. The meeting place was moved to Columbia Community Center at 553 Columbia Street.

In 1920, the first Chapter initiation was held with C. Henri Lewis, Jr., Chester Ames, John Dancey, and Glover Lange being initiated. Later that same year, Forester B. Washington, Orin Thompson, Max Johnson, J.W. Willis, Lloyd Loomis and W.H. Plummer were initiated. The meeting place was moved to the Russell House and later to the Knights of Pythias Hall on Adams and Brush Streets. Some of the brothers aroused by the inadequacy of these meeting places suggested that Alpha be housed in suitable quarters, the response was terrific and as a result on May 15, 1939, the house 293 Eliot was purchased and is the oldest fraternity house in our dear fraternity.

In 1925, Gamma Lambda hosted its first General Convention in Detroit. Total chapters participating were 36. There was, among highlights, the Prom at the Graystone Ballroom and the Banquet which was held at the Y.M.C.A.

Original documents show that Gamma Lambda was intensely working on the “Go to High School – Go to College” program “for the betterment of colored folk” in the community every year since its 1919 founding year. During 1926, Gamma Lambda initiated the program in conjunction with the Detroit Urban League. Local “Negro” children were encouraged to participate. Parents were invited to attend these mass meetings.

The Brothers wanted a better place to hold meetings and the present Historic Alpha House at 293 Eliot St. was purchased on May 15, 1939. The Alpha House, built around 1918, is a Neo classical style structure.

Throughout the 40’s and the 50’s, Detroit was extremely prosperous, of course, because of the booming automobile industry. Black businesses flourished in the “Black Bottom” and “Paradise Valley” Districts –famous for the large number of Black owned and operated businesses during those times. The Gotham and the Biltmore Hotels were very popular Detroit spots. The Alphas of Detroit were known for having great social affairs called “open houses”, which the public would regularly attend. Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Brother Duke Ellington and other Jazz greats made Detroit a principle hangout during these wondrous times.

To illustrate the prosperity and significance of the era during the 1953 Annual Convention, there were 222 financial Brothers at Gamma Lambda. The Sheraton Cadillac Hotel held the banquet – a first for “Negroes”. Chrysler Corp. provided free transportation for convention officials – another first for a predominant Negro organization. The hotel rates of the time were about $8.20 for a double and $4.40 for a single room with toilet! The financial secretary was (the only) paid officer. According to chapter records, Gamma Lambda held $11,020 in U.S. Savings Bonds and the property value of 293 Eliot St. and its furniture was valued at $9,250!

Good times, apparently, do come to an end. 293 Eliot St. saw difficult times in Detroit during the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 60’s. Although Gamma Lambda received the Outstanding Graduate Chapter Award at the Los Angeles Convention in 1967 and Gamma Lambda sponsored Brother Duke Ellington’s concert at Ford Auditorium in September of the same year, civil unrest hit its peak in Detroit with the infamous 1967 riots. The following year, the 1968 National Convention was to come, hosted at the Detroit Statler – Hilton Hotel.

Bro. Ramon Scruggs delivered the keynote address challenging his Fraternity to “enter the Black struggle and make certain there are no Black spectators in this current struggle to make Black Americans free”. Millions of dollars in Black owned property and businesses were destroyed due to misguided rebellion at the time against excessive use of force of law enforcement personnel, unfair housing practices and economic inequality.

Alpha Phi Alpha issued a statement reading: “Black Power is a proper and necessary objective in acquiring economic power and influence… For Alpha Phi Alpha, Black Power does not mean revolution by violence, or destruction, rather it means the exercise of legitimate means to obtain control over the destiny of the Black community by Black people – that must be our concern”. The Fraternity then called for congressional action to alleviate suffering of thirty five million Black people after declaring large scale poverty during the 60’s “unjust and unnecessary”.

In 1976, however, Gamma Lambda awarded citation plaques to Brother Thurgood Marshall, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, General President Belford V. Lawson and others, recognizing their efforts in the cause of civil liberties while in Detroit.

During the 80’s the chapter continued to provide scholarships through the endowment of the Education Foundation which was the vision of the following Brothers:

  • William D. Murrell, Sr.
  • Elijah Porter
  • Henry “Hank” Dees
  • James T. Bradford
  • Phil C. Robinson
  • Robert E. Turner
  • Natham M. Tounsel
  • William Pickard
  • Donald E. Snider
  • Charles Cross
  • Charles H. Smith, Jr.
  • James E. Roberts
  • Stanley H. Waldon
  • Ivan L. Cotman
  • Gilbert M. Fisher III
  • Willie Smith
  • Jonathan Trout
  • R. Anderson White

Founded on April 27, 1982, these Alpha visionaries generously donated over $60,000 collectively toward its creation, knowing it would make a significant difference to students who needed the extra financial assistance while striving for academic excellence. In 1987, the Inter Collegiate Council was created to promote camaraderie and Brotherhood between the college and alumni Brothers in metropolitan Detroit.

In the 90’s, Gamma Lambda experienced a significant increase in membership and continue to be one of the largest chapters in Alpha. “34 – The Sacred sum of S.E.V.E.N.” became the chapter’s largest line in December of 1995. Gamma Lambda hosted the 85th General Convention in August 2003, which had the largest attendance of registered Brothers in Alpha history.

In recent history, the Chapter’s Project Alpha in conjunction with the Alpha Teens has worked with over 300 youth in the Detroit area including current commitments to local young men in the 9th grade. Platforms of male responsibility include sexual abstinence, personal hygiene and excellence in academic performance.

The Brothers of Gamma Lambda continue to co- sponsor the area’s Meals on Wheels program, delivering hundreds of meals to Detroit citizens during the holidays. After a devastating fire at a local church, the Alpha House is now the distribution center for the event.

The Chapter’s Education Foundation has awarded over $10,000 to worthy scholarship recipients and the chapter continues to raise funds for our esteemed Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Gamma Lambda also participates in the Red Cross Blood Drive.

Gamma Lambda –Detroit sponsors Real Men Cook on Father’s Day annually in the summer as well as the festive 4th Friday events year round which the public is always invited. The Black and Gold Ball is the annual elegant affair that closes out the year.

Gamma Lambda’s current working relations with other local Greek organizations as well as the local undergraduate Alpha chapters in the Detroit area have improved exponentially in the chapter’s recent history.

Gamma Lambda is also represented on the local Detroit chapter of the Pan Hellenic Council. The most recent renovations were championed by Bro. Past President William J. Lyons, IV during the administration of Past President Wayne Watkins and includes a new basement, “the Gold Room”, commercial kitchen and bar, renovated landscaping, new windows and a dramatic two-story stair case leading to a new rear porch and “Jewel Park.” The house is truly a “jewel“ in Alphadom.

The newest addition to Gamma Lambda chapter is Gamma Lambda Community Development Corporation is a private, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in May 2007. Under the guidance of President Alonzo F. Terry, Jr., Past President William J. Lyons, IV and Past Vice President Dr. Richard T. James, Jr., this non profit is to create programs that educate and enhance the lives of urban, at-risk males. Corporation programs assist urban males in their educational and social endeavors. It is through these programs that Gamma Lambda Community Development Corporation aims to strengthen at-risk families and prevent the generational cycle of poverty, teen pregnancy and educational stagnation. The vision of Gamma Lambda Community Development Corporation is to develop and sustain efforts and services that encourage strong, healthy and self-sustaining families and supportive communities.

Gamma Lambda partners with Chase and the Small Business Association (SBA) conducting the Black Business Expo for Detroit with an excellent turnout.

Notable Brothers of Gamma Lambda –Detroit, include:
Bro. Dennis Archer, former Mayor of Detroit and current President of the American Bar Association. • Bro. William Pickard, entrepreneur and co-founder of Gamma Lambda’s Education Foundation Endowment • Bro. Craig Strong, Judge – 3rd Judicial Court • Bro. Myron Wahls Sr.- Federal Judge • Bro. Floyd Patterson- Vice President of Civic Affairs – Ford Motor Company. • Bro. Damon Keith –Federal Judge • Bro. Nelson Sanders – State Representative • Bro. James Tate – Detroit City Councilman

Gamma Lambda is the host alumni chapter of the Midwestern Region’s Centennial Anniversary Convention for 2006 as well as the host chapter for the 2006, 40th Anniversary of the Super Bowl in Detroit! Gamma Lambda is also the Midwestern Region’s Chapter of the Year for 2005!

The Alpha House is on the Michigan Historic Registry – #549. Proud of our organization’s history and truly excited about the future, the true Spirit of Alpha is alive and well at Gamma Lambda Chapter – Detroit.

Written by Brother Leslie D. McCoy and revised by Brother Dr. Richard T. James, Jr. (May 2008)